Do you get this feeling, like me, that you might never shake hands with anybody again in this life, thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic that has imposed new cultures by killing old ones?
Our grandchildren will hear the expression ‘shaking hands’ possibly to mean peace and then Google searches will show them that in the past, people used to grab each other’s hands in greeting.
Anyway, as Uganda enters the second — or is it third — wave of the pandemic, scientists are coming up with more discoveries that are set to change the way we value things. A recent one from Makerere University School of Public Health indicates that the longer the distance your house is from the main road, the longer you are likely to enjoy a healthier life free from the negative effects of breathing air polluted by the old cars that characterise the stock that rolls on our roads.
Now this goes contrary to our pursuit of prestige and convenience. Everyone wants to live and operate as near the main road as possible. In fact, the biggest theft of public property is mostly committed by the so-called downtrodden and poorest of society who settle in the road reserve.
Government has 20,000 kilometres of public road area, whose width is 30 metres, of which only about six metres is used or paved for driving for now. It means that 80 percent of 20,000 kilometres times 30 metres is up for grabbing by both the poor and rich, the powerful and the weak alike. You can do the dizzying maths to the size of the poisoning arena we are struggling to enter, using force, bribery and trickery to have our share of the importers gaseous toxic substances into our lungs.
For our people, they need to stay as near to the road as possible for reasons that include minimising the distance they have to walk to get public transport. So come rain or shine, they just jump from the house onto the commuter vehicle, which stops anywhere that a passenger hails it, since Uganda stopped having fixed bus stops in the mid-seventies.
The other reason the poor need to be right there on the road is to station their little shops, bars, butcheries, restaurants, kiosks, vegetable market stalls so as to grab customers.
Meanwhile, the rich need to be near the road so that everyone can see their beautiful house and admire them. So all of our people, rich and poor, have been jostling for that plot nearest to the main road, little knowing they are jostling for poison taken in via their lungs. The vehicular exhausts on Ugandan roads are among the worst in the world because we abolished the limit on the age of the cars imported years ago, and the recent pronouncements on vehicular age limit are as easy to beat as other limits.
But don’t start imagining that people are going to vacate their plots on the edge of the main road just because some fellows at Makerere have said the location is poisonous. If I know my countrymen well, they will say that it is a plot to grab their plots. Since free Covid-19 immunisation started three months ago, they have largely shunned the exercise and, yes, leading in avoiding the jab were teachers and some health workers!
The Makerere scientists can come up with 10 other reports if they want, swearing that the air at the roadside is dangerous to the health of those who work or live there, nobody is going to budge. Not in the short run.
You see, no doctor in Uganda or another country for that matter issues a death certificate spelling out the cause of death as air pollution to which the deceased has been exposed for a few years. So if a fellow dies of lung cancer, our people will suspect that he was a secret smoker. Yet millions are smokers, unknowingly.
Last week, I listened to a distressed top cop, Commissioner Lawrence Niwabiine, currently in charge of traffic in Uganda, describing the danger some 2,000 Ugandan police personnel on traffic duty are exposed to as they stand for six to eight hours a day putting some sense in our unruly driving. He appealed to the Makerere public health researchers to conduct another study seeking to establish the magnitude of exposure people in his officers’ situation are subjected to, so as to arm him with scientific evidence to seek action to save their health.
It is still a long journey. For now, Uganda continues to bury some 40,000 people annually killed by exposure to vehicular exhausts, which is times higher than those when vehicles crash on knock them.
One day, our descendants should say that ancient Ugandans used to live by the roadside until their own locomotional exhausts killed enough of them.