KAMPALA, UGANDA — Dozens of young adult campers were enjoying their daily dip in the swimming pool of a hotel outside Kampala when suddenly one of them, Mangadelene, 24, started choking. Water gushed from her nose, and her eyes were red and wide with alarm. Her friends rushed to help.
“She has swallowed too much water,” said Oketcho, a camp organizer, who immediately began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Moments later, Mangadelene was revived and out of danger. She dove back into the pool with the rest of the group.
For Mangadelene and her friends, it was just another day at this now-closed camp, one of several semi-clandestine, multiday gatherings that emerged in Uganda in the weeks and months prior to a surge of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and a sweeping lockdown, imposed on June 18.
Before June, Uganda’s relatively low rates of COVID-19 infection and death served as a model for the world. Now, a range of factors, including the behavior of some Ugandans such as the youths at camps like this one, have opened the door to a potentially far more serious second wave.
“The youth need to take care or else they will die in big numbers,” says Fred Nakwagala, clinical head of the Directorate of Medicine at Mulago National Referral Hospital, Uganda’s largest public hospital.
Limited access to the vaccine and the emergence of pernicious variants of the virus from South Africa and India have further heightened concerns over lapses in compliance with social distancing guidelines, Nakwagala says.
Edna Namara, GPJ Uganda
On June 6, after a surge of infections linked to schools, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni ordered an initial 42-day lockdown on schools and public gatherings. At that time, the total number of reported COVID-19 cases in Uganda was 52,935, with 383 deaths.
But at the start of the more restrictive June 18 lockdown, which banned all vehicular movement except essential workers, the daily number of people testing positive for COVID-19 had risen to more than 1,500 from fewer than 100 a month earlier.
Even before the lockdowns, large gatherings were not permitted, and if authorities had found one of the camps, the participants would have been subject to arrest, says Luke Owoyesigire, a deputy spokesperson for the Kampala Metropolitan Police.
“We have our standard operating procedures, which are clear,” he says. “No entertainment galas because they would not observe COVID rules.”
But once officials lift the more restrictive ban on travel, even if the ban on gatherings remains in place, the forces driving Uganda’s young adults to flout the restrictions may be difficult to counter. Uganda is one of the youngest countries in the world, with over 75% of the population below age 30, and has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in sub-Saharan Africa.
In a March survey of 600 medical students age 18 and older across 10 medical schools in Uganda, more than half said they saw slight to no likelihood that they would get COVID-19.
“This poses an evident risk on the battle towards COVID-19 in the future especially when these future health professions are expected to be influencing decisions of the general public towards the same,” wrote the authors of the study, published in Tropical Medicine and Health.
Before the most recent lockdown, the biggest obstacle for many young adults who sought to join in the fun at a camp was not fear of infection or of being caught, says Oketcho, 25, who runs three camp sessions a year and requested to be only partially named for fear of legal repercussions.
Rather, he says, it was whether these prospective campers, most of whom are unemployed, could come up with the camp fee, which runs 150,000 Ugandan shillings ($42) for the three-day camp, the equivalent of a month’s salary for a shop attendant in Kampala’s business center.
Many of those who joined the camps had just completed school and were making their initial forays into the working world when the pandemic brought employment largely to a halt, says Oketcho. “We are all job seekers, so we ask for money from our parents and well-wishers,” he says.
For her part, Mangadelene, who also requested to be only partially named for fear of legal repercussions, says she was so desperate to see her friends that she begged her parents until they agreed to cover the cost.
At the camp, hosted at a secluded site on the sprawling grounds of a hotel, scores of mask-less, unvaccinated young adults came into close contact for archery, swimming, bonfire parties and, most importantly, Mangadelene says, social interaction.
“An entire year at home with the same routine was just like prison,” she says. “It’s like the world ceased to be.”
Like Mangadelene’s parents, Leo Tibamwenda says he, too, relented to his 27-year-old daughter’s request and came up with the money to send her to camp. In March, he received the vaccine, having qualified under the first round offered in Uganda for residents age 50 and older.
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Tibamwenda reasoned that even if his daughter became infected, young people were less likely to suffer severe reactions, so he would not be at risk. For his daughter, “staying at home, missing the company of others, may have other implications,” he says.
Danton Akampwera, 26, another camper, is unemployed and says the gatherings offered an opportunity for informal networking.
“You never know,” he says. “The person I meet in a camp might be my needed link to the job I’m looking for.”
The situation created a painful trade-off for a high rate of compliance and the perception of low infection rates among younger Ugandans earlier in the pandemic, Nakwagala says.
A study released in February by Makerere University showed that despite being well informed about COVID-19, up to 76% of youth who participated in the survey, carried out in the greater Kampala area, believe they are immune.
Nakwagala says the choices made by young adults in Uganda can be attributed at least in part to their age. “They have a low risk perception,” he says. “They can have sex without condoms, ride without seat belts. Because their risk perception is so low, they are reckless, and until they mature, they will not learn.”
Oketcho disagrees. Although the youth at the camps didn’t wear masks or socially distance, he says organizers checked everyone’s temperature before the camps began.
When the country makes vaccines available for younger Ugandans, Oketcho says, the camps will require them. Once the lockdown is lifted, “we will not allow any unvaccinated member to join the camp. We will have more fun, with the knowledge that we are all safe.”
Edna Namara is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. She specializes in reporting about power and bodily autonomy.