Ugandans have started harvesting the positive consequences of the deadly coronavirus pandemic.
As of last week, Kampala’s Mandela Stadium — the country’s only sports arena that was built (but not maintained) to international standards — has been refitted for a field hospital to admit and treat hundreds of Covid-19 patients at a go.
We are late entrants to the gloomy phase of community infections and death, having delayed it by initially doing a great job at preventing the spread of the coronavirus.
So we are seeing for the first time things that we used to ascribe to other countries. Our people were bored with Covid-19 news and even relaxed as far as observing the precautions like constant wearing of masks is concerned.
Then the deaths started. And so did this kind of public investment in health facilities for the public. The temporary conversion of the country’s largest sports facility into a hospital is a clear indicator that we do not expect to host international sporting events in particular and international visitors in general anytime soon. The reverse is also true — we do not expect our people to travel abroad soon, especially going to seek treatment for Covid-19.
Who has been going abroad for treatment? The senior political class and their families of course. They have been flying out for treatment at taxpayers’ expense at the slightest sight of a rash on their small left toe.
We are not begrudging them their business class travel to expensive health facilities outside. No, we are just thankful to Covid that our government can now invest in treatment facilities to serve even ordinary citizens for treating the deadliest diseases. We don’t care whether the government is doing it grudgingly or happily — what matters is that they are doing it.
Memories of the outcry for money to buy a cancer treatment machine for the national referral hospital some years are still too fresh in our mind. The seemingly insurmountable cost for the famous machine was about $1 million, an embarrassingly small amount compared to what the country has been spending on the treatment of VIPs overseas.
In 2015, a former prime minister who had decided to run for president mentioned a figure of $300 million as being spent on the elite medical tourism a year. The figure could have dropped but that is only on the overt budget.
Otherwise, tax funds for medical tourism can be accessed from anywhere outside the health budget. One bizarre revelation was made at the commission of inquiry into land (mis)management of cash from the Land Fund, which is intended to help so-called squatters acquire official titles, was spent on sending some “well connected” persons for medical treatment abroad.
The connection between the land fund and sick relatives of big persons is hard to establish, but it is there. Today, the VIPs cannot go to other countries for treatment and we sincerely feel (sorry) for them.
But their government is now providing facilities for them in case they fall sick with life-threatening conditions. And even us the unentitled, ineligible fellas can go to the same facilities as them without first holding fundraising functions for months. Who says Covid can’t be good!
Without any cynicism, our president has also pointed out this beautiful side of Covid-19. President Yoweri Museveni recently alerted especially young people to the newly available funds — saved from the trips abroad that big people can no longer take — that should be used to fund their innovations and investment needs.
What does this mean? For those of us who have been around for a while, it brings to mind those magical words Comrade Museveni and his cadres taught us in 1986 when they had just taken power after a five-year grueling guerrilla war: An integrated, self-sustaining economy.
That is what they set out to create 35 years ago. And if we had kind of lost sight of it, Covid-19 could be refocusing us toward it again. For Uganda has virtually all it needs to set up and run modern industries. The natural resources are here in form of minerals, fertile soils, and good climate.
The human resources in form of adequately educated young people are here. And now the cash has been freed from the foreign trips so it is also here. The dots have been connected. Has Africa’s turn to power the next industrial revolution come?