Help on wheels

Maternal health projects give Rotary clubs in Uganda a sense of purpose during COVID-19 restrictions

by Claire Zulkey

In March, the Ugandan government moved rapidly to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, issuing a strict lockdown and closing schools before the country had experienced more than a handful of reported cases.

The measures have been credited with saving lives and limiting the spread of the virus in the country, which had recorded only 1,200 cases and five deaths in August as the continent of Africa approached a million.

Still, those measures didn’t come without a cost, including lost jobs and hardships on pregnant women unable to reach a hospital due to the travel restrictions. Reuters reported that one woman in Kampala struggled for 90 minutes to reach a hospital a mile and a half (about 2.4 km) away. Both she and the baby died. In addition, the Women’s Probono Initiative, an advocacy group, reported cases of six other women and two babies dying during the lockdown.

When the Rotary Club of Rubaga, Kampala, heard of the reports, they knew they had to act to provide a safe transport option. The club donated an ambulance to provide medical transport to residents of Kikajjo, about a 40-minute drive southwest of Kampala. Betty Mwesigwa, the club’s immediate past president, says Kikajjo has densely populated, lower-income areas.

“The problem during the COVID-19 epidemic is that mothers were failing to make it to maternal centers during the lockdown,” she says. “When we heard of two cases of mothers who had delivered beside the road, we decided to donate an ambulance to them.”

One Rotarian who works in the tour and travel industry had a vehicle that could easily be retrofitted into an ambulance. The club raised the money for the updates and a driver, as well as masks for the passengers.

“When we heard of two cases of mothers who had delivered beside the road, we decided to donate an ambulance.”

The ambulance provided more than 75 rides to women in need of care during the lockdown. In September, most of the travel restrictions were lifted, but Ugandans were continuing to be encouraged to limit travel, as cases approached 10,000 and 96 deaths.

Mwesigwa said the club withdrew the ambulance once transportation services were restored. But the club has been continuing to help in other ways. The club has hosted family health events in the past that provided free dental, optical, and reproductive health care. It is also working on plans to build a maternity ward at a hospital in Semuto, about an hour and a half northwest of Kampala, in an area that was damaged by war and never fully recovered.

“This is a hospital that is overwhelmed by mothers who come to give birth, but the facilities are very poor,” Mwesigwa says.

In addition to its work helping mothers and children, the Rubaga club has donated soap, hand sanitizer, and small water tanks for hand washing to local hospitals. Water is scarce at Ugandan hospitals, and there is little government aid to pay for additional supplies, so many Rotary clubs have donated water tanks, masks, gloves, sanitizers, soap, and other items.

The Rubaga club also donated goods and money for those without food.

During the lockdown, Mwesigwa explained, many people didn’t have enough to eat, even if they had work. “One teacher was feeding her children on peelings.”

Rubaga is one of many Rotary clubs in Uganda that are working to support mothers and children. These efforts have become more important as the pandemic has increased maternal and neonatal mortality rates in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda that were already high.

The maternal health projects have given the club a sense of purpose.

“We are happy to have saved the lives of many Ugandans,” Mwesigwa says.