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The silver lining to the Covid cloud

Reflections on a time of change

The silver lining to the Covid cloud

African man wearing mask to protect against Covid-19.

Despite the misery being caused by the world’s most deadly medical crisis, one positive outcome in Uganda has raised hopes for the future, writes Epajjar Ojulu.

Although I feel extreme anguish against the Covid-19 virus for killing dozens of my friends and relatives, recent events have driven me to invoke the English saying: “Every dark cloud has a silver lining.” The events have shown that the dark face of the deadly virus also has a bright side.

I suffered a lot of torment before my wife Prossy Kuteesa Ojulu recovered and survived death from Covid-19 by a whisker but in hindsight I have gained from the torment.

Nursing her for three months (she also suffered from long Covid) taught me new skills. At 68 years old, I learnt how to administer injections, and to take blood pressure and body temperature readings. I never dreamt I would acquire those skills in the twilight of my life. I also learnt about antibiotics, painkillers and steroids. My sons in isolation with us learnt how to administer medicine by drip through a cannula.

These skills came from the challenges we faced while treating and nursing my wife at home. Like me, my wife Prossy vehemently objected to her admission to hospital for treatment at the height of the pandemic when all medical units in the country were overwhelmed by the high number of patients.

A friend of mine who was a medic had whispered to me that hospitals were so understaffed that patients were left unattended and some of them had died from preventable causes such as thirst and starvation.

The nursing experience taught me that Covid-19 patients need to eat fruits or drink fruit juice to increase vitamin C intake. They also needed to drink black tea in at least one-hour intervals and to eat warm food several times during the day to warm their bodies and weaken the virus, which is usually most severe in a cold environment.

More important, my wife needed to be kept away from the trauma of witnessing the daily deaths of dozens of patients in isolation wards. With the three months’ experience, I rightly consider myself today an expert in Covid-19 healthcare.

After the shock of losing my immediate neighbours and many friends, and the torment of witnessing my wife fight for her life, seeing the good side of the pandemic seemed a distant possibility at the time. I wished those memories to vanish fast to pave way for a future of optimism.

Ugandans have suffered immensely before, with the Ebola and HIV/AIDS epidemics. To date, many communities across the country are struggling to cope with caring for the tens of thousands of widows and orphans created. After four decades of devastation, any positive side of those epidemics remains elusive.

A long-ignored injustice

Yet despite the misery being caused by the world’s most deadly medical crisis, its good side has emerged, radically changing my worldview, and hopefully that of other Ugandans. 

For close to a century, successive Ugandan governments since colonialism have persecuted pregnant school girls. Because the majority of schools in Uganda are Christian-founded, the Ministry of Education’s policies are largely influenced by the Catholic and Anglican Church doctrines. The expulsion of pregnant girls from school has been followed to the letter even by non-Christian-founded schools.

Pregnancy before marriage is an abomination to Christians. Pregnant girls were not only expelled from school but also stigmatised and ostracised by their mainly Christian communities. However, the boys responsible for some pregnancies were left to continue with their education. If the pregnancy was not by a schoolboy, the girl was forced to marry the man, whether or not he was already married.

My primary school friend, Agnes Akurut was a brilliant girl made pregnant by a soldier. Her education and dream of a medical career ended when she was expelled from school a few weeks before she was to sit for ‘O’ Level examinations in 1972 at an elite secondary school in Kampala. Her parents were devastated because their hope for a better family future lay with her. Her mother died a few years later from causes related to the shock and depression she suffered.

To make matters worse, the soldier who made Akurut pregnant dumped her and the baby boy. “I toiled to grow cotton in my father’s land to raise money for my son’s education,” says the 68-year-old Akurut, who later married and produced seven children with an illiterate peasant under abject poverty. There are numerous women today with similar accounts.

The good side in Akurut’s tragic story is that her son beat the odds to become a medical doctor who has paid for the education of his step-brothers and sisters and takes care of her.

It was big news when the government announced, in December, the reopening of schools in January after two years of closure, the longest shutdown in the world. The bigger news that apparently evaded media attention was the announcement of the new policy that allowed thousands of pregnant and lactating school girls to return to class. Schools across the country have been ordered to put in place facilities for mothers to breastfeed babies.

There is no doubt that without Covid-19, schools would not have closed and the big-number pregnancies would not have been registered. The century-long injustice against pregnant school girls would also have continued.

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