At this time last year, Kampala city was bathed in the freshest, purest, cleanest air that only a few of us ageing citizens could remotely relate with from decades back.
The sky was an impossibly rich blue while the ground was also unbelievably green. You could smell the plants and flowers. The Garden of Eden must have felt like this, minus the snake and the naked couple, of course.
That was the first lockdown instituted by the Uganda government due to the coronavirus pandemic. Then, there was no movement of vehicles except those in essential services like ambulances and police cars.
Goods trucks on international routes were also allowed — this small country has borders with five other countries — but their drivers were being subjected to strictest medical examinations you can even encounter, and then closely monitored until exiting the country.
The vehicle restriction was real and there were no engine exhausts in the air. It was like living on a remote island bathed with fresh water waves, with everything natural and no pollutants.
Though the new coronavirus wave over the country today is far more dangerous than that of last year, because of the deadlier corona variants and the fact that the spread of the infection is now at community level, the second lockdown is far more permissive than last year’s.
Even though the Covid-19 deaths are more frequent, and now everybody seems to have lost a friend, relative or at least an acquaintance, cooperation and compliance by the public is much less than last year’s. As the people of Kampala say these days, their “hearts are hardened”.
While the government time issued a new measure — the inter-district movement restriction — the three districts that comprise Greater Kampala metropolis are exempted within themselves.
The three are Wakiso, Mukono and Kampala City. Nearly a quarter of the country’s population lives in the three districts, where also three quarters of the country’s cars are found.
These cars kick up the dust of our unpaved roads and pump tonnes of poisonous engine exhausts in the air every day. Although non-essential workers were told to stay home, their cars could even be logging more kilometres per day because the owners are redundant and are not tied down to their work stations, so they are busy driving round and dodging police checkpoints as they crisscross the three districts.
Fuel dealers are grinning all the way to the bank because, a month before the budget, it was announced that instead of reviving road licences, Ush100 ($0.03) would be added per litre of any fuel type sold.
The fuel dealers quickly added Ush200 ($0.06) instead so that by the time the budget was read, they were already billions richer, and continue raking in the billions for no added value to the consumer or the government.
The poisoning of the Greater Kampala residents is now even worse because there is no restriction on trucks and pickups as these are presumed to be carrying goods and are allowed one driver plus one passenger.
The immediate result of that announcement saw the oldest pickups almost dominate the main roads. Whoever had an abandoned old pickup dug it out and put it on the road. The black smoke they spew out all over the place is visible even to the visually impaired. Uganda is one place where no traffic officers has challenged any driver over pollution in recent memory.
Of course many of pickup trucks being followed by a black snake of smoke a mile long are not carrying any cargo. They are just carrying somebody and his friend to roam about undisturbed with their hardened hearts. For if you don’t want police to disturb you, just kick some life into that old pickup you abandoned a year back and hit the roads as it coughs and jerks forward.
You are not breaking the directive not to drive a private non-pickup car. The private saloon cars are on all the roads except the main ones where police mount checkpoints.
So this year we have lost out on this lockdown. It is not like last year when at least we registered a gain in respiratory health. For polluted air, which kills 40,000 Ugandans a year, had been put away for several months. Now it is back, thanks to the old trucks and pickups which are considered clean and innocent in the coronavirus transmission equation.
The motorbike boda bodas are allowed to ferry goods — which don’t have to exist — claim to be responding a call to pick a consignment. The bikes were also allowed to carry sick people. So one just needs to look sick and start crisscrossing the metropolis.
Pregnant women are said to be on demand to accompany you for a fee as you ride anywhere on your errands. So even the tiny, unborn hearts in the womb are being hardened.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]