There is an ancient saying in Uganda about the ignorance of a leper that makes him laugh at another for having stinking sores.
Apparently, the leprosy strains in Uganda were those that impair the sense of smell. So the ignorant leper hearing people complaining about the stench of the other leper’s sores but out of politeness, they don’t tell a leper to the face that his festering sores smell, assumes that for him he doesn’t smell, or even worse, thinks that he smells nice.
Disease outbreaks have tended to define our national character in Uganda. When leprosy was a big deal hundreds of years ago, people were generally selfish. Don’t forget those awful ingrates in the Bible — nine of them — who were miraculously healed and would not even say thank you to the healer! Even the Ugandan lepers wouldn’t sympathise with fellow suffering lepers, laughing at them instead, not knowing they too were stinking.
By the late 1980s, Ugandans had learnt the benefits of unity and, faced with the then new disease HIV/Aids, exhibited great compassion for the affected. They nursed the sick, accorded them decent burials and looked after the orphans.
With time, however, HIV/Aids became so commercialised and you don’t want to hear some of the tales coming from that sub-sector, which include profiteering from fake positive status and earning big from dangerous participation in research trials, and outwitting the process by faking the exposure to danger.
As corruption increased in the 1990, matured in the 2000s and ran out of control in the 2010s, so did our response to disease. Cancer became rampant and, in the past decade, the national referral hospital went for periods without the capacity to provide radiotherapy while the cost of restoring the required equipment was just a hundredth of what was being spent annually to send a lucky few overseas for treatment, some of it just cosmetic.
Covid-19 found when the national selfishness had reached Stage Four cancerous proportions. The national response was at first the best any country would wish for, as President Yoweri Museveni personally guided the learning and adoption of safety preventive measures. Then procurement of masks started.
Two years later, some districts have not yet got the government financed masks which all non-infant citizens were entitled to. When the vaccination stage came, the obscene minds tried to multiply the price by four times using middlemen.
Regional referral hospitals had expensive equipment procured for them but staff to make their Intensive Care Units operational like critical care nurses and anaesthetists were not prioritised.
The (lack of) health system reflects the state of the population, which can be categorised in several ways, one them being politicians and the public.
We have at least three million politicians (who vie for our one and a half million political posts during elections) and some forty other members of the public. Politicians think the public are dumb while the public think the politicians are evil.
Not very different from the lepers of a 100 years ago who thought their friends were smelling awful, not knowing that they were in the same category.
We constitute a low-grade citizenry that incites politicians to be corrupt by demanding payment for our votes; we scatter rubbish whenever possible; we have a million boda boda that are not licensed to carry passengers; the million boda boda riders give themselves powers of the High Court to sentence people whose cars they knock to death and carry out the sentence immediately.
We incite politicians to do awful things. Then we call them incompetent thieves!
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]