The 28 August 2019 was a very important day for aviation in Uganda. Uganda Airlines resumed operations and had their first flight. Every day proud Ugandan travellers would post selfies aboard Uganda Airlines and this was trending on various social media platforms. The excitement came at a time when Entebbe International Airport had 1,980,000 passengers in 2019, which reflected a 7.8% increase in passenger numbers from 2018, and more impressively, more than one million more passengers than 2009 .
However, this euphoric phase seems like it happened a lifetime ago and faded fast at the start of 2020. The first sign of trouble came in the form of increased passenger screening from 20 January 2020. On 11 March, 2020, the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the Corona Virus Disease (Covid-19) , a pandemic. The WHO also issued a number of cautionary recommendations related to international air travel, and advised countries to implement measures to limit the exportation or importation of the virus.
On 21 February, 2020, the Government of Uganda stepped up screening at all border points, cancelled international conferences, and issued a number of conditions for entry into Uganda including a requirement for self-quarantine for at least fourteen days upon arrival. This was not received well by some passengers and on 8th March, 2020, twenty two European passengers who flew into Entebbe Airport for a conference were refused entry into Uganda after they refused to self-quarantine.
On 17 March, 2020 Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng, Uganda’s Minister of Health, in exercise of her powers under section 10 of the Public Health Act Cap. 281, issued the Public Health (Notification of COVID – 19) Order, S.I 45 of 2020. This order declared Covid-19 a notifiable disease and authorised the Minister to make orders for the prevention and Suppression of Infectious Diseases and Enforcement of Precautions at Borders.
On 20 March, 2020, Uganda registered its first Covid-19 case, which was imported through a Ugandan citizen who was returning from Dubai. On 24 March, 2020 the Minister of Health issued the Public Health (Prohibition of Entry into Uganda) Order, S.I 53 of 2020. This barred entry into Uganda to any person through any of the border posts of Uganda from Monday 23rd March, 2020, until 23 April, 2020, which restriction was extended to May 2020. There were exceptions for cargo flights and United Nations and Humanitarian flights.
Under these regulations, any person arriving in Uganda had to be subjected to examination by a medical officer and anyone who was found to have Covid-19 would be placed in isolation. These passengers were placed in three categories based on the risk factors associated with the countries they were travelling from or transiting through.
The restrictions ranged from being subjected to a medical examination and then a 14 day quarantine, being examined, then observed for 14 days, to being released after an examination with instructions on how to stay safe. Anyone who did not comply with these requirements would be liable to imprisonment for up to three months. Additionally, section 171 of the Penal Code Act Cap 120 makes it a crime to commit a negligent act likely to spread infection of disease with a penalty of imprisonment for seven years.
Several other measures were implemented to restrict the spread of the disease, including a suspension of public transport and a lockdown for non-essential personnel. A number of repatriation flights were permitted to return Ugandans who were stranded abroad as a result of border closures, or to allow specific travel for medical or other emergencies. The returning residents were quarantined in accredited hotels and facilities and some were permitted to self-quarantine at home under supervision. However, this process stretched the government’s resources and in some cases, delayed the scheduled repatriations.
Even before the travel restrictions were instituted, the global air travel industry and the associated tourism, hotels and entertainment sectors suffered a loss of revenue as a result of cancellation of flights immediately following the WHO announcement. It is reported that globally, the aviation industry has lost about USUS$ 419 billion. Over 23 airlines collapsed as a result of Covid-19 travel restrictions, and several hotels and entertainment businesses went bankrupt or had to suspend operations and lay off or furlough staff for the duration of the Covid-19 restrictions.
In May 2020, following a period where the Government of Uganda was said to have more strict measures, (as compared to its East African neighbours) to restrict, control and manage the spread of Covid-19, we witnessed a gradual easing of restrictions. In September 2020 Uganda announced its intent to reopen Entebbe International Airport. There would be a phased resumption of operations, with limited flights, which commenced in October, 2020.
However, even though the country had a relatively low (as compared to its neighbours) rate of 100,590 confirmed cases and 97 deaths the country remained at level three alert. Public gatherings and non-essential businesses are still restricted and schools remain closed for all but candidate classes. Travellers and persons entering Uganda are required to take a Covid-19 test and present a negative Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) test certificate that is less than 72 hours old. Any person showing Covid-19 symptoms will be subjected to a test and may be quarantined until he or she receives a negative Covid-19 result. Other restrictions including a 9:00pm curfew, and precautions including wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing are encouraged and enforced by the authorities.
It is hoped that the easing of travel restrictions and resumption of operations will enable the global air travel industry to start its recovery and with the announcement of its acquisition of new aircraft, Uganda airlines, and Uganda’s air travel industry will pick up where it left off and continue to grow.
Allan F. Rwakakooko is an Advocate of the Courts of Judicature of the Republic of Uganda and a Certified Arbitrator and Mediator. He is a member of the Uganda Law Society.