After Covid-19, Ebola lockdowns drive Uganda's workers into debt

The deadly virus has infected 142 people and killed at least 55 since the country declared an outbreak in September



Photos: Reuters
Photos: Reuters

By Reuters

Published: Mon 26 Dec 2022, 8:00 AM

Uganda motorbike taxi driver Charles Ssebale fears his vehicle could be repossessed at any moment, having failed to keep up with his loan repayments after the East African nation imposed a two-month lockdown to contain a deadly outbreak of Ebola.

The 41-year-old father of seven saw his usual daily earnings — about 40,000 Ugandan shillings ($11) — drop by about 75 per cent during the lockdown, which ended on December 17.

Ssebale said that his creditor — an entrepreneur in his community who sells motorbikes — has been incessantly calling him, demanding the arrears. The debt is worth about $870, he said.

"I will resume working hard and pay [the loan]," he told Context by phone from Kassanda district, which is located 117 km southeast of the Ugandan capital, Kampala.

"The people who gave me the motorcycle assured me they will not take it back, despite continuing to remind me to pay in the lockdown times," Ssebale added.

Many informal workers have ended up in debt, campaigners said, since Uganda (on October 15) imposed an overnight curfew, closed places of worship and entertainment, and restricted movement into and out of two districts — Kassanda and Mubende.

The measures were aimed at curbing the spread of the deadly Ebola virus, which has infected 142 people and killed at least 55 since the country declared the outbreak in September.

Allana Kembabazi — program manager at the NGO Initiative for Social and Economic Rights — said that the restrictions were yet another blow for informal workers who had just been recovering from coronavirus lockdowns and struggling with rising inflation.

"You can't impose a lockdown without having thought through how you're going to feed them; how you're going to provide support to informal sector workers," said Kembabazi.

"The government has done a very poor job of having data to know who the informal sector are, who are those that [are] just going to be most constrained," she said.

"We hope the government steps up soon and recognises the predicament of these people."

However, state communication minister Godfrey Kabbyanga told Context that the government had distributed food rations in the Ebola-hit districts, and highlighted that it was also dealing with food insecurity in other parts of the country.

"It was not only Ebola-affected communities that needed relief. We distributed what we had as government," he said.

Informal sector challenges

Although there is no official data on the informal sector, some studies suggest that workers such as motorbike taxi drivers, market traders, manual labourers and domestic helpers account for more than 75 per cent of Uganda's total workforce.

Much of this work is insecure, poorly-paid and often unsafe, according to campaigners, with workers usually earning below minimum wage, not receiving sick leave or paid holidays, and being vulnerable to exploitation from employers and authorities.

Worldwide, the Covid-19 pandemic hit informal workers the hardest — and one in two people in low-income countries saw their earnings drop, US-based polling company Gallup found.

In Uganda, where more than 40 per cent of the country's 45 million people live in extreme poverty (on less than $2.15 a day) according to the World Bank, pandemic-related restrictions were longer and stricter than in many of its neighbouring countries.

Schools and many businesses were closed for two years, inter-district travel and open markets were banned, and bars, nightclubs and other entertainment activities were shut down, leaving many Ugandans unable to earn an income.

A study by Uganda's finance ministry published this month found that less than 5 per cent of informal businesses received any form of financial support from the government during the pandemic.

"This could be attributed to the fact that a large proportion of government support during the crisis mainly targeted formal business," the study said.

'I am suffering'

Social equality campaigners said that the government should learn lessons from the impact of the Covid-19 and Ebola restrictions and boost support to workers outside of the formal economy.

Measures could include placing a moratorium on the repossession of vehicles used for taxi services, or providing interest-free loans to informal businesses, they said.

Informal workers interviewed by Context said that the Ebola restrictions had left them unable to afford food for their families, cover children's school fees, or meet loan repayments.

Namande Agnes, 25, a food seller in Mubende district, situated 135km from Kampala, said that she had borrowed 450,000 shillings ($123) to invest in her roadside stall, but had fallen behind with her repayments after the Ebola restrictions were imposed.

"I am suffering ... the bank will come and take my land," said Agnes, who sells local fast food such as roast chicken, plantain and chips.

"The one thing [the] government should do is talk to banks on our behalf," she added.

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