Month: April 2020

No Winners

By Greg

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Imagine you are a bus driver. You work decent hours, make a decent living. It’s enough, anyway, to feed and support your family, who relies on your income.

Now imagine Covid-19 arrives. The government announces the closure of all non-essential workplaces. All modes of public transportation are banned until further notice. All of a sudden, you are told you are not allowed to work. You return home to your family, not having enough money to provide any meals for who knows how long.

Obviously, you need to figure out a way to acquire some money. Maybe you dip into your savings. Maybe you turn to your spouse, who didn’t lose their job. Maybe you just need to live frugally for a while. Or maybe you need to apply to a government social benefit program designed to help people like you get through the crisis.

But imagine you live in Uganda. Imagine your government does not have the resources or the capacity to implement a social benefit program that helps every person like you. Maybe you adhere to the cultural norm of relying on one income, yours, while your spouse looks after your family. Perhaps that family consists of 8 members, which while might be a little above average is certainly not uncommon in your district. Maybe you make just enough to frugally pay the bills during normal times. And as a result, maybe you don’t have savings.

What do you do?

For hundreds and maybe thousands of bus drivers here, this scenario was a reality. So, what did they do?

Well, it’s not as if the demand decreased. Everybody still wanted to go to work because they needed their income in order to survive. In the first few days of the bus ban, bus drivers began using private cars as modified buses. It was comical watching 10 people climb out of sedans all at once, but it worked at first. It was the only way to make money.

This was obviously a dangerous measure that had the potential to spread the virus. However, it wasn’t definitively against the rules, and so it was done. In response, a new rule was almost immediately put in place restricting the maximum number of people in a vehicle at one time to 3.

You can probably guess what happened next. The weeks following saw the situation evolve into a back-and-forth of loopholes, law-bending, and increasingly stricter regulations. Drivers’ strategies constantly adapted, from lying on the floors of vans to packing people on motorcycles, and more. Roadblocks and checkpoints started showing up everywhere. Drivers were threatened with arrest, all while covid continued to become more rampant. This all eventually led to the banishment of all non-essential vehicles, leaving many families without stable sources of income.

So, who is to blame?

You can’t blame the government. They were doing what was required to stop the spread of a deadly virus. If they hadn’t eventually banned all vehicles, it’s likely there would be a lot more cases in Uganda right now. Yes, one might argue that it is their duty to protect their people with social welfare programs, and they have tried, but not all governments in the world have the resources or capacity to implement that sort of thing in a way that helps every single person in need. Especially not in developing countries.

You also can’t blame the bus drivers. They will do whatever it takes to keep their families alive and healthy, as they should. They require earnings to put food on the family table. Is it irresponsible of them to have so many people rely on a single income? How could it be, when family sizes and dynamics are cultural norms passed down for hundreds of years.

This pandemic is affecting people in ways you wouldn’t think of in Uganda. What is happening with the bus drivers is just an example, but this type of thing is happening within industries all over. Governments are forced to implement extreme measures to stop the spread. Citizens are then forced to bend or break the law to stay alive. This causes governments to become stricter and begin an endless cycle in which there are no winners.

The point is, in situations this complex there is no clear party at fault. Neither side is one you can easily point to and assign blame. This story demonstrates that sometimes there is no easy solution, especially in difficult times. There has been no clean resolve, no concise closure. There is no clear path out of this. The best way outsiders can help at this point is by sharing observations and the lessons they teach us in hopes of encouraging the fostering of a globalized community built on the fundamental understanding of each other’s struggles. That is the reality of the situation. There is nothing else anyone can do.

 

P.S. You may be wondering what the bus drivers are doing now. The truth is we really do not know. We no longer see any vehicles on the road other than government vehicles. The good news is the number of covid-19 cases in Uganda has stayed very low, reaching 74 this week. However, we have not seen any bus drivers in weeks. We hope and assume they have adapted to the situation and found other ways to support their families.

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