Uganda motorbike taxi driver Charles Ssebale fears his vehicle could be repossessed at any moment, having failed to keep up with his loan repayments after the East African nation imposed a two-month lockdown to contain a deadly outbreak of Ebola.
The 41-year-old father of seven saw his usual daily earnings — about 40,000 Ugandan shillings (US$11) — drop by about 75 percent during the lockdown, which ended on Dec. 17.
Ssebale said his creditor — an entrepreneur in his community who sells motorbikes — has been incessantly calling him demanding the arrears.
The debt is worth about US$870, he said.
“I will resume working hard and pay [the loan],” he said by telephone from Kassanda District, which is 117km southeast of the capital, Kampala.
“The people who gave me the motorcycle assured me they will not take it back, despite continuing to remind me to pay in the lockdown times,” Ssebale said.
Many informal workers have ended up in debt since Uganda on Oct. 15 imposed an overnight curfew, closed places of worship and entertainment, and restricted movement into and out of Kassanda and Mubende districts, campaigners said.
The measures were aimed at curbing the spread of the Ebola virus, which has infected 142 people and killed at least 55 since the country declared an outbreak in September.
Allana Kembabazi — program manager at the non-governmental organization Initiative for Social and Economic Rights — said the restrictions were yet another blow for informal workers who had just been recovering from COVID-19 lockdowns and struggling with rising inflation.
“You can’t impose a lockdown without having thought through how you’re going to feed them, how you’re going to provide support to informal sector workers,” Kembabazi said.
“The government has done a very poor job of having data to know who the informal sector are, who are those that [are] just going to be most constrained,” she said. “We hope the government steps up soon and recognizes the predicament of these people.”
However, Ugandan Minister of National Guidance Godfrey Kabbyanga at the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology and National Guidance said that the government had distributed food rations in the Ebola-hit districts, adding that it was also dealing with food insecurity in other parts of the country.
“It was not only Ebola-affected communities that needed relief. We distributed what we had as government,” he said.
Although there is no official data on the informal sector, some studies suggest that workers such as motorbike taxi drivers, market traders, manual laborers and domestic helpers account for more than 75 percent of Uganda’s total workforce.
Much of this work is insecure, poorly paid and often unsafe, with workers usually earning below minimum wage, not receiving sick leave or paid holidays, and being vulnerable to exploitation from employers and authorities, campaigners said.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit informal workers worldwide the hardest, and one in two people in low-income countries saw their earnings drop, US-based polling company Gallup found.
In Uganda, where more than 40 percent of the country’s 45 million people live in extreme poverty on less than US$2.15 a day, according to the World Bank, pandemic-related restrictions were longer and stricter than in many of its neighboring countries.
Schools and many businesses were closed for two years, inter-district travel and open markets were banned, and bars, nightclubs and other entertainment activities were shut down, leaving many unable to earn an income.
A study by Uganda’s finance ministry published this month found that less than 5 percent of informal businesses received any form of financial support from the government during the pandemic.
“This could be attributed to the fact that a large proportion of government support during the crisis mainly targeted formal business,” the study said.
The government should learn from the effects of the COVID-19 and Ebola restrictions and boost support to workers outside of the formal economy, social equality campaigners said, adding that measures could include placing a moratorium on the repossession of vehicles used for taxi services, or providing interest-free loans to informal businesses.
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