Writer: Simon Peter Asiimwe

Uganda has in less than a week registered two COVID-19 deaths since the first case was reported in the country on 17th March 2019. The unfortunate deaths were of a 34-year-old woman who died at Joy Hospice Center in Mbale City and an 80-year-old female resident of Mengo, Kisenyi III in Kampala who became the second person causality of COVID-19 in Uganda.

The spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is the most serious global health security threat in decades with more than 16,500,000 cases of COVID-19 have been reported to World Health Organization, and more than 655,000 people have lost their lives.

As the pandemic continues to cause havoc across the globe, we are faced with travel bans, and the increasing need to operate remotely. The most critical need at the moment is a robust behavior change communication on personal and respiratory hygiene, proper handwashing, social distancing.

The government and the civil society should invest more resources in getting vital preventative messages to the remotest and most marginalized communities as there are reported cases of laxity.

According to Director General Health Services, Dr. Henry Mwebesa, the patient who died in Mbale presented with COVID-19 like signs and symptoms – fever, dry cough, headache, and difficulty in breathing.

It was also reported that the deceased was initially admitted to Wasungui HC II on 15th July 2020 and treated for severe pneumonia and on 20th July 2020, she was transferred to Joy Hospice health facility, in Mbale District, where she was isolated in the female ward.

With various messages being channeled out to the public, it appears that there is lack of clarity of messages and speed. It is strange that a patient that had presented COVID-19 like symptoms was not immediately suspected by both the community members and the medical personnel. With the

The Ministry of Health should endeavor to respond quickly and provide accurate messaging, otherwise, we are at risk of not taking the time to understand the context and ensure the message is clear to the audience and from a trusted source.

Most of the COVID-19 awareness messages have been through digital media. According to the 2016 UDHS report, radio is the dominant medium of information for both women and men across Uganda: 59% of women and 70% of men listen to the radio at least once a week. This literally means that the messages are not reaching all the target audiences across the country and for those that have managed to access the information have with time developed laxity in complying with the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs).

The Ministry of Health deserves credit for putting up some measures to respond to the pandemic, such as by forming the National and District Task Forces which leverages the collective might of experts, multiple partners, and agencies, towards support that is robust and comprehensive. The National Task Force response comprises two very important streams –clinical and public health measures – in which community engagement and awareness-raising play a huge role.

The government should actively prioritize social and behavior change communications and interventions as a way of modifying deep-seated behaviors that will, in turn, save lives of Ugandans. 

Community engagement and awareness-raising activities should be intensified with support of Village Health Teams (VHTs) as well as health-care workers to adequately explain to the masses what COVID-19 is, how it is transmitted, and, more importantly, how community members can protect themselves.

The ministry should also bring on board trusted community influencers such as teachers, religious leaders, cultural leaders to help in interpersonal communication and in the distribution of communication materials translated in local languages across the country. These efforts supplement the airing of the redesigned public service announcements as well as prevention and protective messages on various media platforms. In order for the COVID-19 awareness campaign to succeed, there is need for all Ugandans to firmly own it, support it, and ensure that all set guidelines and regulations are followed to the latter.

Leah Grace Oketcho, is a highly talented Communication specialist, gifted in leadership with over 3 years of leadership and management experience at different levels. She is a team player and has demonstrated ability in mobilizing and organizing others to achieve desired goals. Oketcho is well vast in the art of creating alternatives for ways to get results. She has over the years grown in the art of corporate communications and also participated in the development of performance management materials for various professional institutions. Leah received training in research, scripting, international relations, and data analysis as well as public relations. She is passionate about solving public health related problems. She has offered training to youth in oral and written communication, people management and mentoring, editing and documentation skills, public speaking.

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