“Escaping from Quarantine” from Quarantined: My Ordeal in Uganda’s Covid-19 Isolation Centers

This article is part of the following series:

Few published works of creative non-fiction exist on COVID-19 in Africa. With the publication of QUARANTINED, Ugandan intellectual and philosopher, Jimmy Spire Ssentongo has painted a behind-the-scenes picture of how the Ugandan state handled the coronavirus disease. While the Ugandan president praised self and staff for putting the coronavirus in check through the state’s isolation centres, the people under state quarantine presented a different reality. Through Ssentongo’s eyes and ink, we not only learn of his dreadful experiences in Uganda’s isolation centres but also of other people – Ugandan and non-Ugandan. It did not take long for people to begin contesting the state’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis and as a contribution to the Contested Truths Series, we republish ‘Escaping from Quarantine’ – part four of Ssentongo’s book. We thank Ssentongo and his publishers, Ubuntu Reading Group for allowing the republication of this excerpt.

One of the interesting first cases to show the irony of the Central Inn gates involved two South Sudanese refugee ladies living in Uganda. They had gone to Entebbe airport to receive their daughter. At the airport, they learnt that she had arrived earlier and had been quarantined at Central Inn. The duo then headed to the Inn, and were allowed to drive in.

According to the accounts that some of us got in bits much later after leaving Central Inn, their plan must have been to spend some time with their daughter who had only come to stay for a short while in Uganda. They headed to her room and their driver was allowed to leave.

When their daughter was returning to the USA two days later, the ladies were denied exit from the hotel. The reason was that they had interacted with the quarantined and were therefore a risk too. It made sense, but why it did not apply to the driver that had as well interacted with people at the center and hotel workers that trotted in and out was a special kind of logic. The ladies could not pay for the hotel. After the reunion-gone-sour, they spent two nights in the open tent in the hotel courtyard. Perhaps due to a language barrier or shock, they hardly talked to anyone. It’s on the third day that a good Samaritan offered to pay for their room, where they were quarantined for fourteen days. Even on release, someone had to offer to take them back to their home in Kiryandongo, about 260km away.

During the first two days at Central Inn, the gates were a little of a cobweb. Just like the airport, some weighty flies flew through, small ones were trapped. Naturally, we all wanted to go home. Even if the institutional quarantine exercise was well managed, some would still have desired to leave at the earliest opportunity – by hook or crook. This desire was exacerbated by the way we were handled.

It was hard to understand why we had been kept in here, for this was no quarantine center by whatever stretch of the idea. All our efforts to avoid the virus from wherever we came had been rendered wasted at this camp where our own wellbeing was at the bottom of Government concerns, if at all it had any place.

The only Covid-19 related measure at the hotel was the lonely sanitizer bottle that stood on a small stool at the entrance to the Reception. With the exception of the two receptionists, none of us wore a mask. There was no social distancing, not even being reminded by anyone to do so. Cleaners mopped our rooms with bare hands. I engaged one, asking her if she had been briefed about safety measures. She told me they were simply doing their work as usual.

Hotel workers walked in and out as they preferred. If we did not have the virus to infect each other, it would have come in riding merrily on workers. By the nature of the setting, one infection was enough to serve us all. It was rather suicidal to accept to stay there, even if one cared about protecting those on the outside.

The risks at Central Inn, added to costly service and some people’s uncompromising desire to get home, led many to think of how to get out of the place at the earliest opportunity.

I learnt about the escapes on the second day at the Inn. I had heard rumours of escape by some returnees in the first group to arrive, but I doubted the truthfulness of it. On the morning of the second day, a woman whom I had seen around with her mentally ill teenage daughter, that often talked to herself, called me to the side at the lobby to thank me for the Facebook ‘noise’. In a low voice, and after her eyes had surveilled around, she asked:

‘Are you aware that people are escaping?’

I sat my curious self down properly to catch this hot scuttlebutt. One of the ladies had confided in her the night before about her plans of bolting with the help of a hotel staff. She had parted with $50 for the night escape service through the small gate. By morning we were one person less.

We briefly talked about our situation and she asked if I would consider fleeing. It wasn’t in any of my considerations. At least not by then. Besides, even if I wanted to escape, my online noise and revelations had already made me a white chicken.

Apart from a few that were indiscrete about their plans, many held their escape cards to the skin of their chests. However, when we met for a chat the evening before we had expected to leave quarantine, many opened up about their botched schemes and of others that had succeeded. We laughed in disbelief listening to some people that had looked so innocent all along, now sharing complex underground maneuvers.

I learnt that the lobby had been the planning hub. Some deliberately slept there for smoother exit by nightfall, or to jump onto any opportunity of escape. No wonder, many kept walking about this space like surveyors.

One night, one of my later friends suddenly felt like she had to leave. She called her friends on the outside and asked them to drive to the Inn in the night to negotiate her release with the police officers at the main gate. She signed out of her room and headed to the lobby. That night it rained like the skies were heavily leaking. It was about 1am. She paced about the space, waiting for a signal from the outside. The hotel’s ‘temperature’ guy met her at the lobby and picked up small talk, asking what she was up to. When she revealed that she wanted to leave, the guy assured her that he could get her out as long as she could find her way past the gate. This was akin to pushing a lizard into grass.

In the euphoria, she thought that he was working with her accomplices outside. The luggage would be sent to her later, as long as she made it out. They walked out of the main entrance, taking all the downpour’s beating as they headed to the small gate on the extreme right. Once they got there, he opened the gate and stretched his hands in the air, proclaiming:

‘You are free. The choice is yours, you either go front or back’.

She narrated, amidst wild laughter from us, how she peeped outside the small gate while dripping like the ‘breasts of Nyinamwiru’. The night was as dark as an ancient grave. Freedom had been served ugly and scary. She simply gathered her wet defeated self and walked back to the hotel. Mr Temperature suggested that they walk back through another side of the main hotel building, but it appeared to her like this led to his room. She took another thorough shower from the rain as she sauntered back to the lobby, where she rebooked into her room and carried back the luggage. At the main gate, the friends had registered no success either. It was almost 3am! All she did when they called, was to ask them to drive back. That was her first and last attempt at trying to escape from quarantine.

Another middle-aged gentleman, whom I later learnt to be a civil servant, disclosed that his plans of bolting also started at the lobby. Deep in the night, Mr Temperature came and tapped the lady who was sleeping on the nearby sofa near his. The message may not have been his, but he was too curious to let it pass. He sat up too. Mr Temperature suggested that he takes them to another lobby that was more comfortable. This was in another block in the hotel compound that housed the bar. 

Just about an hour after moving to the second lobby, he saw the guy tapping the lady again. She stood up and they left together. When she came back a few minutes later, he asked what they were up to. It was an escape mission. To emphasise the urgency, the guy had told her that the next day the place would be filled with the military and it would be impossible to escape. The lady was scared and her determination sored. The third time Mr Temperature tapped her and they walked out she never returned.

Her ‘neighbour’ had wanted to first study the environment some more and hear from her before making his own attempt. The gates were tightened the next day before he could get out.

The funniest part of their story was that the escapee had used another quarantined lady’s phone to call for a taxi. In the panic, she ended up calling the mother of the phone owner and got off as soon as she realized that it was a wrong number. On the call, she had gone straight into asking the receiver to get her a taxi. The mother thought it was her daughter looking for means to leave the Inn through someone else. She called her back fidgeting, saying she could immediately organise the taxi. The lady tried explaining to her mother that she didn’t need a car, but mama insisted on sending one. It was an uphill task convincing the already distressed woman that it was a mix up. But how did the escapee make it home? We didn’t get to know.

Around the same time, another lady sent her bags home first, hoping to follow more easily later. Meanwhile, the stories in the media must have tipped off the Ministry of Health officials. Even if they didn’t really care about us at the time, at least they had their image to save. On the third day, they reinforced security at the gate with more police men. Escape became harder. The lady who had successfully sent out her bags remained with two outfits to take her for days much more than any of us could have imagined at that time.

This is also how one of us who managed to bring in his car got stuck with it at the Inn. He must have naively relied on so many bad boy movies. After the person who drove in the car left, the plot was for this fella to put in his luggage and drive out as though he had not been one of us. His luck was on leave; for his attempts were foiled a number of times.

On one occasion, he dressed up like a hotel staff. Wherever he got the uniform from, we could only guess. Yet, the farthest he went was the main gate. Regardless, he never gave up. Even on the day some of us left Central Inn for another quarantine center, we saw him put bags in his car – hoping to drive behind our van. I learnt that this mission failed too. His luck only returned later that. When friends called his room for breakfast the next morning, they were struck with his absence.

Central Inn tales of escape would be incomplete without the story of our charming friend, Cliff, that had returned from the USA. This muscular gentleman of short stature easily went along with most of us and was always in the loop of things that transpired while we were at the Inn. His English accent always amused me in its fluctuation between American and Ugandan. Much of his time was spent planning media interviews, protest against our mistreatment, and escape. Whenever we met, he would ask: waliwo akapya? (anything new?) It appeared he was constantly studying the geography of the place, but was keen to only strike when he was sure.

When the first officials from the Ministry of Health came to meet us, after the interaction, he followed them to their car, asking for permission to have someone from home pick bridal clothes which he claimed to have carried for a due wedding. The permission was granted. Perhaps his entire luggage was bridal clothes, for it all went out! That was his his way of shedding off baggage that would complicate his escape. When we left the Inn, he stayed behind. And that was the last I heard of him. I am not sure he stayed to the end, but would be surprised if he did.

If any of us was infected, those outside weren’t safe either. Given all we had gone through in these first despicable days, only one positive person was enough to have all of us infected. And, through the escapes, the people outside would have been exposed too. Without a doubt, the mismanagement of the quarantine initiative paused a health risk to every Ugandan.

I must have peed in the parade of many others when I blew the whistle on Facebook and to a journalist, leading to a screaming headline on New Vision on 21st March 2020: BRIBERY HITS VIRUS ISOLATION CENTER. On second thought though, while I would ordinarily condemn the escapes from quarantine, I did not really blame those who sneaked out.

Spire is a lecturer of Philosophy at Uganda Martyrs University and Makerere University. He heads the Centre for African Studies at Uganda Martyrs University. He is also the editorial cartoonist and columnist for The Observer (Uganda). He went to the Apostles of Jesus Major Seminary in Nairobi for a Diploma in Philosophy and Religious Studies and Urbaniana University (Rome) in Italy for a BA in Philosophy. He also went to Makerere University for a Masters degree in Ethics and Public Management and London South Bank University for a Master of Science in Education for Sustainability. He holds a PhD in Humanistic Studies from the University of Humanistic Studies in Holland. Twitter: @JSsentong