Tuesday 24th March 2020. Kampala, Uganda.
Given yesterday’s traffic flow, I allowed myself the luxury of an extra hour of sleep. Waking up at what would usually have been too late about 6:40ish. A bit skeptical about finding taxis as I had done yesterday, I kept my fingers crossed. There was not much work to do anyway besides, rumors were already circulating of closing office. I was lucky or so I thought for there were actually more taxis than yesterday. Next to them, a new installation consisting of a 100-liter plastic drum, which seemed gigantic compared to previous ones I had seen, on a metallic stand re-purposed to serve as a water dispenser. Making its debut, a piece of white washing soap. Seems disinfecting the water was no longer enough.
To go along with all this was the usual “enforcer”. Tough and strict, he manned his post as a sniper on the lookout. No one got into the taxi except through him. The enforcer’s role was to ensure each passenger washed their hands or appeared to do so as was the case with most passengers. This he did committedly throwing in some sarcastic remarks about the entire process. I think sarcasm is one of the requirements for being an enforcer.
An enforcer I had encountered at a different stage the previous day had made a comment which had been funny then but now was starting to get to me. After one lady had expressed her reservation towards the disinfectant used saying she was sure they were using tick spray he had replied “Now you are washing just hands but two days from now you will be showering the entire body”. The entire taxi had burst into laughter including the lady in subject. Now, just a day later the drums were bigger, the enforcers stricter and the soap available. Are you thinking what am thinking?
Anyway, back to this morning. So I eventually get into the taxi and go about setting my playlist for the ride. Just then I notice a stocky man standing right by the entrance. He was on phone and from his replies he seemed to be directing or was being directed by someone. A few minutes later he announced to the nearly full taxi,” Plans have changed”.
He spoke in crisp english and his face being unfamiliar I figured he was just another passenger. Confused as to whether he was addressing us or someone in particular I looked at him waiting for his next words. But before he could say anything else there was an outburst from the taxi. Forget the playlist, the chorus of heated words edged on expletives made me thrust the phone into the bag as I tried to get a hang of the situation. Turns out “Stocky” was our driver and the changed plans were concerning the just issued directive on transport. As of this morning, taxis were to carry nine people including the driver and conductor.
For those who are not familiar with taxis in Uganda, a taxi basically is a van that is configured into a passenger vehicle. Standard taxis have five rows of three seats each. On average a taxi will carry 16 to 17 people the number reaching 20 in some areas were taxis are rare. The reduced number of passengers would have been welcome if our dear driver did try to pass on his loss in revenue to the passengers. By doubling the fare! One by one they exited the taxi as some of us continued to weigh our options.
I saw people turn back and go home! As I calculated the opportunity cost of skipping work it finally got to me. I had not the virus but I was already suffering its effects. As of Monday we were at 9 confirmed cases and with a looming lockdown in sight. An almost paralyzed public transport made movement become increasingly strained for us without private vehicles. Increased transport fares coupled with reduced supply of public transport were starting to taking their toll. I started to panic because I had not stocked food yet it seemed more certain now that public transport was about to be banned.
The thought of my starving brother and I should the lockdown occur had me forget my budget and brave the journey to the city center. I planned to go to a supermarket for the shops within proximity were charging outrageous prices. For the second day in a row, morning rush hour traffic appeared to be a myth. The taxi sailed smoothly and in about 40 minutes I was at the supermarket.
Across the road I could see the security guys armed with their spray bottles of disinfectant and thermometer guns. I Swear I could feel my temperature rise up 10 degrees. I thought of cooling my forehead with a wipe just in case but I was in their view and just decided to not to take a chance. As I crossed the road I must have felt my neck and forehead like a hundred times. My pulse accelerated and breathing increased, I finally reached the gate after what seemed like an eternity. All the while I waited my turn to be screened, scenes of what could ensue should my temperature not measure up plagued me.
I almost turned and left but the fact that their sugar was still at normal price made me think otherwise. Turns out I was in luck. The sugar had been emptied out from the shelves but I found the staff stacking up new packs. As for the rice, I was not as fortunate and had to buy a type priced similar to that in retail shops around home. I consoled myself with the knowledge that its price was due to its quality and not due to exploitation as was the case in the retail shops. At the spaghetti and noodles shelves, a distinct gap could be seen starting to form which was not the case before. I grabbed a few packs of each, still at their normal price and exited the supermarket. From the supermarket I headed to work on a safe boda. I could not risk ordinary bodas for I was sure I could not get one cheaper than a safe boda.
Work forgotten, the office was alive with stories and jokes about the virus and its different effects. Theories on its spread and the current situation in the country were put forward. The room was a flurry of conversation punctuated with somber silences during which I believe all seriously thought about the unfolding events and what it meant for us. The presidential update was due later that afternoon and we debated on what info would be communicated. The possibility of a lockdown was cited as highly likely and so the conversation shifted to working from home and on what to stock should it eventually come into effect.
Around the same time, word came through that we were all to cease work at 1pm and go to our homes. A “teleworking” arrangement would ensure some semblance of working continued but field activities and interactions with clients were banned till further notice. Being a wage earner, that meant I had been laid off since we could not work from home. I was not going to receive any pay for as long as the virus kept us from office. Sure enough, our supervisor confirmed that later on with the consolation of paying our past wages asap so they could help us through the lean months ahead.
The second time that day I felt the weight of the virus. As I pondered how I would go through the next months and how long this would last a shiver went through my body and I felt cold. It was finally happening and I had nothing to do about it but pray and brace myself.