At Rwenshama point of entry on the shores of Lake Edward in Rukungiri district, western Uganda, it’s a warm windy day and the place is bustling with activity regardless of the increasing COVID-19 numbers in Uganda.
At one end, many sailors in groups of over eight are standing by their boats and preparing their nets for the day’s catch. On the other side, others are preparing to set off into the lake while in a permanent shelter, another group has displayed their catch for the day for all to see and buy the fish of their choice.
Waterbucks are seen sunbathing in a distance. The air is filled with the smell of fish and there are lots of people, very few are putting on a face mask and all people are very close to one another. Those putting on facemasks do not have their noses covered.
As the World Health Organization (WHO) team is introduced to the LCII chairperson for the landing site Mr. Kenneth Niwagaba, we ask him what the people here think about COVID-19 and how they are protecting themselves.
“People here think they are not at risk of COVID-19. At least they fear Ebola, but this one I see nothing. The perception is that Ebola is a more dangerous disease than coronavirus” he explained.
There is a screening area nearby where two health workers are measuring people’s temperature and there is also a handwashing station with soap and water. However, people’s interests are centered on fishing activities and most of these do not stop by to have their temperatures taken or to wash their hands.
Experts take turns explaining to about 500 fishermen issues about COVID-19 focusing on hand hygiene, social distancing measures, and the importance of face masks. They explained the MoH guidelines and the Presidential directives aimed at controlling the disease. Questions are asked, appropriate answers given and IEC materials shared out.
“I have always seen your team come to the lakeshores and meeting the screeners. However, I always wished that you also talk to our sailors and soldiers” pleaded the local Army Reserve Commander of Rwesama Landing site after experts had introduced themselves to him.
We learned from him that in the lake, sailors from Uganda interact with others from the DRC and there are no precautions to reduce the chances of infection with EVD/COVID-19.
“Fishermen from the Ugandan side physically interact with their counterparts from DR Congo while in the waters and when they land with their catch, no one observes the ‘tonsemberera’ (social distancing) guidelines as they all jostle for the fish” reported the reserve commander.
The WHO field team grants the field commander’s request and together with his men they were given a quick orientation on COVID-19.
They are more interested in personal protection and signs and symptoms of the disease. The health staff managing the Point of Entry are also taken through the Infection Prevention and Control Standard
Operating Procedures regarding hand washing, temperature taking, and how to identify the signs and symptoms when screening people for COVID 19.
Patrolling the Lake Edward is not an easy job for the fisheries marine officers and men in these COVID-19 times.
The Commanding Officer (CO) and his team agree that the challenge for them is conducting the patrols which start at 2:00 am under the cover of darkness up to 07:00 am in a community that has little regard for COVID-19.
There are other army facilities in this sub-region and the WHO team together with the district health authorities with clearance from the senior army office accessed them and delivered COVID-19 information and messages. All soldiers were eager to learn and they did it in a highly organized and professional manner.
However, the commanding officer had another request. He wanted the WHO team to follow up on the training with a community awareness drive at the landing site. This was immediately organized and a truck with mounted loudspeakers was mobilized and it went around the community disseminating COVID-19 information.
“Not only have my officers benefitted from the training but I have also gained a lot of knowledge on corona, which I will follow to protect myself” declared the commanding officer with satisfaction. He pledged more vigilance in enforcing the MoH COVID-19 prevention and control guidelines.
“The response from the army and community has been positive and the increase in understanding coronavirus disease in the community can be seen in the changed behaviors and practices,” said Mr. Emmanuel Baryomunsi the Rwenshama Community Mobilizer.
Overall, the WHO-supported intervention managed to reach over 150 army officers and men, 300 fishermen, community leaders, and community members. Hundreds of Information Education Communication (IEC) materials were also distributed to facilitate behavioral change and adherence to COVID-19 prevention and control guidelines.
Fishermen insisted they think Ebola is more dangerous than coronavirus and one of the claimed the pandemic is overrated.
Meanwhile, the officers and men in this army unit have since become trainers and are cascading the training in the surrounding community and other army units.
There is currently a heightened alert level and increased risk perception among the fishing population and screening is rigorously done at the point of entry.