Some have said it was all by good luck that I ended up in quarantine. I do not know what to think of this, I can only tell my experience and how we manoeuvred our way around the difficult circumstances and injustices that came along.
As fate would have it, I returned to Uganda on 18th March 2020. I was running from UK, where I had spent over five months on a Research Fellowship at Cambridge University. Countries had started closing borders and flight cancelations were daily. So I had to cut my Fellowship short, lest I get closed out of home.
Travelling from UK, which had been categorised by Uganda’s Ministry of Health (MoH) among the riskiest countries, I knew that I was supposed to self-isolate once in Uganda. I had duly made arrangements for this. But it was not to happen. While I was on the way, the President passed a directive of mandatory quarantine for every returnee from Category 1 countries. I learnt about this on arrival at Entebbe Airport.
Here, we were made to wait for over five hours as the equally confused officials made frantic calls to establish what to do with us. Possibilities of us infecting each other as we were herded together in one corner seemed to be of no concern to the health officials. Those that were found with high temperatures were left to sit with the rest whose only issue was returning from high risk countries.
Some ‘connected’ ones passed, as if walking through a cobweb. I heard that others bribed their way across. All those from Dubai, with whom we had shared connecting flights, just passed too. Eventually, after the long wait and arguments, at about 3:30 am, we were packed into a van with all our luggage, seated skin to skin, to be driven to our quarantine center. All we were told was that we were supposed to pay for ourselves for 14 days, at a rate of $100 (bed and breakfast) per night! All this for people who had no idea in the first place that they were coming into mandatory quarantine!
At Central Inn, Entebbe, most of us slept at the lobby in protest. In any case, it was already morning. Some few workers wore gloves, and there was a sanitiser bottle at the entrance; but generally there was no indication of preparedness for quarantine. Everyone walked about as they wished. Workers moved in and out. We had literally been locked up in some sort of concentration camp that we had to pay for. We only saw health officials on the third day! A plate of food was 30,000/-, a small bottle of water at 4,000/-. It was by the mercy of ‘Solidarity Uganda’ that we got some drinking water and snacks! Some of us started escaping in connivance with the hotel workers!
We turned to the media to detest our conditions and all the injustices that came with the messy quarantine exercise. Some people still despise social media as a tool for activism. But nothing helped us as much as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. Pictures and videos moved in an instant. Our texts and posts made rounds and rounds.
Initially, I restricted myself to Facebook textual posts. I had no moods for drawing cartoons. But when I drew one that depicted MoH to be profiteering from quarantine, I noticed that it circulated faster and wider. Within a few hours, friends started forwarding it to me, saying they had seen it in their groups. I subsequently drew more cartoons both with the idea of sounding out our plight and sensitising the public on Covid-19. Ultimately officials from MoH, including the minister and her Permanent Secretary, came to meet us and we expressed our concerns in heated meetings.
The Ugandans at Central Inn were then moved to Arch Apartments in Ntinda, with the promise that government was to pick the bills. But we first cleared the dues at Central Inn. Conditions at Arch were indeed better, and government paid the bills. The workers appeared to be trained; there were soldiers to monitor the place; everything was served to our rooms; and health officials checked on us almost on a daily. The only mistake was that we were combined with other new groups, and our fate tied up together.
What eventually disturbed everything was the introduction of a policy by which if any positive case was found at a center, everyone there had to start counting their fourteen days afresh. This effectively meant that quarantine could become endless! Whereas there was some sense in the fear that some people were interacting at the centers, it was not fair for those who stayed in their rooms. The interactions could be controlled by the center staff. Bringing together different groups and then waiting to see if there was a positive case to determine the fate of everyone smacked of cynicism.
So, some of us resorted to hunger strike. We had tested negative after 14 days yet not released. We designed protest notes and pasted them onto our doors. We wanted no more food before being released. After one day of the strike, officials from the Ministry of Health came to talk to us individually on 4th April. They urged us to eat and promised to release us after a second test on the 6th.
On the 7th, they communicated to us that all our results had turned out negative. They congratulated us and asked us to prepare to leave the following day, 8th April. There was wild excitement all over the hotel. The next day, they told us to wait for release certificates and test results that were still being printed. We waited until darkness consumed the day, they never showed up.
To our shock, that night, at around 10:00pm, they evacuated a lady from the hotel. It is then that they told us that they never released us because of that case; yet they had already told us we were all negative! Their explanation was that some samples taken on the 6th had ‘arrived late’ and had just been tested on the 8th, only to find a positive case. It was all creepy and insensitive! The details of the evacuated lady did not match any of the public updates on new cases in Uganda! They slapped 14 more days on the block with the evacuated case and a third test condition for the rest.
Some of us immediately resumed our hunger strike, only demanding to be freed from what had now turned into prison. The third sample was taken on 10th April. Meanwhile, we were mounting pressure in the media and on other fronts. The Center for Legal Aid had served a motion to the Ministry castigating the illegality of our treatment. Fellow Ugandan cartoonists, Atukwasize Chris (Ogon) and Richard Kato (Katofm) weighed in with hilarious cartoons for our cause. John Curtis of AfriCartoons (South Africa) mobilised other cartoonists, including Terry Anderson – Executive Director of Cartoonists Rights Network International (based in Scotland). Sylvain of Cartooning for Peace (France) mobilised Kenya’s famed Gado, all strategising on how to push for our freedom. The support from various directions was overwhelming, and we can’t appreciate enough!
On the evening of the same day that the sample was taken, and before the results were back, Ministry officials came around and abruptly released most of us. The rest were freed the next day, some with no samples taken!
I had spent 24 days in quarantine, being among the very first to be quarantined and the last to be released! I then had to start another 14 days of self-isolation. I do not think I had been held as a cartoonist, as some have said; rather, my being a cartoonist and writer contributed to stronger activism against the mess.
By: JIMMY SPIRE SSENTONGO