Uganda: Rather, than rifling through the pockets of arriving tourists for spare change, increase vaccination rates across the country.
Authorities have made small but important changes to plans to test all incoming air travellers into Uganda for the coronavirus. The changes followed a public outcry over what looked like profiteering dressed up in the see-through white robes of public health advice.
The tests will now cost $30, less than half the original proposed price, and will be carried out by the military or public health officials, not the private testing facilities that have made a killing from the pandemic. The turnaround time, we are told, has also been shortened to 150 minutes or less.
While these improvements, at least on paper, ought to be welcomed, they provide neither justification for the testing requirement itself nor assurances that the plan will not create chaos at the airport.
On a good day Entebbe International Airport has the design inefficiency of a Kampala round-about. Travellers who leave their cars in long-term parking have to walk half-a-kilometre, often in heavy rain, and up a steep ramp, to get to the check-in counters.
There officials insist on a printed Covid-19 test result, which they use to search an online database. Why not ask for the passenger name and search through the database or scan a QR code?
Because that would take away business from the printing shop downstairs which charges Shs5,000 per page. By the time you board the aircraft, this printed Covid test result page would have been handled by not fewer than four different officials, without gloves.
Similar confusion meets arriving passengers who must cram into the arrival hall to go through a chokepoint manned by a handful of officials checking for Covid results. The temperature guns are no longer in use. The “well connected” are whisked past such inconveniences. What, then, should we expect, when we have to force a thousand arriving passengers to sit in a tent for three hours waiting, after long flights in?
There are two official justifications for the test-on-arrival scheme. One, that we can’t prove the provenance of tests conducted elsewhere, and two, that we need to pick up variants coming in from foreign countries.
The public health assumptions here need to be subjected to a common-sense test. Foreign tests should be validated through regional or international databases, not by retesting. Since we can’t prove foreign vaccination statuses, shall we now require foreigners to be vaccinated on arrival?
It is possible, as officials have noted, for a passenger to be exposed to Covid between the time they test negative and arrive at Entebbe. But the incubation period for Covid, the data show, can be as long as one or two weeks, meaning such exposures will be missed by the test-on-arrival scheme.
Apart from Entebbe Airport, Uganda also has more than 40 additional border crossings. If there are plans to test every arrival through these border posts, these plans have not been publicly communicated or pursued with the same enthusiasm as those at Entebbe.
Your columnist does not know if any studies have been conducted into the travel preferences of the novel coronavirus disease to indicate that it prefers the comfort of air travel over, say, being walked across Odramachaku border crossing in Arua via a sweaty petty trader, or by a boda boda rider from South Sudan at Madi Opei in Kitgum.
The arriving air passengers at Entebbe are merely fat sitting ducks for those seeking to separate them from their money. No wonder the tests are being priced in dollars. The impact will be felt worst in the tourism sector where neighbouring countries are bound to benefit from our asinine policies.
Thanks to the generosity of foreign states, especially the Americans, we have gone from a deficit of coronavirus vaccines to warehouses full of the stuff. While vaccination rates have inched upwards, they are still far below the number required to get us fully reopened in time for Christmas and to get children back into school.
If we get enough Ugandans vaccinated, we don’t have to worry about the odd chaps arriving with a forged Covid test result or vaccination certificate because they will die – alone – in their own movie without spreading the disease to others.
Public authorities should spend their time, effort and resources driving up the vaccination rates across the country, not rifling through the pockets of arriving tourists for spare change.