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How the Coronavirus is Impacting Women, Girls and Refugees in Uganda

A Q&A with CARE Uganda Country Director Apollo Gabazira on coronavirus lockdowns, restrictions, and the challenges the pandemic poses to the country’s most vulnerable.

When cases of the coronavirus virus began appearing in Africa, the Ugandan government adopted some of the continent’s strictest regulations, closing the country’s borders and enforcing a national curfew.

The country has reduced the spread of the virus, with 775 positive cases and no deaths as of June 9. In Uganda, as in many countries, the lockdowns have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable groups, leading to increases in gender-based violence and elimination of jobs, among other things. One out every three people in the country already lives in extreme poverty, surviving on under $2 per day.

In May, President Yoweri Museveni said the country will “slowly and carefully” ease restrictions, after having “tamed the virus.” While businesses begin to reopen, the country’s borders and schools will stay closed, and use of public transit and most private vehicles will remain prohibited, limiting people’s travel to foot or bicycle.

From his home in Kampala, CARE Uganda Country Director Apollo Gabazira discussed the lockdown, whether physical distancing is possible, and how the virus and its associated restrictions impact women, girls and refugees in Uganda.

1/3 of Ugandans survive on less than $2 per day

What has been the response of CARE Uganda?
Humanitarian intervention is core to our mandate, so we are deep into the coronavirus prevention-intervention in the areas we work. CARE Uganda is here to augment the work that the government does.

And even with all the challenges and risks, the government gave us movement permits so essential staff can access refugee settlements. While it’s our mandate to do this as humanitarian workers, we can’t disregard that we are exposing ourselves and need to mitigate the risk. We have personal protective equipment supplies and a counsellor to support staff. We are looking for every means possible to give our staff the means to fulfill the organization’s humanitarian mandate, but also feel safe.

CARE Uganda is directly involved in risk-information and educational campaigns. People may not have a TV or electricity where they live, so we have a duty to inform the public on dangers of the coronavirus, using the appropriate media. For example, we are printing posters in various local languages to inform people on health practices and tips.

Which groups are most vulnerable during this pandemic and why?
We know that women and girls suffer the most in crises and are very vulnerable to gender-based violence. The socio-cultural realities and the resulting power dynamics place women and girls in a position of subservience. In normal times, we address the underlying causes of this power imbalance and have been successful at that. But given the COVID-19 situation, we continue to provide support on the phone, and through staff who are working in the refugee settlements. There are some cases of gender-based violence, intimate partner violence that are urgent, they can’t wait. We should be there in person, but the truth is that won’t always be possible.

The government of Uganda is usually extremely receptive to refugees coming from any country, but they have closed their borders. We only hope that the borders will open for refugees as soon as possible, and we can screen and isolate them as a precaution. We also hope in the meantime that their human rights will be respected, and they will be treated with dignity. This is uncharted territory for us all.

If you’ve ever been to an African market, you will know that there is literally no space between the stalls and people there.

Apollo Gabazira

Is social distancing possible for the average person living in Uganda?
This varies greatly depending on the area. In slums, social distancing is not possible given how close together people live. However, refugee settlements are properly planned, and it won’t be as big a problem as it is in the congested urban slums of Uganda. But there is also a socio-cultural aspect to distancing, which makes it challenging.

People are very aware of the virus, so they are not shaking hands. There isn’t much people can do in a slum to physically distance themselves when they live half a meter apart. There is a strong will to take precautions, but there are structural challenges in this sense.

What are you preparing for in the coming weeks and months?
CARE Uganda’s analysis and projections point to thousands of infections at the peak. This is conditional on the government and its partners, including civil society organizations, combining efforts to effectively address prevention. We know that we are resource constrained. Uganda will need help. I can only put that call out there.

COVID-19 poses an unprecedented threat to the world’s most vulnerable people, including displaced women and girls.

See some of these women’s stories and Fight With CARE by signing the petition to prioritize the most vulnerable in a global COVID-19 response.

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