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Updated Mar 26, 2020

In a public address delivered on Saturday, March 21, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni ordered a 30-day closure of all border entry and exit points in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19. Total confirmed cases in Uganda have reached fourteen now. All passenger flights into Uganda are banned, save for emergencies. Exceptions have also been made for cargo planes and UN planes involved in emergency and relief work.

Several other African countries have instituted similar measures. Yet Uganda has also taken the step of closing down its refugee transit and reception centers as well. Uganda has maintained a relatively open refugee policy for years, hosting 1.4 million displaced people, most of whom fled conflict from neighboring South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. President Museveni’s decision on this matter treads a fine line between retaining a commitment to protect refugees and mitigate COVID-19 infections and deaths. Many of the refugee camps are already overcrowded and lack sufficient numbers of intensive care units and ventilators.


Why It Matters

Uganda’s radical measures reflect the difficult decisions national governments must make in terms of protecting life: do they prioritize their citizens, or strive to address the needs of refugees as well? In most situations, refugees end up on the losing end of these questions, as few politicians are willing to risk their careers defending people who are not their constituents. This also means that refugees can become scapegoats for government failings when managing crises like a viral pandemic. Uganda’s decision makes practical sense, as healthcare systems the world over struggle to provide enough equipment to diagnose and treat infected patients, so allowing more potential carriers into the country is a risk that would most likely exacerbate the situation. Nonetheless, Uganda should take steps to collaborate with its regional partners to support refugees in order to prevent COVID-19 from taking hold in such a vulnerable population, while also ensuring they do not become the victim of crisis-induced panic.

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