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Uganda's U-turn on transport vaccine mandate

Emmanuel Lubega
January 7, 2022

Authorities in Uganda have reversed their decision to demand proof of vaccination against COVID-19 on public transport. The directive attracted great ire among bus and taxi operators, as the country looked set to reopen.

Vendors wearing face masks sell vegetables at a market in Kampala, Uganda
Markets and transit stations are hot spots for COVID transmissionImage: Hajarah Nalwadda/Xinhua/picture alliance

On the streets of Kampala, the public looks eager to get back to the life as they knew it. Taxi ranks and bus stations in the Ugandan capital are bustling with activity — but it's exactly in these busy transportation hubs that COVID-19 can easily be transmitted.

With this in mind, the government had looked at the transport sector as one of the key industries to uphold certain COVID-19 restrictions, initially demanding that all passengers produce vaccination certificates or at least a valid negative test result.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni during a rally wearing a face mask
President Yoweri Museveni wants to reopen Uganda's economy, but many aren't happy with his termsImage: Luke Dray/Getty Images

President Yoweri Museveni's announcement to that end on New Year's Eve attracted great criticism. Drivers and conductors vowed to defy the order, saying they would not block unvaccinated passengers from boarding their vehicles. And the public weren't far behind in rejecting the effective vaccine mandate, with less than 20% of the Ugandan public having received at least a first vaccination dose by late December.

Kampala businesswoman Diana Birungi told DW that reviving the economy should be the government's first priority. "As a passenger, when you stop us from moving the economy is dead," she said.

Scientific consensus also against directive

Faced with the resistance, the government had to reverse much of this directive less than a week later. Transport and Works minister General Katumba Wamala insisted, however, that operators will still be required to be vaccinated before they can transport passengers. 

And now, even scientists are joining the ranks of those who are cautioning against introducing laws that could be detrimental to socio-economic activities. A group of Ugandan researchers has advised the government to abandon the directive, saying it was not practical or easy to enforce considering the vaccination shortage in the country.

They noted that overreliance on vaccination may send the wrong signal. Uganda has thus far managed to procure 32 million vaccine doses, which could inoculate over half the country's population. However, omicron has meanwhile proven that new variants can potentially bypass vaccine protection.

Person receiving COVID-19 vaccination at an open-air vaccination center in Kampala
Uganda is only at the beginning of its vaccination campaignImage: Emmanuel Lubega/DW

Dr. Misaki Wayengera, the head of the government's scientific advisory committee, stressed that COVID vaccines are "not designed to prevent primary infection." 

"And this has been very difficult for people to understand: the essence of vaccination in COVID is to reduce the risk for severe disease," he told DW. Wayengera added that in addition to vaccines, "secondary measures to prevent the transmission of COVID-19" will also continue to be needed.

Vaccination only 'secondary' line of protection

Wayengera stressed the importance of social distancing, proper mask-wearing and hand hygiene, adding that "vaccines alone will not help. We need to be able to complement the vaccines with the standard operating procedures."

Dr. Francis Omaswa, head of the community engagement subcommittee of the national COVID-19 task force, has recommended that Uganda and other African nations should also rather invest efforts into educating the public on how to prevent catching a COVID infection.

Uganda's Health Ministry, meanwhile, has still come under fire for allegedly not doing enough to ensure that the vaccines reach all parts of the population. Long queues at vaccination centers have meant that many of the eligible candidates and even priority groups for the vaccine haven't been able to get their turn — including schoolteachers.

Uganda school closures hurting economic growth

Public education under threat

As schools in Uganda are preparing to reopen fully for the first time in two years, teachers are among those who seem to fall through the cracks. Despite being a priority group, over 170,000 teachers in the country have not even received a single dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Education Ministry. Only about a third of teachers in Uganda have been fully inoculated.

A student in Kampala is seen walking to school with a radio in her hand
With students returning to class soon, schools appear to be unprepared to meet government standardsImage: Nicholas Kajoba/Xinhua/picture alliance

At the same time, the ministry has said unvaccinated teaches will not be allowed to set foot in the schools. Parents and students alike are worried that if teachers are blocked teaching because of their vaccination status, COVID could be followed by a miseducation pandemic.

There are also mounting fears that any attempt to enforce hard restrictions with teachers and other public sector workers will only compel some to resort to obtaining fake vaccination cards and test certificates. The fraudulent documents are virtually indistinguishable from real vaccine certificates. 

On the black market, such documents can reportedly be obtained for only $20 (about €17).

A woman in pink holds up a Ugandan vaccine certificate
Vaccination certificates are becoming increasingly valuable in Uganda — and are easy to forgeImage: Emmanuel Lubega/DW

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen, Sertan Sanderson