“With effect from Sunday 11th July, 2021 to12:00am-midnight, the Ministry of Health will test the high-risk group of migrant workers, 24 hours before flights,” said Health Ministry Permanent Secretary Dr Diana Atwine in a letter to the Ministry of Gender dated July 8.
“This will be done at a free cost under the Government of Uganda laboratory arrangement,” she added.
Dr Atwine said the Ministry of Health “will conduct a free confirmatory test for these travelers 24 hours before their flights.”
She added: “These measures are arising out of the increasing number of Ugandans with negative COVID-19 certificates who are testing positive at their final destinations.”
The development comes weeks after hundreds of Ugandan travelers carrying negative test results tested positive for COVID-19 at Dubai airport.
This investigative website on Saturday reported how United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities suspended flights from Uganda over high COVID-19 cases of Ugandans arriving in Dubai.
On June 6, 2021, out of 158 passengers who arrived in Dubai from Uganda, 113 tested positive for COVID-19. A day later, out of 161 passengers, 72 tested positive on arrival in Dubai, sending shockwaves across UAE.
Yet, when leaving, passengers at Entebbe International Airport are required to present a negative COVID-19 test taken within 120 hours of departure from Uganda.
As a result of this situation, UAE government directed Emirates to suspend passenger flights from Zambia and Uganda to Dubai, effective 2359hrs on 11 June 2021, until further notice.
Between 400 and 700 Ugandan migrants depart from Entebbe International Airport every day for jobs mainly in the Middle East (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait.
These low-skilled migrant workers take up low-wage occupations in homes, hotels, schools, airports and social places in the Middle East.
These Gulf states, which rely on migrants for labour, are keen on preventing importation of COVID-19 cases.
Over 90 percent of private sector workers in the UAE and Qatar are foreigners and 80 percent or higher in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
After UAE suspended flights from Uganda over the alarming COVID-19 cases arriving from Uganda, there was fear in Kampala that the Gulf States could ban Ugandan migrant workers.
This would have had disastrous consequences for the Ugandan economy.
In 2019, remittance inflows to Uganda stood at US$1.4bn in 2019 and US$1.1bn in 2020.
An April 2018 World Bank report on migration and remittances noted that Uganda received up to US$ 1.4bn which was almost the same amount as tourism revenue.
These remittances according to financial experts have become the lifeblood of tens of thousands of households in Uganda, underscoring the role these private transfers of funds play in safeguarding their food security, health care, savings and investment opportunities.
Atwine said: “as a key requirement, all the migrant workers who intend to leave the country must present a negative PCR result from a private accredited laboratory of their own choice done within 72 hours.”
Atwine explained that the exercise is “free and it is being undertaken to protect the credibility of our health system at meeting international obligations and to deter further blacklisting of our country from international travel arrangements.”
She directed the Commissioner department of National Health Laboratories and Diagnostic Services, Civil Aviation Authority, Port Health desk to implement “these measures while UAERA and its labour Export and recruitment agencies are advised to abide with immediate effect.”
Any labour company that flouts this arrangement shall be sanctioned without further warning, according to Atwine.
Atwine’s orders have left many industry players asking: Why doesn’t government take over the mandate of testing all travellers for COVID-19?
However, Health Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyoona said the move is intended to “know if some of the travelers were presenting forged COVID-19 certificates.”
“We want to ensure there are no forgeries of COVID-19 certificates. Most of the travelers have been testing positive at their destinations and Dubai raised a complaint about this issue,” he added.
Asked to shed more light on how government would conduct confirmatory tests of migrant workers, Ainebyoona responded: “The samples will be taken to our laboratories such as Uganda Virus Research Institute and Central Public Health Laboratories.”
Meanwhile, Uganda doesn’t have a system to verify the authenticity of PCR certificates from immigrants.
All travellers from the United Kingdom, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States are required to undergo PCR testing at the border at their own expense, including at Entebbe International Airport, unless they have received their full COVID-19 vaccination, can provide evidence of this and show no COVID-19 symptoms.
Uganda has so far registered 2,090 COVID-19 deaths since the outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020.
President Museveni on June 18 announced additional lockdown measures until 30 July at the earliest.
These include a curfew from 7pm to 5:30am, and a ban on movement by all public and private vehicles. There are limited exceptions, including for cargo vehicles, vehicles carrying patients to medical facilities, registered tourist vehicles, emergency vehicles, and essential worker vehicles.
An inter-district travel ban remains in place, and citizens outside the greater Kampala region seeking to travel for essential reasons (including for flights) are required to contact their local district authorities to arrange for permission to do so.