The permanent secretary of the health ministry, Dr Diana Atwine, is one of the people at the frontline of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. UMARU KASHAKA spoke to her about the country’s readiness to fight the deadly disease.
This fight against coronavirus must be taking a toll on your life Oh yes. It is a stressful period because we sleep less than four hours a day. We are on phone for 24 hours, receiving calls of anxious people. However, we are ready to serve. Sometimes, we are boosted by good news, like the relief that of all the 104 people we tested on Wednesday, none was positive. I am now sleeping soundly. May God give us sleep to compensate for all sleepless nights we have had in the past six days.
But is there enough money to fight this pandemic? Of course, at the moment the money is not enough. But we are trying to optimise what we have to provide services because the rich countries are also struggling to get funds. There will never be enough money. How much money do you need? We have submitted a budget of sh25b, but they have so far provided sh5b, which we are using to hire 208 health workers and to buy supplies. However, we are not working alone. We thank the partners that donated key supplies to enhance our COVID-19 response. They donated items such as masks, test kits, personal protective equipment and face shields.
How ready are we when Uganda has only 12 functional intensive care units (ICUs) with a total of 55 beds… (…she interrupts) We are ready. Mulago Hospital has just been fitted with 900 beds (a high dependency unit equipped with modern breathing equipment) and we have already started admitting people. We also have patients at Entebbe Grade B Hospital. And we shall also set up mobile hospital when the numbers increase. Our only shortage there is human resource. However, we are in the process of strengthening it in our regional referral hospitals, operationalise the infrastructure there and increasing the number of regional referral hospitals with high dependency units. By the way, not everyone who gets coronavirus requires an ICU bed. Even in other countries where they have had massive infections, it is only about 20% that required ICUs.
The Government is planning to hire private hotels as isolation centres, why not use government-aided schools? But that is what we are doing now. We have identified four schools and we are now in the process of taking items, such as beds and mattresses, to the locations. In the beginning, we used hotels because children were in the schools but we were also overwhelmed with the numbers (of people returning home) and we did not have time.
The country is alarmed that some of the people, who were on the plane from Dubai, which had the first confirmed coronavirus case, disappeared. Yet we have a national task force rooting up to the local level. Why can’t you use it to track them down? The population is vigilant. I would like to thank President Yoweri Museveni for consistently conveying the message. People have heeded his call and keep reporting those who travelled from abroad and are in their midst, spreading the disease. That is how we have been getting those who recently flew in. So, we encourage them to continue reporting those people.
By the way, we are not only looking for those who flew in from Dubai. It just so happened that most of the people we tested were from Dubai. However, we also want people who flew in from other countries, like the US and the UK, to come forward. All those people must be under institutional quarantine.
The problem is that some people who escaped (from the airport) are hiding somewhere. The testing we are calling them for is for their good. They could be out there, spreading the disease to their loved ones, which is bad for them. Anyone who came in contact with someone who flew into the country in the last two weeks, or anyone who has symptoms of flu, should come forward and get tested. We are going to send items that are needed for all our facilities to collect samples. The testing is in one place – Uganda Virus Research Institute, Entebbe – but samples can be collected from anywhere.
But why are you finding it hard to track them down? You said you had retained their passports Many Ugandans are indisciplined. When they found out that they were going to be retained, they put wrong information on the forms they filled as they were entering Uganda. Those are the forms we are depending on, not their passports. Passports do not have details like one’s residence. So, it is impossible to trace them using their passports. However, we are still using community intelligence to find them.
If people start falling sick, will the Government foot their bill? What about those who prefer private hospitals or clinics, will the Government pay for them? If anyone falls sick due to coronavirus and decides to go to a private hospital and they are able to foot the bill by themselves, it is a welcome move.
Your critics say while this partial shutdown was prudent, it is not being accompanied by supportive measures to people who have lost their livelihood. Are you thinking of helping vulnerable people in any way, like providing free soap and sanitisers? We should stop this notion of Tusaba Gavumenti Etuyambe (we ask for the Government’s assistance). I do not think anybody in this country cannot afford a piece of soap in their home. I believe the battle against coronavirus must begin with a change in our mindset. We must instil discipline in ourselves, change our lifestyles and follow the guidelines. Once we work together, we can limit infections.
Have you received money from the World Health Organisation to enhance your coronavirus response? They did not give us money, but they are supporting us in any way they can.
Your toll-free lines are always busy. What are you doing to address this issue? We are going to share more numbers because the ones we have, are overwhelmed with calls. We are expanding our call centres to increase the number of lines.
What is your last message to the people out there? We are appealing to Ugandans to, first of all, remain calm. I know there is so much anxiety in the country as we witness the numbers rising. But Ugandans must know that the number of infections may keep increasing because we got a huge inflow of people from countries that were affected. However, if everyone follows our guidelines, we shall limit the spread of coronavirus. The coronavirus does not move. It is moved by people. So, let each individual build a wall around themselves to avoid exposure and movement of the virus from one person to another. Your safety in this war starts with you.