Responding to COVID-19 in Uganda
The Uganda Human Rights Commission (UHRC) issued advisories on a range of human rights matters in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, including:
- the right to education
- rights considerations in the upcoming elections
- the rights of staff and inmates in places of detention
- the right to health
The effects of the pandemic are wide-ranging, covering every aspect of people’s lives. UHRC has identified key concerns within these human rights areas and made recommendations for government action to urgently address the critical issues.
In March 2020, the total closure of schools, universities and colleges was ordered across Uganda to contain the spread of COVID-19, affecting more than 15 million students. The closure has shed a light on socio-economic issues including student debt, food insecurity and homelessness, as well as access to childcare, health care, housing, internet and disability services.
The UHRC highlights that while children are not considered most at-risk of contracting COVID-19, they are among the worst affected by the secondary social and economic consequences. Educational institutions normally play a vital role in child protection and their extended closure risks increasing many forms of exploitation and abuse.
The upcoming 2021 elections in Uganda will be held in a hybrid digital format. This decision was taken to uphold a key component of democracy, and at the same time, ensure peace, security and the effective protection of life amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. This balance of rights issues in a highly charged context affects all people involved with the electoral process, including voters, candidates, observers and officials.
Radio, television and digital platforms, are essential tools not only for electoral campaigning, but also for the dissemination of crucial procedural information. In its recommendations to government, the UHRC highlights the importance of increasing access to media and using it as a tool for voter education. Many Ugandans with lower socio-economic status and in rural areas have limited access to public radio and internet service. These networks must be improved and expanded to support participation in marginalised groups.
The UHRC has also made recommendations about the limited in-person polling stations, which must have processes in place to support participation among disabled people, pregnant women and others with additional needs, while adhering to current health guidelines. Providing information in accessible formats is again, vital, to support the right to public life among these groups.
The pandemic has posed an unprecedented challenge to healthcare systems worldwide. The human rights framework provides a structure that strengthens the effectiveness of measures taken and ensures that all people’s rights are respected in the healthcare setting.
A key aspect of the right to health is that health services, goods and facilities must be provided without any discrimination. The UHCR notes that this means that any health related information must be provided in accessible formats to ensure that disabled people and ethnic minority groups are informed on the rapidly changing situation. Public health facilities must also be physically and financially accessible, so that all sections of society can safely and easily seek medical care.
As of 28 August 2020, the prison population in Uganda was 61,770 people housed across 259 prison facilities. The UHCR highlights the particular risk that COVID-19 poses in confined populations, particularly where overcrowding means that physical distancing is not possible. Inmates also have generally poorer health than the majority of the population so are at-risk of contracting severe cases of COVID-19.
The UHCR has made recommendations that protect not only the inmates, but staff who work in these facilities. These include measures to reduce prison populations through non-custodial measures and early release pathways for some inmates, as well as mental health considerations and improving access to healthcare and nutrition.