Project • Ongoing
COVID-19 insight from Uganda
In an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Ugandan government on March 25 imposed a government shutdown and temporarily closed the nation’s borders to all new refugees and asylum seekers fleeing regional conflict and civil war.
With already more than 1.4 million refugees in refugee settlements, mostly from neighbouring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ugandan and United Nations officials were concerned about the lack of intensive care units and ventilation equipment in the settlements and that a further influx of displaced peoples would not only exacerbate conditions for a possible outbreak but make containment measures such as social distancing more difficult to enforce. At the time there were 14 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Uganda.
To find out what sort of information was getting through to refugees in the settlements as well as behaviours, trust, and the economic impact of the virus, Ground Truth Solutions (GTS) in late April conducted phone interviews in Kiswahili and English with 30 community leaders from the ten most populous settlements of South Sudanese and Congolese refugees in Uganda (Adjumani, Bidibidi, Imvepi, Palorinya, Rhino, Kiryandongo Kyaka II, Kyangwali, Nakivale, and Rwamwanja). Collectively, these constitute 92 percent of the country’s total refugee population.
Community leaders told us:
- Most refugees and asylum seekers are aware of the guidance around COVID-19 and have received information from their most trusted information sources on how to protect themselves from the virus.
- While most are abiding by the COVID-19 guidelines, refugees find it difficult to keep at a distance from others, stay home, and wear a facemask.
- Some people cannot distinguish between facts and rumours surrounding COVID-19 and may be resorting to ineffective or dangerous home remedies.
- Nearly all of those in the settlements are unable to meet their essential needs as a result of a recent 30 percent reduction in World Food Programme assistance as well as measures that have curtailed jobs and decimated incomes.
- Social relations have become increasingly strained as people are no longer able to get emotional, financial, and food support from friends and family due to social distancing and loss of income.
When asked whether people in the camps have sufficient access to information to understand how to protect themselves from Covid-19, most community leaders said there has been excellent outreach via television, radio, informational posters, megaphone announcements, word of mouth, and in direct conversations with health officials.
However, community leaders note that not all refugees have access to radio or television so they must visit family or friends to listen to broadcasts. Those living in more remote camps are in greater need of information, according to those interviewed by GTS.
There are growing concerns about the spread of false information and misconceptions about contracting, avoiding, even curing the virus, despite the high level of awareness about Covid-19 in the Ugandan refugee camps (which compares positively with awareness nationwide).
“Some people have been told that the disease does not kill African, but rather white people. Some also say that the disease was manufactured in America, and others say in China.” – Kyaka II"
The majority of community leaders said their people are abiding by Covid-19 policies, however, they pointed to several challenges. Some refugees believe such measures are unnecessary – that the virus cannot reach them or that they simply do not need to abide by the rules. Others don’t understand the policies and therefore find them difficult to adhere to. Finally, there is the challenge of overcoming cultural behaviour among those who, accustomed to socialising, find isolating and social distancing a step too far.
For nearly all refugees in Uganda’s settlements the ability to make ends meet and acquire basic needs has decreased dramatically since March. Much of this is due to the World Food Programme’s 30 percent cutback in food distribution because of a funding shortfall, though the loss of jobs and income, camp leaders told GTS, has hit refugees hardest through Covid-19 preventative measures that restrict movement and require social distancing. In addition, the loss of income and the ability to put food on the table has created negative coping strategies; some have resorted to theft, prostitution, or even returning to South Sudan at night for food.
The restrictions on movement and measures to reduce the spread of the virus are accepted by most refugees as necessary, community leaders said, as cases increase and no end in sight. Though far fewer cases than most countries, and to date, no deaths from the virus, in a few short months the crisis has taken a heavy toll in terms of social relations, access to aid, job income, and education. Because refugees are unable to meet with friends and neighbours for emotional support, or to lend food and money, the most vulnerable in communities have been forced to fend for themselves.
GTS is sharing this snapshot of refugees’ views with humanitarian actors, to inform response planning and adjust programming accordingly. Over the coming months, we will provide time-series data to further track the response in Uganda from the perspective of affected people.
You can download the full bulletin on COVID-19 insights from refugee community leaders in Uganda below:
 UNHCR, Uganda Comprehensive Refugee Response Portal, 31 October 2019, https://data2.unhcr.org/en/country/uga.