Kampala, Uganda – In February, the Ugandan parliament introduced a bill proposing to fine anyone refusing to take COVID-19 vaccines four million Ugandan shillings ($1,100) or sentence them to jail for six months.
“When we introduce new vaccines, we need to get a mass of people so we create mass immunity,” health minister Jane Ruth Aceng told politicians, while presenting the bill to amend the existing public health law. “It is important that whoever is supposed to be vaccinated, is vaccinated.”
The bill was the latest in a series of controversial moves by Uganda, which has imposed some of the world’s most stringent control measures since the beginning of the pandemic.
In January, the East African country fully reopened its economy after almost two years of anti-coronavirus measures including restricting business operations, curfews and border closures.
It allowed 15 million pupils to return to schools that had been closed since March 2020 – the longest such closure worldwide – and also rescinded nighttime curfew restrictions which stopped boda-boda motorbike taxi drivers from working past 6pm.
In the days before the 2021 presidential elections, COVID-19 rules set by the government, restricted candidates’ interaction with voters. In November 2020, the main opposition candidate, Robert Kyagulanyi, the musician known as Bobi Wine, was arrested for campaigning in violation of the rules.
His arrest triggered protests across the country, leading to the detention of hundreds of his supporters and dozens of fatalities.
Analysts and civil liberties groups say the restrictions helped curtail the spread of the coronavirus but also destroyed the livelihoods of many Ugandans.
So far, Uganda has administered 16.6 million vaccine doses, according to the health ministry, but fewer than a third of the country’s 45 million people are fully inoculated.
Government of #Uganda has received a consignment of 2,944,800 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine donated by the Governments of;
a) Spain -1,951,200 doses
b) France – 950,000 doses and;
c) Norway 43,200 doses under the dose sharing arrangement through the COVAX Facility. pic.twitter.com/vvIuak7bAy
— Ministry of Health- Uganda (@MinofHealthUG) March 9, 2022
— Ministry of Health- Uganda (@MinofHealthUG) March 9, 2022
In March, Uganda also received more vaccines from European countries. These have increased the government’s desire to accelerate vaccinations but civil rights groups have warned that the amendment is tantamount to an infringement on fundamental human rights.
United in one accord
The proposal has united human rights defenders, politicians and vaccine sceptics in one accord against the administration of Yoweri Museveni, who has been in power since 1986.
Joel Ssenyonyi, legislator and spokesperson of leading opposition party, the National Unity Platform (NUP), told Al Jazeera that while access to health is a fundamental right, the public should not be forced to take vaccines.
“For example, before you’re taken to the theatre for any surgery, however life-saving it might be, you have to consent,” he said. “If you’re not in a position to consent, your next of kin has got to consent. Otherwise, the doctors don’t touch you because it is important that you give a green light. When it comes to vaccination, it’s the same thing.”
“I think our government has done very poorly in helping people to understand the need to vaccinate and also making vaccines available,” Ssenyonyi added.
Even Dr Misaki Wayengera, the chair of the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on COVID-19, has reservations about the proposed bill, saying while he could see the ministry’s point in not wanting unvaccinated people to burden the “ill-equipped” health system, the vaccines, while preventing severe disease, still did not prevent transmission.
“You know that people have the right to refuse treatment and these sorts of complexities will become a real challenge and problem when discussed from an ethical and social perspective rather than purely from the perspective of legislation,” Wayengera said.
Other public health experts urged the government to incentivise vaccine-sceptics to get vaccinated.
“If we can go house to house for polio when there are one or two cases, we should have seen the government distribute vaccines for COVID-19 house to house,” said Dr Freddie Ssengooba, a public health expert at Makerere University. “Those talking of vaccine hesitancy haven’t done research to understand hesitancy versus frustration and vaccine unavailability,” he said.
When Al Jazeera contacted the health ministry, its spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyoona, said the government had “not done any study on the barriers to vaccination”.
As the authorities began introducing mandates requiring vaccine cards, many anti-vaxxers were opting to buy fake cards, sold for as low as USh50,000 ($14).
The sternest rebuke for the authorities over the bill has come from Joseph Kabuleta, a man seen as the country’s most influential anti-vaxxer. The 49-year-old pastor, journalist and politician ran an unsuccessful presidential campaign as an independent candidate in the January 2021 general elections.
After election season, he began speaking out against COVID-19 vaccines, tagging American conservatives like Candace Owens and Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson in his tweets. His arguments revolve around conspiracy theories including that Europe and America are donating vaccines to Africa to make women infertile and men impotent.
‘The beginning of slavery’
The bill is to be reviewed by the parliament’s health committee before being sent to parliament for a vote and then to the president for assent.
If passed into law, Uganda would become only the second country in the world to introduce laws to fine vaccine sceptics. In January, Greece introduced a similar vaccine mandate for the elderly that comes with a 50-euro ($57) fine, which doubles to 100 euros in subsequent months. Austria, too, has been mulling a law to impose up to 3,600-euro ($4,000) quarterly fines on anti-vaxxers.
The proposed law is for citizens to “exercise a level of collective responsibility” because “you cannot have errant persons in the community trying to go against what science has guided,” said Charles Ayume, chair of the parliamentary health committee and member of Uganda’s ruling National Resistance Movement party.
Ayume said that depending on the interpretation of presiding judges, offenders could be given more lenient punishment but stressed that the penalties will be extended to parents who refuse to let their children be immunised.
Given that no other country has proposed jail terms for the unvaccinated, the sceptic, Kabuleta, described Uganda as “either the most clever country in the world or the most stupid”.
Such a law would be “the beginning of slavery … when someone owns your body”, he argued, saying he would rather be arrested than vaccinated.
“They know where I am, let them come and arrest me even now.”