Covid Report 2: Social Isolation in a small low income area in Kampala

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Author: Charlotte Hawkins, PhD researcher at UCL Anthropology. Charlotte is also a member of the Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing (ASSA) team.

Fieldsite: A small low-income area in central Kampala.

In Uganda, there has been a lockdown in place since the 1st of April. On the 14th April it was extended for 21 days, and again today, on the 4th May for a further 2 weeks. This report is based on 5 phone calls between 4th and 24th April with participants who live in a low-income area in Kampala. With the situation changing at the current pace, likely responses would now be different following the most recent extension, which will be taken into account in future reports.

Respondents note strict regulations in the market, with security guards ensuring that everyone washes their hands on the way in.  Vendors, such as one respondent’s mother, must walk long distances to source their produce, as public and even private transport has been suspended for non-essential workers. Everything is closed strictly by 7 pm due to the curfew until 6 am the following morning.

Since the outset of the lockdown restrictions, the primary concern of respondents has been food shortages. Most people living in this and other low-income urban areas in Uganda work to eat, day by day. With movement and interaction restricted, many are worried about where the next meal will come from, both within their households and for those in their community. As one 54-year-old man, Edwin, put it, “people are scared they can die of hunger. It is not easy”.  At the time of the conversation, his family were waiting for the 6kg maize flour and 3kg beans relief items promised by the government, which took nearly a month to arrive.  In the meantime, people like Aida rely on their friends and neighbours support. “It’s a very difficult situation, we’re living at God’s mercy”. Her neighbour’s husband managed to bring food from the village before the lockdown and is sharing with her. They greet each other from a distance and try to control their children to stop them from running outside to play with each other.

Their relatives at home in the village are afraid of people in Kampala coming to see them, so they keep in touch regularly via phone calls. Obalo’s family was “caught off guard”, but otherwise he would be with his family in the village now, including his wife and grandchild. Instead, he stays with his sons in Kampala.

“The situation is not easy. We were expecting it to be 2 weeks, that would have been fair, but they added again 3 more weeks and it’s become tougher. There’s no work, we’re just at home, finance has ran off and we’re just on god’s mercy, always praying the lockdown goes”.

Fortunately, he had stocked food during a recent visit to the village, which they are ‘taking carefully’.

With high population density and outdoor latrines shared by up to 5 families, social distancing, or even staying inside from 7 pm, seems a distant possibility. As Edwin said:

This is the most challenging order to manage here or  in any African family setting because in a single room there are approximately 8 family members. And the slum setting of many small rentals, rooms in any given location makes social distance almost impractical.

Despite these difficulties, all five respondents expressed support for the measures. As Aida said, “I agree with the restrictions to take the virus seriously and avoid the situation of other countries”. Or as Winston, a Village Health Worker working locally put it, “it is a good measure it’s worth it…no problem, if we had food like the rich people. It’s ok with them, they’ve stocked enough and can go and buy more in the supermarket”. Some have observed that many people are ignoring the restrictions, and are still going out, visiting people and sitting in groups to discuss the situation.

All respondents also keep in contact with friends and family through phone calls and WhatsApp messages, although this relies on airtime and data which also comes at a cost. As Edwin poignantly observes:

Social media has stood out worldwide to compensate social distancing, disseminating important information and data, a daily update of covid-19. It has reduced the burden of older/slow ways of communications bringing loved ones and the entire world into one global village. Any friend or relative is just a call away.