( Update: Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentogo was released shortly after this story)
Lawyers who ‘volunteered’ to secure Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentongo and Others’ release from ‘prison disguised as quarantine’ have pilloried Uganda’s Ministry of Health over alleged human rights violations in institutional quarantine.
” Our clients feel that they are being treated like guinea pigs, yet they are neither pigs nor do they come from Guinea” reads in part a letter from the Centre of Legal Aid to the Ministry of Health.
” You have subjected them to unlawful detention, torture, cruel, degrading, inhuman treatment, unclean and unhealthy environment contrary to the Constitution and Public Health (Control of COVID-19) Rules”
Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, an award winning editorial cartoonist at the Observer newspaper, along others, was put under mandatory institutional quarantine upon his return from London on the 18th of March in line with Presidential and Ministry of Health Guidelines to combat the spread of the Coronavirus that were issued that day.
He was first held at Central Inn Hotel in Entebbe where apparently he spent three days before being transferred upon payment of $110 to Arch Hotel in Ntinda where he still lodges at Government’s cost to date, 24 days later and well beyond the WHO recommended mandatory 14 day quarantine period.
Mr Ssentongo’s prolonged quarantine apparently stems from additional Ministry of Health guidelines on institutional quarantine announced on 2nd April by the Health Minister Dr Jane Ruth Aceng which provide that:
“ A quarantine facility where one person develops symptoms will necessitate the beginning of the recount of the 14 days from the date of the evacuation of the positive case. And the cycle continues”
For the people in institutional quarantine, when any of them tests positive, we begin the 14 days afresh, that’s why people are still in quarantine. The challenge we had from the beginning is that people didn't appreciate the concept of quarantine- @JaneRuth_Aceng #NTVOnTheSpot pic.twitter.com/nb0LFlGsJS
— NTV UGANDA (@ntvuganda) April 9, 2020
This guideline, therefore, implies that for as long as there is a positive case in a quarantine centre, all its occupants will have to remain, notwithstanding their testing negative for the Coronavirus and their observance of all the required measures.
This is ” arbitrary, unreasonable and irrational, ” says Mr Isaac Ssemakadde, the team leader at Centre For Legal Aid in the letter.
Speaking to the Legal Reports on Friday , Mr Ssemakadde said ” Our primary complaint is that the decision to keep him under extended quarantine indefinitely violates the principle that public measures must be ‘evidence based’ and they must not be unduly long and burdensome.
” Here the Government is relying on speculation and conjecture and even false and harmful propaganda… stigma against COVID-19 suspects from the so called High Risk countries and not scientific evidence to justify the indefinite deprivation of Spire’s liberty. This is blatantly unacceptable and unjustifiable in a free and democratic society ”
On 26th March, 7 days after Dr Spire Ssentongo was put under mandatory institutional quarantine, a Coronavirus case was found in his hotel.
And this, according to the additional Ministry of Health Guidelines, meant that him and others similarly situated would automatically have to undergo an extra 14 day quarantine period upon completion of the first, which ended on 1st April.
” Our Crime is that someone staying in their own self contained room was allegedly found positive, therefore we are all collectively guilty” Mr Ssentogo says in a Facebook post.
Two tests have been conducted on him and all have returned negative. The African Studies Lecturer says Ministry officials have promised their release to no fulfilment.
” On 6th April, the Second COVID 19 test sample was taken from us. On 7th April, late in the evening, our liason with Ministry of Health informed us that we were all found to be negative. She duly congratulated us and told us to prepare for departure the next day, 8th April” He says, again, on Facebook.
” There was excitement all over, people could be heard ululating in their rooms. On 8th April, all day we were told that our release certificates were ready but they were waiting for the testing results that were being printed.
” Around 3PM, Ministry of Health officials that came around told us that they were sure we were supposed to leave that day but were not sure it was going to happen.
” The day ended in suspense, the psychological torture that does not count to the Ministry of Health ”
Efforts to reach the Ministry of Health for comment were futile as the Ministry’s spokesperson did not respond to our requests.
However, on Thursday, Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the Ministry’s spokesperson in response to a Facebook post by Dr Jimmy Spire Ssentogo regarding his predicament, said his release was in the pipeline but the Ministry wasn’t taking any chances.
” The team is processing the test result slips and end of quarantine certificates” he said, adding:
” My friend Jimmy Spire Ssentongo has to wait as this is being done. It is very unfortunate that he has stayed longer but we are taking no chances given that his quarantine centre had some confirmed cases”
Under the International Health Regulations (2005), countries are enjoined to treat travellers under public health monitoring with respect for their dignity, human rights, and fundamental freedoms and minimize discomfort or distress associated with public health measures such as quarantine.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), on 19th March issued guidance on Quarantine of individuals in terms of containment of the Coronavirus to the effect that persons under quarantine need to be provided with social and psychosocial support.
Dr Spire Jimmy Spire Ssentongo’s Lawyers however say the Quarantine Centres designated by the Ministry of Health are ” ill equipped ” and do not conform to the WHO requirements.
” There is woefully inadequate provision for the health, mental, economic tolls that this crisis is having on the quarantined Ugandans” Mr Isaac Ssemakadde told the Legal Reports.
” You can’t just lock up people and throw away the Key and shut your ears as if you are quarantining cattle or swine” He said.
According to Prof Ben Kiromba Twinomugisha, a leading health law researcher at Makerere University Kampala, the Constitution of Uganda provides for the protection of Human rights and freedoms that are critical in the discourse of public health interventions in the context of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
These rights include non discrimination, equality, right to life, liberty, freedom from torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
” Government should take steps to combat all forms of stigma and discrimination associated with the pandemic. It is critical to take steps to remove or mitigate physical and economic barriers that inhibit access to health care” Prof Ben Twinomugisha further advises in a Paper on Human Rights and COVID-19.
Claims of discriminatory treatment and inequality have already dogged Uganda’s battle against Coronavirus. Ministers, MPs and other officials have been cited in acts that potentially jeopardize the Government’s interventions against the Virus.
” We were among the first people to be quarantined by Government ” Dr Ssentongo speaks of the day they landed in Uganda from London, ” We noticed right from the time we landed that there was lack of proper preparation and the process was marred by bribery, cronyism, and nepotism.
” Some relatives of ‘big’ people were being allowed to pass yet they were on the same flights with us” He revealed, on Facebook.
We were not able to verify independently these claims, however, if true they pose an existential threat to Ugandans.
” From the few interviews we have conducted, the whole quarantine project is a legal minefield for the government of Uganda’s gross violations of Human rights abound” Mr Isaac Ssemakadde said.
” Based on the information we have obtained so far, the institutional quarantine SOPs are devoid of humanity and reasonableness.
” Somebody needs to get in there and inspect the situation and see if it conforms to WHO best practices for quarantining COVID-19 suspected carriers.
” The government’s response has not been adequately checked by the media and civil society ” He added.
Prof Ben Twinomugisha warns that any acts of Human rights violations have the effect of pushing Ugandans into silence and complacency about the virus which in turn may make it hard (if not impossible) to contain.
” As experience in the fight against HIV and AIDS has ilustrated, [ It ] may drive people who are positive underground and they may not be meaningfully engaged by healthworkers” He says in his Paper.
On Friday afternoon, Dr Spire Ssentogo posted on his Facebook wall, that considering his experience in quarantine he would sadly discourage against it.
” I have been one of the people encouraging others to stay in quarantine. I was enraged when I learnt of the first cases of escape while at Central Inn, Entebbe. I blew the whistle… Having gone through all we have some friends in quarantine are blaming me for having discouraged them from escaping ” He said, adding:
” But to be honest, If I were returning to Uganda now or was out there and was being encouraged to go into mandatory quarantine, having the privilege of all that I know now – I doubt I would accept ”
The arvid writer and commentator on social issues has asked through his Lawyers for a constructive engagement with the Ministry of Health to solve the issues raised and possibly streamline procedural impropriety issues that have arisen from his quarantine experience.
” Accordingly, we urgently request for a principled engagement with relevant officials from the Ministry of Health to design more rational and reasonable arrangements that will lead to our clients being discharged from the institutional quarantine promptly and equitably, without endangering the public” The Lawyers’ letter to the Ministry reads.