Veteran opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye has offered strong views on handling of Uganda’s Covid19 crisis, rebuking Ugandans for their foolishness and President Yoweri Kaguta Tibuhaburwa Museveni’s handling of the situation.
Here are excerpts from an interview NBS had with Dr Besigye, a former personal physician for now 76-year-old President Museveni:
HOST: How do you feel about our predication (every one will contract COVID-19) coming to pass?
KB: Since the latest escalation of COVID-19 started, I’ve lost many friends, relatives, colleague, classmates we studied with at the medical school. I would like to send my condolences to all bereaved families and continue to pray for the country because we have survived upto now by the grace of God. It’s by the grace of God that we shall overcome this crisis we are in.
Regarding the prediction, I am surprised it’s taken as an outstanding prophesy that I made the statement that soon or later, every person in Uganda will be infected with COVID-19.
HOST: And here we are.
KB: It’s not something that requires extraordinary knowledge to predict, because we are talking about a flu. With that kind of infection, I don’t think anyone goes through life without getting flu. Everybody inhales in flu agents. The question is whether you become sick, mildly sick or very sick.
Even with COVID-19, everyone will take in the virus and the question is what the virus will do inside you.
This particular virus is a new one which makes it unique one and more severe than the flu we are used to.
That is why in its management, the most important step we take is to reduce it’s spread. We cannot eliminate it but reduce how it spreads so that those who become sick are not many at the same time; that we can manage them in our health scare system, and that the health care system is not overwhelmed.
Every body who acquired the virus got it from China. The impact and how it spreads is what we are managing.
Regrettably, I have said it since last year at the start of the pandemic that we have MISMANAGED it, and we are now reaping the effects of that MISMANAGEMENT.
And the mismanagement isn’t surprising because there is nothing we manage anyway, because our governmental systems have been faulty.
I wouldn’t want to drell on the failures of the regime because we have always talked about it’s incompetences and failures.
I pointed out from the beginning that the regime had no plan to manage a pandemic. That is why we got into these problems. I pointed out at the start what a plan should cover. I highlighted six things that a plan should cover.
First, I talked about the plan of how to contain the spread of the virus.
Then, the communication plan which is most urgent and important-hows every body understands the problem that we are going to fight. What is the communication plan?
HOST: How did they score on that front?
KB: You are in communication, tell me whether people one year later understand what this pandemic is about and what they need to do to overcome it.
You saw that their communication was to train militias (LDUs) to enforce what they were stating. That caused scare and terror. So there was failure in communication, which is one aspect of reducing spread.
Secondly, we needed to have Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). You don’t only need to talk about SOPs asking people to wash hands; it’s more important if you are a government, to lay out processes that will make sure people wash their hands eg, they should have put measures to reduce the cost of soap and provide free clean water.
A government must know people they are dealing with – that you are dealing with people who can’t afford to buy food. You are telling them to buy soap and wash hands regularly but will they afford soap?
You talk about wearing Masks but you know the masks saga and how long it took to distribute the few Masks and upto now there are many people who have never got masks, although alot of money was released to buy masks.
Thirdly, we needed a plan for lockdown. It was very important. At the beginning of the pandemic, we were hearing it abroad. So you must make sure the virus doesn’t come into the country before you are thoroughly prepared to deal with it.
So lockdown and check everybody coming in because the first stage of the virus in the country is from importation. That was an area which was mismanaged.
By the time they discovered one person at Entebbe Airport, it’s likely indeed there already many infected people were already in the country.
Then the process of hunting people who had flown into the country from Dubai and other countries started.
There was no plan for the lockdown which includes how people will manage the lockdown.
HOST: This was unexpected global tragedy.
KB: Of course, but we had months to prepare before it arrived here. Where it started in China, they managed it and they are out of the problem. For us, it got here in March and found us without a plan.
If you are going to lock people down, you must have a plan of how people will feed, get access to Healthcare etc. We ended up having many deaths because of the lockdown before the virus got to the People. Patients with diabetes, hypertension and others who regularly needed to go to Hospitals were lockdown without an ambulance system in the country and they died.
As People’s Government, we tried to provide an Ambulance system and they politically cracked it, so we had many deaths..
Then we had the fiasco of distributing posho and beans. Again what followed the process was a mess.
Then the regime decided to politicize the pandemic. The regime used the pandemic to attack others while their own were not aggressed. People lost confidence in the state.
Once people lose confidence in the state managing a pandemic, then you have lost the fight.
Then there was the issue of ISOLATION of the sick. There was no infrastructure and system to isolate the sick so that they don’t spread the virus. Eg, once you have symptoms, where do you report? Once you report, what happens? How and where are you isolated? What are the isolation centres? This information would be known to all people in the country.
HOST: I think there was an effort in that direction.
KB: Of course but totally insufficient effort. Every citizen in Uganda should have know where the isolation centres are located in the country..
Then there was CONTACT TRACING once the infection landed into the country. All this was a huge fiasco.
But most importantly, there came a policy problem. Having locked the country, they allowed the trucks to move unrestricted 24/7 without testing truck driver to ascertain their safety.
People could come from Mombasa, which is directly linked to China and go to any part of Uganda with a truck and beyond without knowing their infection status. That was a grave mistake.
What was subsequently done two months later to start testing people and truck driver at the border is what could have been done at the start. Before having capacity to test people at the borders, the borders should have remained closed.
HOST: Given the dismal performance at the onset, do you get the feeling that the recently announced lockdown measures, there were lessons learnt from the past mistakes?
KB: The population lost confidence in those who were managing the pandemic.
Let me explain to you how we got here. We had the trucks importing and distributing the virus in the town centers where they stopped.
Then came the NRM primary elections. The people in the elections picked the virus from those town centres and took it to the whole country.
We had moved from Stage 1 which is importation to Stage 2 which is local transmission. Then we went into Stage 3 which is increased local transmission where you can’t trace contacts. In Stage 2 you can still trace the contacts which you can’t do in Stage 3. In Stage 4, we had gone into wide scale local transmission where you have many hot spots.
We reached the last stage before the General elections. We had lost the scheme.
HOST: Do you want to suggest Government knew about all this and went mute?
KB: They went mute long time ago about everything. That is why I am telling you communication was a problem and is still a problem. Not many people knew about all this.
At least I don’t blame myself. I had my communication to the extent that it was able to go through social media and I was talking about all this including when we got to Stage 4.
Once you get to Stage 4, then you must close all the contact tracing business because at that point, you are swimming in the sea of the virus.
HOST: Do you feel vindicated that you talked about all these things and no one listened?
KB: That may not be important to drell on now. I even wouldn’t want to drell on the regime now because it’s a waste of time to blame a government which you know that what it did is what was expected from it.
Nobody should be disappointed that this NRM Junta isn’t doing the right thing. If you are disappointed, then you don’t live in Uganda. You can’t be disappointed that these are thieves stealing your money because they have done so for 35yrs.
While the country was drowning, the regime borrowed massively on behalf of the country ostensibly to deal with the pandemic. They borrowed quickly over a billion dollars to deal with the pandemic. I talked about all this money they had borrowed and we stealing.
They took a Trillion shillings to the home of Mr. Museveni (State House), not the office but the home. A Trillion is one thousand billions. That money was taken to the home of Mr. Museveni for secret work. What secret work is in the home of Mr. Museveni that deals with the pandemic?
They took 3.6trillion to Ministry of Defence for secret work. The Ministry of Health had about 300billion and the public was being asked to donate.
HOST: You didn’t donate!
KB: No, I didn’t donate. I would be a fool to get my money and donate it to a thief when I know he is a thief.
These words I use very advisedly. If anyone wants to take me to court, I am here. I will justify why I call people in government outright thieves.
As people were struggling, and others were dying in homes, trillions was borrowed and stolen. Part of that money is what MPs tried to divide amongst themselves because all that money was passing through Parliament.
HOST: And the President prudently stopped it.
KB: No, he didn’t. He postured that don’t take that money and asked them to bring it back. They brought back the 20M and hegave them 40M.
That’s what caused people to doubt there was COVID-19 and started calling it Katemba. They started questioning the agenda of public servants (Ministers) who were mobilising and holding huge meetings when they had closed churches.
You saw Ministers holding meetings in churches which they had closed. People concluded there was no pandemic and looked at them as jokers.
HOST: The country got here by design.
KB: Everybody believed there was no COVID-19 and looked at all measures as a plot to get a new term. And indeed, the regime was using the pandemic to lock down opponents and continue doing what they needed to do to get back into office.
All these are TERRIBLE CRIMES on the part of the NRM regime, really terrible crimes. All the people who are dying, it’s because of their crimes.
But I wouldn’t want to keep on talking about the crimes of the regime. The regime has been here for 35years.
There is a saying that if I do something terrible to you once, I may be excused that it may have been an accident. But if I do it the second time, you start wondering what is wrong with me. But could say it’s a coincidence.
But when it happens the third time, and you don’t respond, then the problem is with you the victim.
What I am saying is that if this regime is doing terrible things to the population 1yr, 2yrs, one term, two terms and you are giving it benefit of doubt and you still cannot respond sufficiently; four terms, five terms and now for seven terms and we can’t respond, we must now shine a torch on ourselves.
And I think we must realize that as a people, we are foolish.
KB: Totally foolish and we must deal with it. We must deal with our stupidity, our country’s stupidity.
People who are foolish will disappear from earth. The earth is a contestation of ideas (how people think). If you don’t think, you die. Those who think take over where you were.
And it’s happening. African is in an existential threat, not just Uganda. We have no technology. The Africans have a very severe and existential threat. (He emphasizes the point in Luganda)
In Uganda, we simply have masses of people that are really not thinking.
HOST: Foolish you said?
KB: Yes, that is why we have a regime like we have, do the terrible things they have done and we are just lamenting, or even supporting.
First of all, I condemned the elites. The educated people take the lion’s share of the blame because we know better and know what happens in other countries.
But we choose to care for what happens today and close our eyes to what will happen in a week’s time. That is our foolishness as elites.
But it goes beyond the elites. It’s national problem.
HOST: Col. with the apparent mess you have described in great length, how do we get out of this current situation?
KB: Healthcare and management of an epidemic or pandemic is a matter that has to be managed by a government.
HOST: So it’s a political issue!
KB: To understand our foolishness, as I was coming here, people were saying talk about COVID-19 and not politics. That don’t politicize COVID-19. Nonsense. That is the utmost foolishness. There is nothing more political than health because health is a common good.
Politics is about the common good. Health is the most important common good. It cannot be looked after by individuals. It needs interventions that are common to all of us. So, unless we solve the political question, which political question answers the development of an effective health care system- that you have a health care system that knows all Ugandans and looks after them- we are doomed.
We have a Healthcare system that knows no Ugandan. We don’t have a health care system that knows you as a Ugandan, I mean there is no Healthcare system that you are registered in as a Ugandan like you are registered with NIRA and known to be a Ugandan.
There is no system that knows you as Simon Kaggwa Njala with your health records. A health care system should care for every Ugandan that is born from birth to death.
So to have a Healthcare system, you need a political system that cares. Health care arises out of political care.
If we can’t change a government in 35yrs and we are there clapping and cheering, then others will make fun of us like Kenyans are doing.
If we can’t solve a political problem, we can’t solve a Healthcare problem. If we can’t solve a Healthcare problem, we can’t manage a pandemic.
HOST: We can’t get out of this now…
KB: In fact I’ve been quietly analyzing and intend to suggest a mode of action that is not based on the state. Since we can’t deal with the state now, at least in the immediate term, let’s create mechanisms in which we can spread information and act on matters that improve our survival on our own.
How do spread the information, how do we organise and how do we act or survive so that we can even change the state later. This requires an organizational concept that I intend at some stage share with our colleagues and then the country.
But what needs to be done now, once you reach Stage 4 of widespread community transmission, you as an individual must become maximally vigilant. It’s now you to save yourselves.
There is no more capacity for common interventions to help you, you need to save yourself on your own. At this point, measures of reducing chances of getting infected are very important.
Don’t interact with people unless you must. Avoid people including in homes.
That is why I was bitter with the regime to summarily send all school children home. That was catastrophic.
HOST: Schools had become Hotspots.
KB: Yes, but Hotspots can be managed as Hotspots. Schools are organized institutions that can be managed. You can test everybody in the school. You make interventions at school.
Wide scale community transmission as I pointed out, you will have many people infected who have no symptoms. And school children (younger people) are the greatest in that category of people who have an infection but have no symptoms. And when they get symptoms, they are not as severe as those of older people.
You get all these young people, crowd them in a transport system that non-functional, they cause infection due to crowding and then disperse the infection across the country.
When the young people reach home, they infect the older people who die. I tried to guide that when these children get home, the families should isolate them for 2 weeks so that they are not infected and killed by the arriving youngsters.
Everyone must now take responsibility for themselves and make sure they minimize chances of getting infected. That is why the SOPs are so important now.
Wash your hands regularly or sanitize, don’t get close to people (social distance) and wear a mask properly.
The challenge now is that if we had a government, among some measures, when you have mass community transmission, a lockdown becomes necessary.
Here the reason they can’t lockdown, and they know it, they have no capacity to maintain people in Lockdown.
Lockdown requires a plan of how to feed people and therefore requires you to have food reserves, people will need to pay rent and other bills.
The issues that arose out of the last lockdown remain unresolved. Tenants and landlords are still locked in rent disputes. So if people are not working, how do they pay rent, utility bills and feed themselves?
Even if the regime tried another lockdown, people will not accept.
Now, to the extent possible, you as an individual, take responsibility not to mix with many people, put on your mask well, wash your hands as much as you can and clean places that are touched on by people.
Secondly, increase your body immunity. I have emphasized it right from the beginning. Increasing immunity should have been part of government communication all the time, because it’s most important and strategic way to fight the virus.
I have provided a whole range of ideas which include what you call a BESIGYE CONCOCTION. Those are natural ingredients that if you take, build your capacity to fight. They provide vitamins and minerals especially zinc which your body needs and antioxidants that clean your body and make it better to fight the infection.
That concoction is something that is went considered and has been used and researched. It’s not casually concocted. So it’s researched and helpful.
What I am telling you, I can defend it because I have scientific knowledge about them.
So do the SOPs, build your immunity, do physical exercises, sleep enough, don’t indulge in alot of alcohol drinking, avoid smoking and generally improve your health and be able to fight.
If you get symptoms or fall sick, isolate yourself. Because we now don’t have anywhere to test.
After doing what you need to do as an individual and everyone doing their part to protect themselves and the community, we should collectively fight to get our money to do what we can’t do for ourselves.
And that is the real fight. After last lockdown, I told Ugandans that let’s fight to get our money to what needs to be done.
That time, the money had not been translated into blocks of apartments and shopping malls. All these blocks of buildings coming is the pandemic money. That time, money was still in the Treasury. We could have fought to get it out and help people whose incomes had been destroyed.
The money was there but politics had taken Centre stage of people looking for offices. People were diverted into useless where some people wanted to get offices and also get some money.
Now that the confusion of politics and people looking for offices is over, after doing what every body should do, we need to get together and see that our money is able to do what we can’t do for ourselves.
That is where we start putting pressure to see that something is done about our health care system.
HOST: Col, do you think you care share your ideas with government at a certain stage?
KB: Which government? This is just a group of mafias holding Uganda hostage. How do you discuss with such kind of group? The only people I can discuss with are those who are serious about getting rid of this mafia group. The mafia group is the central problem that this country is facing.
But as I said, I nolonger focus on it. It’s there because of who we are. People get leadership they deserve.
Ugandans as we are, deserve these thieves. We are foolish. Foolish people deserve these thieves. Rather than spending time castigating the thieves, we must castigate ourselves.
TRANSCRIPT: Ronald Muhinda/FDC