Navigating COVID-19 in Uganda

By Asiimwe Benita

In 2020, I was a young lady who had just started formal employment in a bank in Kampala, Uganda. I was a loan officer tasked with evaluating, processing and disbursing loans to clients in addition to ensuring that they settle their monthly loan obligations on time. I was proud of my ability to provide for myself and my family. I was able to make ends meet with the salary from my workplace. Alas, COVID-19 hit Kampala in March, 2020. It was a nail-biting situation as panic and desperation turned into the unimaginable. My workplace adopted Standard Operating Procedures that were to be strictly followed, like social distancing, use of sanitizer, and wearing masks. Adapting to this kind of working environment was tough. It was not long before Yoweri Museveni, the President of Uganda, also put in place stringent measures to prevent the rapid spread of the virus, which had escalated in most of the countries around the world. Mass gatherings were suspended, arriving passengers at the airport were quarantined, public transport was shut down, land borders were closed (except for cargo trucks), a curfew was imposed from 07:00 pm to 06:30 am, and subsequently schools were closed. It was hard to adapt to this new lifestyle.

Kampala, which was once a bustling and vibrant city, had now become a ghost town. The streets that were once filled with honking cars and busy roadside markets were now empty, except for the occasional healthcare workers and police officers, who had to continue diligently in the execution of their duties. The COVID-19 pandemic hit Uganda very hard and its impact on the lives of Ugandans was significant, particularly for those working in the city.

As cases kept surging, the head of state declared a nationwide lockdown. The country was not prepared for this kind of health emergency. The health facilities could not accommodate the multitudes of patients who contracted the virus.

With lockdown, I could no longer go to the office. The transition from working at the office to working from home was not an easy one for me. I struggled to remain focused, and I found it extremely hard to separate my work life from my home life. My young cousin was staying with me and my boyfriend. We paid for my cousin’s school. My partner is a business man and could not open his grocery store. We were staying in a two-room house, and it was awkward sharing this space, the three of us for over twenty hours each day! The lines between home and work blurred, and I found myself working longer hours than normal. I also had to get used to online Zoom meetings, a thing that I had never experienced, together with online collaborations that would later become the norm. At this stage of my career, I had worked my way up from being a customer service representative to becoming a loan officer. I suddenly needed a whole new skill set.

At the same time, things began to change for my clients. Many got in worse financial trouble and could not guarantee having a consistent cash flow. As a result of that, most of my clients who had loan obligations became defaulters. They failed to pay back the money they had borrowed from the bank. This went on for some time, and my clients portfolio was really bad and deteriorating with each day that went by. In November, 2020, I was called into a meeting with my supervisor and the human resources manager and I was informed that they were reducing the headcount in my department. I was one of the eight people that had not made the cut to retain my job. I had been laid off! I was devastated. I literally froze and my feet and hands went numb. Thoughts about what next?, how?, why? crowded in my mind. I didn’t know what to do. Losing my job meant losing my financial security and the ability to support myself and my family. I struggled to pay my rent and bills and, over time, I was also unable to afford basic necessities like food and medicine.

I spent months looking for work, but with so many businesses still closed or struggling, it became a tug of war. I tried to start my own small business, selling handmade crafts using some money I had borrowed from a friend. I had to make these myself, and at the start I made bracelets, necklaces, leg ornaments and bags. I named the business Benny’s Collections. However, this did not generate enough income to support my family. Despite the fact that I was financially struggling and I felt like giving up all the time, I kept on pushing and searching for jobs.

With time the lockdown and restrictions were lifted and my small business started to make profits and experience steady growth. I continued to work hard and my customer base grew exponentially. In 2022 I was able to hire a few employees to help me out, as we were now making products bags and bracelets in larger numbers. Most of my new hires had also been laid off from previous workplaces as a result of the pandemic. With the business stable, I could now look for a job in my old field of banking, to supplement this source of income. Luckily a new bank opened up in Kampala and it was looking for someone with expertise in credit services. I applied for the role and was offered the job.

I was overjoyed to have a steady income once again, and I was delighted that I’d also started my own business. I have continued to run my business on the side and even expanded it by opening up a physical store in Mpelerwe, which is a busy trading centre on the outskirts of Kampala. My customers are mostly university students and neighbors. I currently supervise, but I’m physically present at the store on the weekends so that others can have a day off.

Looking back, I realize that the pandemic taught me a number of valuable lessons. Most of them still resound in my mind. I learned the importance of being adaptable and resilient during tough times, in addition to appreciating the small things in life that usually mean a lot—like spending time with my family. The pandemic was a difficult time for me, but I managed to get through it and I rose to the occasion, keeping my chin held high. I was able to make it through the pandemic, and I came out stronger and more focused than before, with an even better income.

5 April, 2023