Kampala, 30 October 2020: – Lawrence Ahumuza (26), his pregnant wife Magdalene Kembabazi 24 (not real names) and their five-year-old son Prosper are a typical young Ugandan rural family.
They are tea pickers at Kayonza Tea Producers in the southwestern Uganda district of Kanungu. They grow their food around their house, their child goes to the nearby local primary school, they get along very well with family and neighbors, they are prayerful and obey the law.
They were a blissful existence until COVID-19 struck in the family and everything was disorganized. On September 13, 2020, Magdalena tested positive for COVID-19 and was admitted to the Kabale COVID-19 treatment unit (CTU). Lawrence and Prosper were put in solitary confinement for 14 days as contact with a confirmed case.
After the treatment, Magdalena recovered and was discharged. Lawrence and Prosper completed the isolation without developing symptoms and they tested negative before returning home. And that is when the strange life for this young family began.
For the time that Magdalene was in the CTU and even with her coming home, no one, not even the extended family members or neighbors visited them. This never happens in rural Uganda.
Under normal circumstances, a crowd of visitors, with liquor and food, would return from the hospital to bring her back. It was strange, but most importantly, it was worrying and stressful for Lawrence and Magdalena.
In addition, the serious financial situation for the family was caused by the COVID-19 situation they experienced. With Magdalene at CTU and Lawrence in isolation, there was no income from Kayonza Tea Producers, where they worked as casual workers. Life has lost meaning for this young family.
The field team of the World Health Organization (WHO) visited them to offer counseling and psychosocial support. There was a gloomy state of mind when the team along with Lawrence, Magdalene and their son were visibly shocked to see people change their place of residence.
“What are you bringing here at this moment? We were properly discharged after completing the treatment in the hospital. We are doing well,” Lawrence said, trying to justify their presence in his own home. He looked tense and one could understand the tension he was going through and the so many worries that came through his team through his head.
After the usual pleasantness and certainty about the purpose of the WHO visit, Lawrence and his wife began to wonder and wonder why family and neighbors had left them at their greatest hour of need. “No one associates with us anymore; we do not know what to do for now and for the future. The doctors say we are healed, but no one in town believes us,” Lawrence clearly explained anxiously.
The family risked that the uncertainty about the daily maintenance was too little because their finances were scarce. “We used the money we handed over and the rest of the 45,000 Uganda Shilling on boda boda (motorcycle taxi) to bring us back home,” he explained. By town standards, it’s a hefty amount that’s not easy to justify spending on boda boda, let alone from.
“We thought they would take us back home by ambulance, but they said the ambulance had to go somewhere else. We could do nothing but get a boda-boda to take us home, because we could not stay there, “says Lawrence.
The WHO team then discussed the family issues and challenges about COVID-19 to reassure them about their safety and together they identified practical behaviors they need to follow to stay safe in the community. They also agreed on ongoing counseling and communication via a mobile phone.
It was all well and good, but while the WTO team was ready to leave, Lawrence and Magdalena raised a substantial concern about which they urgently needed help. “How do we get people to accept us into the community as before and how can we work at the tea factory again? Can you please help us?” Lawrence pleaded.
This then led to the next part of the WHO mission – a visit to the community to reassure them about the safety of Lawrence and Magdalena. A few meters from their house at the foot of the hill is the house of Stephen Byamugisha 50 (not real name), Magdalene’s father-in-law.
Stephen was a man at the crossroads: his wife was in Kabale CTU and tested positive for COVID-19, who definitely contracted from Magdalena with whom she was in contact. His son’s family had challenges to be accepted into the community again. Although he was asymptomatic, he was also not sure about his status.
“I am worried about my son and his family, but also for myself after seeing what they are going through. The abandonment, isolation, stigma and removal of the community is not understandable,” he said. He was comforted and helped to identify the survival measures he had to take immediately.
In the residence of the Local Council I chairperson, a few people eagerly gathered to listen to the WHO team. They were taken by the basics of COVID-19 to reassure them about the safety of Lawrence’s family. They also gained insight into post-CTU counseling and adherence to standard procedures. The members of the Village Health Team have been specially instructed to follow up on Lawrence’s family and to constantly respond to any rumors and misinformation about COVID-19 in the community.
“I wish the medical authorities brought the sick lady back because she was pregnant and that they could talk to the community and explain what COVID-19 is; we need to be trained, but now our job is very difficult,” Asaph said. said. Byaruhanga, the LCI chairman of the town. From the remark, the work of the Ministry of Health and the WHO’s psychosocial teams is indeed cut out. It will require a lot of financial and human resources that are currently insufficient.
As COVID-19 continues to increase in the Kanungu district and Uganda in general, its impact on the social setting and interactions in rural communities remains difficult for the local population. For Lawrence, his wife and son, the question is: Where has everyone gone? The answer is strange and narrow.
NOTE: The visit to the family, the town and the compilation of this story was facilitated with financial support from Irish Aid, DANIDA, DFID and GAVI to the WHO’s COVID-19 response