By Gloria Laker Aciro Adiiki
While as the COVID-19 pandemic is a primarily health scourge, its economic implications have hit countries more severely than any other natural, economic, political or financial catastrophe in the contemporary past. Developing nations have been particularly hit hard given their pre-existing economic vulnerabilities such as the predominance of the informal sector, absence of social security schemes.
Uganda journalist Gloria Laker Aciro Adiiki dissects the economic implications of COVID-19 on post-war Acholi region in northern Uganda where farmers are, nevertheless, expecting a bumper harvest.
In northern Uganda, the negative impact of Covid-19 on Acholi region is so high that it has forced either suspension or out rightly cancellation of development projects. “Feeder roads, for instance, are getting worse by the day as maintenance work is not being done while investment activities have been brought to a standstill. On the other hand, funding has been disrupted because organizations like UNDP, NUDIL, USAID among others, which bankrolled a number of activities are diverting their priorities to emergency support towards the health sector in the district,” Says Kitgum LC5 Chairman Jackson Omona.
The impact is higher than one would imagine, a region just emerging from over two decades of insurgency led by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) would again find itself grappling with the aftermath of a global pandemic.
Authorities here say local government planning and budgeting has been heavily crippled by the Covid-19 lock down and as a result work in some sectors has stalled due to lack of funds.
According to Omona, in In Kitgum district, there has been a budget reduction and the employment sector has been affected with the district staff being reduced to conform to the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) issued by the ministry of health. However, this has undermined efficiency in service delivery. He calls upon development partners to support the district to deliver on its planning and budgetary targets and also maintain the covid-19 referral hubs in Mucwini sub-county.
“Revenue collections have been significantly reduced due to closure of the businesses”, Omona explains the financial strife emanating from covid-19, noting that, the Village Health Teams (VHTs) and Local Council (LC) leaders who were playing critical roles in the fight against Covid 19 at community level were not adequately supported, “To their frustration the expectations of VHTs were not met and they abandoned work”. He encourages the community to identify and exploit alternatives to improve their economic prospects such as irrigation or working remotely adding that children can also be supported to learn from home while being engaged in production as well.
Meanwhile in Gulu, the out-going district chairman, Martine Ojara Mapenduzi, notes that economically the district has been severely affected by Covid-19 with many businesses paralyzed and some permanently closed “to make matters worse traders acquired loans that they have to repay yet their business are dragging their feet if not already closed. So it is going to take time for the business community to pick up and move forward”.
He proposes that government provides financial support to the business community through fiscal financing incentives for small and medium scale enterprises. This could encompass tax waivers and exemptions, re-scheduling of loan re-payment or lowering of interest rates through the intervention of the central bank. Contributions to a local saving scheme known as “bolicup”have ceased because people use the little money for food; and therefore the petty business owners who used to fall back on community saving schemes are utterly stuck. He termed whatever that was done during the covid-19 lock down was only a survival mechanism without any progressive economic opportunity emerging.
The councilor of Paicho sub-county Piloya, Evelyn Gloria, says that Gulu district has only managed to finance its administration using funds received from the central government before the lockdown. This was supplemented with a 165 million emergency allocation for the corvid-19 response otherwise the district was in financial shambles. “This financial year we’re accosted by enormous financial setbacks and that means the government may not provide enough funds to districts”, Piloya narrates the dreary financial circumstances of the district toGloriaLaker.
She proposes that small health centers should be provided with Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs).
She advises farmers not to sell their agricultural produce cheaply to middlemen who purchases at a low cost and re-sell expensively to produce dealers in Gulu town. “Farmers need to mobilize themselves and sell their produce collectively to avoid being reaped.”She further encourages farmers to improve their post-harvest handling practices to improve their final output-both qualitatively and quantitatively. This will fetch high prices, improve turnover and subsequently the district will also earn higher revenue.
The general boom in agricultural output is not only attributable to urban-rural migration but also to mobilization and sensitization of masses to venture into farming during the lock down. Since April Uganda People’s Defense Forces (UPDF) 4th division commander, Brigadier General Boney Bwamwisike, has severally advised the public to utilize the period of the lockdown to grow more crops. He also assured farmers that the government shall fix prices to save them from exploitation by the middlemen.
On a positive note there has been reduction in domestic violence in Paicho sub-county due to the increase in the production that translates into food availability. “Everybody in the villages is excited by the increased production. The agricultural sector has done so well and people are having a lot of food”.
Amuru district chairman Michael Lakony concurs with his Gulucounterpart;
“People should adopt to the situations of covid-19. The pandemic has negatively impacted the district; roads have not been rehabilitated and are in a dismal state while district vehicles are broken down. There’s no more income since revenue collection from small-scale businesses has been halted by the lockdown. Much as production has gone high, prices are determined by middlemen so there’s skepticism that farmers might not gain much. No serious positive economic outcome has been realized. If any then it has remained at central government level but not the district. Managing the district is just another financial constraint.”
Rose Nyapolo, the councilor for Koro sub-county lamented that before covid-19 ravaged the country people had the liberty to venture into various commercials activities that generated local revenue.
However, the outbreak of covid-19 disrupted most people’s economic activities and has drastically reduced people’s incomes.“Covid19 has weakened family, business and other social relationships.
Now that children are staying at home after the closure of schools; household expenditure has increased.”In Omoro district Rose observes that revenue collection has greatly reduced. “Before the lockdown the district generated 20% of its revenue locally. Now it is 3 months towards the end of the financial year 2019/2020 and there hasn’t been any revenue collection”.
Generally, farming is booming as people are heavily engaged in agricultural activities and farmers are hoping for bumper harvests-even in the Covid-19 crisis. When President Museveni announced the first lockdown in March 2020, it ironically coincided with the planting season. At the macro level the local government has incentivized farming through marketing and price regulation to improve farmers’ incomes and subsequently livelihoods.
“Even in the corona virus pandemic, the districts of Omoro, Gulu, AmuruPader and Kitgumare expecting high yields in maize, beans, soya beans sim sim, ground nuts, sweet potatoes.”
However, Kitgum’s Chairman Omona notes that, with high expectations, many people went into farming, and he is now appealing to farmers to be patient. “Expectations are so high as many people have ventured into farming and the challenges are going to be met in marketing the produce, price instability, storage and transportation”, Omona cautions about the defects of a ‘bumper’ harvest. Overall, Acholi region, just like the entire country, is grappling with economic paltry revenue collection because of the general economic slowdown.