Locking COVID-19 out of Karamoja

“Even as we keep Covid-19 out of our area, other diseases are also being kept at bay"

By Joachim Buwembo
coronavirus, COVID-19, Uganda, handwashing with soap
UNICEF Uganda/2020/Bongyereirwe
04 August 2020

When the Government of Uganda announced a lockdown to stop the spread of COVID-19 at the end of March, different people reacted differently. The degree of fear varied from region to region, and from individual to individual. But one health worker in Nakapiripirit District was in for the ‘mother of all surprises’.

Dr. Doreen Faith Longes had received all the guidelines and worked on preparations under the district COVID-19 task force with key partners including UNICEF. She believed she was ready for the battle.

As the Medical Officer in charge of Tokora Health Centre 4, her immediate task was to sensitize her staff and conduct a series of training sessions. The health centre had been selected to provide the isolation facility for the district. 

The first briefing went smoothly, personal protective equipment was distributed, and questions were asked and answered. People wished one another a good evening, looking forward to the next day and more COVID-preparedness drills. That evening, the first five cases of suspected COVID-19 were brought into the facility for isolation, observation and testing.  In the morning, Dr. Longes got shocking news: she had lost an equal number of staff. Five key staff had deserted their jobs during the course of the night. They had packed up their belongings and told colleagues that they were not going to stay around, saying that “COVID can pass through the ventilators of the isolation ward.”

The isolation ward was actually a government-built brand-new maternity ward that has not yet even been commissioned. All due precautionary measures had been taken but the frightened staff – who had appeared calm during the orientation – were not convinced. It was extra work convincing the remaining staff to stay, and they did. The operation had a rocky start, but things have moved smoothly, and successfully ever since.

Dr. Longes explains that working under the general framework of the district task force, her facility has at its level organized orientation of all staff, procured and distributed enough informational materials, and installed handwashing facilities supplied by UNICEF.

The Clinical Officer in charge of the isolation facility, Jonathan Telo, says they have so far handled 109 suspected cases of COVID-19, and all have since been discharged after testing negative of Covid-19 following their isolation period.

The management of the 109 patients over three months was not a walk in the park. These were mostly pastoralists who were returning with their animals from Kenya where lockdown enforcement is far more relaxed than Uganda. It was a challenge to contain people who practice a nomadic way of life but all the patients completed their prescribed quarantine period and underwent all the tests without major incidents. The facility is now empty and will hopefully soon be opened for the purpose it was built – as a maternity ward.

There are more cases of isolation in the district but these are undergoing self-isolation and Jonathan does not have their statistics because of the nature of their work. They are military personnel in the barracks in the area who return from duty in areas where there have been reported cases like the Sudan and Kenya borders. 

Elsewhere in Nakapiripirit, health workers are also confidently going about their anti-COVID-19 duties. At Namalu Health Centre 3, Sister (in-charge) Evelyne Akello says UNCEF supported a comprehensive training programme for her staff in handling and managing suspected cases of COVID-19. Besides, the village health teams have also been trained in sensitizing the community on how to prevent the spread of the disease and respond to suspected cases. 

Sister Akello also appreciates the availability of the UNICEF-supplied water, sanitation and hygiene equipment and materials and the hand-held temperature-taking machines. She attributes the area’s remaining COVID-19 free locations to the general vigilance instilled in the population who are now highly alert to visitors. Check points have been set up, as well as a quarantine centre in Namalu Mixed Primary School where suspect cases are isolated. None have so far tested positive. 

UNICEF- supplied handwashing facilities are generally well distributed in the area and materials like sanitizers, though not enough, are supplied according to availability. Also, UNICEF is providing a set of information, education and communication materials, and personal protective equipment to control the spread of COVID-19. Training of responders including the VHTs supported by UNICEF is expected to continue until the coast is clear. In all, Sister Akello and her team are happy with the higher levels of sanitation that the public especially the mothers have adapted.

“Even as we keep Covid-19 out of our area, other diseases are also being kept at bay due to enhanced sanitation practices by the people,” We see this every day at work as we examine our clients.”

Akello says.