I left Uganda on March 8th with only one thought on my mind: how I would report on the International Criminal Court trial of former Lord’s Resistance Army commander Dominic Ongwen. I came back afraid for my life, wondering if I had contracted the dreaded Coronavirus (COVID-19).
I had been prepared to settle into my seat on the KLM flight for Amsterdam, Netherlands and read Dr Martin Aliker’s The Bell is Ringing memoir. I cannot highly recommend this favourite book of mine by one of Uganda’s best dentists who has lived a thrilling public and private life for over 60 years. For company, if I got tired, I had my aged neigbour Betty on this journey with me.
She turned to me, when we were barely in the air, and asked me to explain to her what this Coronavirus was that the air hostess had warned us about. She had warned us to be cautious while in the Netherlands which had already registered some cases of the deadly flu-like disease first reported in China in January 2020.
I did not know how to explain what Coronavirus was to Betty who hails from Aboke village.
We were both disquieted when we landed at Shiphol airport in Amsterdam and nearly everyone but us was wearing face masks. Like they knew a secret we were being kept out of the loop of. Betty continually asked me me, “Are we safe?” I reassured her the best I could, concealing my own fears.
I knew we were headed to The Hague to witness the trial of the once feared Dominic Ongwen but before that, I would use my free time to study. I would use our hotel wifi to learn as much as I could on what the Coronavirus was. Betty and I had been fortunately booked in the same hotel. I watched ten YouTube videos before I felt educated enough to try and explain to Betty what this new disease is and how it could affect us all.
In between attending the court proceedings at the awe-inspiring Hague, I used every free moment I had to follow the Coronavirus news where I could find it. After watching NBS TV on my phone, CNN, BBC, Aljazeera were my constant companions as I chomped down my KFC dinners.
My mind became consumed with the terror that I might contract this disease and spread it to my young family in Gulu, northern Uganda. I developed headaches worrying about who would look after my infant son in case anything happened to me. Luckily for me, Patricia, a colleague had been smart enough to carry a painkiller with her from Uganda and it helped.
My mounting concern worsened when I received an email from KLM on March 12, 2020 asking me to confirm if I wanted to return to Uganda. The mystery was unravelled when that evening our team leader explained to us that Uganda had issued a notice about citizens returning from at risk countries. We would be obliged to self isolate, if we decided to return to Uganda.
Of course I wanted to return to Uganda! I could not wait to see my son and daughter.
While the assignment at The Hague had been one of the most important in my journalism career, I don’t think anyone was happier on the ICC bus shuttle that took us to the airport. I had represented my people and now I could return to my people.
Uganda People Defence Forces’ spokesperson Brigadier Richard Karemire greeted each and everyone of us like a personal friend, enforcing that famous Ugandan friendliness as we waited to board. Brig Karemire was returning from the USA.
The 8:30pm stopover at Kigali International Airport brought home further how close we had been to danger. The immigration questionnaire wanted to know, “Have you been to a country with Coronavirus? Are you coughing? Do you have flu? Do you have headache or fever?” I tried to answer the questions as honestly as possible but they made me wonder what I was going to expose my family to? I had contracted a slight fever at The Hague.
9:40pm we touched down at Entebbe International Airport. An official had to check my temperature twice making me wonder if I was about to seized. After a brief hesistation, she had some serious advice for me. I must: keep out of public places, not report to office, self-isolate for at least 14 days after which another test could be conducted to give me the all clear I did not have Coronavirus. And then it was off to Gulu!
I could not stop my son from running to greet me with a hug though I had self-isolation on my mind. I had to sit my wife down and explain to her what the self-isolation would mean for me, for her, for the family and how it was for their own good. But it was not easy.
The first day Monday was not too difficult to get through but by Wednesday, my mind was in overdrive. I was sure I was seriously sick! I could not focus on the books I wanted to read, the movies I had to watch could not distract me from the fears that kept on invading my mind. I was weak, did not feel like eating. I kept on regretting how I had lived parts of my life up to that point. I promised myself that if I recovered, church going would be a number one priority always.
I called the district chairman Martin Ojara Mapenduzi and Minister of primary health Joyce Moriku Kaducu to explain my condition. The three hours wait for Dr Emma to call back, on their recommendation, must count among the longest of my life. When he asked me to drive myself to Lacor hospital, I drove like I had been given a short cut to heaven.
On reaching Lacor hospital, the white coated delegation I found waiting for me made me wonder if I had not made a mistake. Would these people ever let me out of their clutches again? Watching the blood sample being drawn out of me had me begging it not to betray me. I have been healthy much of my life. Surely I could not start to become ill now, could I?
After 20mins my results for Malaria, Typhoid and CBC all came normal and the doctor assured me all was well. On Saturday afternoon, Dr Emma could me with further results. Good news: I had tested negative for COVID-19! But I must complete my 14 days of self-isolation. It is day 9 but it feels like it has been a year of sitting around with my fears and worries.
But it is the only way. We must follow Ministry of Health guidelines to protect ourselves, our families and the nation against the Coronavirus that officially entered the country on Saturday, March 21, 2020. We can, if we do.
My experience has left me with many questions.
How safe are we, if the corona test is not done at the airport but just a mere temperature check?
What are the guidelines for the quarantine?
Is home quarantine the best option for us?
Have we learned from China and Italy?
How prepared are we, just imagine the whole Gulu have less than 30 Life supporting machine.
Let’s keep safe and protect ourselves and families
Edited by David Tumusiime