The recently concluded national elections in Uganda presented a fundamental public health challenge that will go down in history: how to prevent the spread of a highly infectious disease in a low-resource environment during an event that, for example its very nature, is said to bring together thousands of people.
This is an issue that public health experts have spent days and nights finding the right advice on. The World Health Organization (WHO) was consulted for advice, but unfortunately there was no precedent in Uganda. A national election during a raging epidemic was something new. Yet national authorities had no choice as elections are sacred and sanctified constitutional issues that must be respected.
Fortunately, scientifically proven COVID-19 prevention and control measures were well known and could be easily implemented or observed by most people at little or no cost. It is these measures that the WHO has insisted on to all those who have asked the organization for advice on this matter.
“Our advice is simple and clear. All people should always wear masks, they should wash their hands regularly with soap and water, they should keep a physical distance of at least two meters, and people with signs and symptoms should stay away. home and see a doctor immediately ”, Dr Yonas Tegegn Woldemariam, WHO Representative in Uganda summed it up succinctly.
Indeed, the message was as clear and straightforward as possible, the only remaining hurdle being how to communicate it deeply and widely across the country and for people to comply with it.
Time counted; resources were limited and yet the countryside was reaching a crescendo. For public health officials, increased political activity was the perfect recipe for a COVID-19 time bomb. The country was already in the fourth phase of the epidemic characterized by sustained community transmission. Anxiety abounded.
The United Nations country team in Uganda urgently mobilized funds for a media and community engagement campaign. WHO was tasked with planning and rapidly executing a minimal campaign targeting security during the election period using the funds raised.
After consultations and contributions from the Ministry of Health, the National Electoral Commission and several stakeholders, the minor campaign was operational in mid-January 2021, a few weeks before the election date.
A variety of information, communication and education materials were produced and distributed in over 86 districts, while others were covered by other partners working with the Ministry of Health. Public service announcements are broadcast at regular intervals on various FM radio and television stations across the country. Other interventions included direct interaction with Election Commission field officers, aspiring politicians, and some members of the public.
In the West Nile subregion, for example, the WHO field team ensured that COVID-19 standard operating procedures (SOPs) reached everyone who mattered in the planning and conduct of elections. Indeed, the team, in collaboration with the district health teams, succeeded in involving and orienting the various supervisors of the sub-counties of the electoral commissions, the returning officers and the polling assistants to ensure the respect of the SoPs. COVID-19.
“My constructive engagement with the WHO team in Arua began in September 2020, when they visited the offices of the electoral commission and focused on measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 before ” undertake major electoral activities such as candidate nomination, campaigns and polling days. », Says Mr. Shesa Juma Adam, returning officer of the city of Arua.
The pledges also allowed Election Commission officials to gain more knowledge about COVID-19 and how to mitigate the risks of virus transmission during the election period. It is no wonder then that in most polling stations across the country there are hand washing facilities, most voters wore masks and attempts at physical distancing were made.
“WHO provided the offices of the Election Commission with an assortment of essential supplies for use on election day. These included hand sanitizers, disposable masks, leaflets and informative banners that at least helped us control COVID-19 during the election, ”Mr. Shesa Juma Adam said.
According to Mr. Idringi Dieudonné, the health educator of the Koboko district, all the staff and observers of the electoral commission adhered to the COVID-19 SoPs of the polling stations he visited.
One of the notable aspects stemming from the engagement has been the impressive incorporation of COVID-19 messages into campaign speeches by many aspiring political leaders across the political divide. It was no accident that the WHO and the Ministry of Health had specially developed talking points on COVID-19 which they distributed to all politicians through the field offices of the Election Commission and district administrators.
Overall, WHO teams have worked with Election Commission staff, the Ministry of Health, district health authorities and politicians across the country to protect health and mitigate the transmission of COVID- 19 during the election period. Several weeks after the election, COVID-19 infections did not increase as feared in part thanks to these interventions.
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