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12 May 2020
BY Phillip Karugaba AND Sarah Nantume

COVID-19 in Uganda: never let a good crisis go to waste

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” – Rahm Emanuel

Uganda’s response to the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has been impressive given the results that have been achieved. With a relatively low number of confirmed cases and a very high recovery rate, Uganda’s performance is to be lauded, even though it may be early days yet.

Uganda has over a couple of decades weathered its fair share of disasters: from Ebola outbreaks, flooding in North and Eastern Uganda leading to a declaration of a state of emergency in 2007, drought in 2012, to landslides in Bududa. To this, one is tempted to add the current rising water levels in Lake Victoria and Lake Kyoga.

However, when one examines the organisational and administrative mechanisms being deployed in response to COVID-19, compared to the mechanisms prescribed by the law, then there is need for a dramatic rethink.

The COVID-19 crisis is with us. We should use this opportunity to do that which we should have done long before.


The Constitution provides for the establishment of a Disaster Preparedness and Management Commission to deal with both natural and man-made disasters. However, this has never been implemented since its enactment in 1995.

The Constitution also provides for a contingencies fund. This fund is intended to provide for expenditure in response to a natural disaster and is to be funded by annual appropriations from Parliament. Sadly, this fund was only operationalised in 2016 following the enactment of the Public Finance and Management Act, 2015. 


This policy anticipated a pandemic the proportions of COVID-19 and recommended the enactment of legislation ensuring enforcement of key provisions of the policy. Some of the key aspects to the proposed legal framework included the set-up of institutional structures and establishing memoranda of understanding with the private sector on arrangements for short notice and emergency use of their equipment and facilities.

The policy proposed a National Disaster Preparedness and Management Fund Bill in order to set up a fund for disaster preparedness and management in the country with a transparent mechanism of accessing resources. However, a decade later, nothing has been done.


The Ministry of Health has done an admirable job under the Public Health Act to handle the health aspects of the pandemic with support from the National Task Force and several committees. However, other essential aspects such as distribution of food and handling of emergency supplies have not run smoothly which has given rise to political contests and social unrest. The scramble by Members of Parliament to find a role is quite telling.

The Sendai Framework for DRR (2015-2030)

In line with the Sendai Framework, which provides member states with concrete actions to reduce the risk of disaster, Uganda has apparently put in place a National Platform for Disaster Risk Reduction, functional disaster management committees at district level, and a functional National Emergency Coordination and Operations Centre (NECOC). However these institutions if at all in place have not been very prominent in the COVID-19 fight.


South Africa

In South Africa, the Disaster Management Act, 2002 (“DMA”) follows a specific process with significant emphasis on the decentralisation of disaster risk management powers devolved to provincial and local government level. The DMA also establishes national, provincial and municipal disaster risk management centres. In keeping with the spirit of cooperative governance, a state of disaster can be declared at subnational level by either a province or a local municipality depending on the extent of the event or perceived event. The DMA also provides for the establishment of a unit of volunteers to assist or participate in exercises related to disaster management.

In response to the pandemic, President Cyril Ramaphosa declared a national state of disaster in South Africa under the DMA. In accordance with the DMA, the government has made regulations for the management of the nation in a state of disaster to provide for the release of resources and other preventative measures.


The National Disaster Management Organisation Act, 1996 established the National Disaster Management Organisation (NADMO) to manage disasters and similar emergencies. However, the government of Ghana has taken a different approach and dealt with the pandemic under the provisions of their Constitution. The Imposition of Restrictions Act was passed and the President used this law to issue several executive instruments detailing measures for containing the virus. The government has mobilised the state’s police and national security agencies to assist in monitoring and compliance.


Uganda has made considerable effort in managing its response to COVID-19.

However, we cannot continue to ignore a provision of the Constitution mandating the setting up of a Disaster Preparedness Commission. Neither can we continue to ignore policy that we adopted ourselves, or our international obligations under the Sendai Framework.

A good law on disaster preparedness would provide for:

  • proper contingency planning
  • clear roles and responsibilities of stake holders
  • risk reduction
  • ensuring sufficient resources are available and well managed
  • communication, public awareness and information management
  • regional cooperation and cross-border disaster risk management
  • training, education and research
  • establishing national standards for essential goods related to a disaster
  • post recovery planning
  • monitoring, evaluation and reporting
  • incentives and punitive measures

Members of Parliament recently appropriated to themselves UGX20-million each. They have been scrambling for a role to play in this fight. Well here is a suggestion.

Phillip Karugaba
Head of ENSafrica Advocates | Uganda
+256 772 785 332

Sarah Nantume
Intern | Uganda