As Uganda continues to fight tirelessly to control the spread of COVID-19, results from a field-based survey in Kampala’s informal settlements have indicated that citizens have abandoned hand hygiene, a key pillar in stopping the spread of a virus.
To beat the virus today and ensure better health outcomes beyond the pandemic, hand hygiene, especially through handwashing with soap have been emphasized as a top priority.
But results of a study titled: Adherence, Lived Experiences and Resilient Transformation among “slum dwellers” (ALERTs) in COVID-19: A study of Ki-Mombasa and Kabalagala-Kataba slums in Kampala present an urgent need to intervene in these communities in order to improve public hygiene practices such as handwashing, if the intended objectives are to be achieved.
Dr Gloria Seruwagi, a behavioural scientist at Makerere University School of Public Health has observed that some of the set standard operating procedures such as physical distancing, regular sanitizing and use of facemasks are less likely to be followed and implemented due to congestion in the settlements.
While presenting an overview of results from the study, Dr. Seruwagi said Ugandans had gone back to their old ways and abandoned best hygiene practices such as handwashing, which is critical in the fight against COVID -19.
“Residents say they can’t afford masks and those who have them say masks make breathing uncomfortable. Sanitizing is a luxury to most people in Bwaise and Kataba communities. While the practice of handwashing was feasible and adhered to at the beginning of March, it has drastically dropped by up to 92.6%.
Dr Seruwagi, who is also the Study Principal Investigator observed that residents of Ki-Mombasa and Kabalagala-Kataba still have a major infodemic challenge of misinformation surrounding COVID-19, also exacerbated by multiple power centres and enforcers who locals say give confusing messages and seemed to have an uncoordinated response strategy.
“The community told us that everyone seems to be a “little king” in enforcing COVID SOPs and guidelines – from the police to Division leaders, food distributors, VHTs and local village leaders. They were not working in harmony and were giving different, sometimes confusing, messages and instructions. This greatly contributed to confusion and partly resulted in community noncompliance” she said.
According to Hilda Namakula, ALERTs study Co-Investigator people living in informal settlements had vast knowledge of COVID-19 signs, symptoms and how it is spread.
For instance, in this study, up to 82% mentioned high fever as a symptom while 80.2% mentioned sore throat as a symptom. Meanwhile 80.8% knew that sneezing and coughing were symptoms and 78% mentioned body pain.
Despite this knowledge, Namakula contends that communities have multiple - and sometimes contradictory - sources of information which affect their adherence to the preventive measures.
“In Kampala, TV takes lead as the main information source at 78%, social media 14%. Other sources include radio, family members and neighbors. In addition to multiple information sources, multiple enforcement authorities in Ki-Mombasa and Kabalagala-Kataba have contributed to confusion on which information to follow.’’ said Ms. Namakula.
In a bid to establish reasons for non-compliance to COVID-19 SOPs such as physical distancing or staying home, researchers also found that livelihoods and the need to make a living were the most common explanatory factors.
“Other reasons for non-compliance include perceptions that COVID-19 is a political ploy, declining enforcement and multiple implementers with confusing messages and warring power centres. Moreover, in their power struggles, the different actors who were enforcing SOPs were themselves not adhering for example by wearing masks” Namakula added.
According to the study, communities reported lot of myths and misconceptions about COVID-19 as key drivers of high risk behaviour. For example; people living in Kampala’s informal settlements believe that taking alcohol reduces the risk of infection (16.8%); that sunbathing protects against COVID-19 (47.9%); and that Africans are immune by virtue of their skin Colour (46.5%).