Experts contest COVID-19 test fees

By Brenda Nakayiwa

This is contrary to the health ministry's earlier plea to citizens to go to the designated COVID-19 testing centres for free testing, should they feel, get any signs or symptoms of the deadly virus.

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COVID-19 |

If you are an individual seeking to know your COVID-19 status, you will be required to pay $65 (approximately sh240,500) to carry out this test, starting Monday.

This is contrary to the health ministry's earlier plea to citizens to go to the designated COVID-19 testing centres for free testing, should they feel, get any signs or symptoms of the deadly virus.

Payment for COVID-19 also applies to truck drivers at the different points of entry, organisations, both government and private, that wish to have bulk test for their staff, Ugandans returning from abroad and foreigners coming into the country.

According to the government, the rationale of the above decision is premised on the fact that the COVID-19 infection rate has sharply increased in recent times due to community infections and that that has subsequently constrained the ministry in terms of providing test kits for everyone.

The fees levied on the coronavirus tests was contained in the August 27, 2020 statement issued by Geoffrey Sseremba, on behalf of the health ministry's permanent secretary, Dr Diana Atwine.

"The ministry continues to receive requests from organisations to have their staff tested, which it finds difficult to sustain due to inadequate in-country stock of test kits, resource constraints and the high cost of COVID-19 testing.

In view of the above fact, therefore, government has introduced a testing fee of $65 or sh240,500 per test for certain categories of individuals and organisations.

This is a cost-recovery mechanism that will enable the ministry to acquire more test kits for continued access to testing services in the country," the letter reads.

Government, however, pledged to continue offering free testing services to patients who present to health facilities with COVID-19 symptoms, contacts of people who have tested positive, community surveys to establish the extent of spread of the virus, surveillance samples and frontline health workers.

The pandemic has killed over 847,071 people worldwide since surfacing in China, late last year, according to a tally from offi cial sources compiled by AFP at 1100 GMT Monday.

More than 25.2 million cases have been registered.

A ridiculous move?

However, several scientists interviewed yesterday expressed shock over the Government's plan to subject certain sections of the public to paying for COVID-19 tests. "I do not believe this. I do not expect a peasant to pay for this test.

There is no country that is doing that. It cannot start with Uganda," Prof. Vinand Nantulya, said, adding that government should be able to foot the bill.

Nantulya, also a member of a COVID-19 committee, is among Ugandan scientists set to manufacture COVID-19 rapid test kits to support testing of populations at risk of contracting COVID-19.

He acknowledged that raw materials had already arrived into the country, pending evaluation. Nantulya was also the chairperson of the Board of Directors of the Uganda AIDS Commission (UAC).

Dr Ekwaro Obuku, the former president the Uganda Medical Association, said the introduction of the COVID-19 test fees suggests that the government is unable to fully account for the sh2.8 trillion that was withdrawn from the consolidated fund in the name of COVID-19.

"You will also recall that 200,000 kits were donated by Jack Ma, alone. We also got more test kits from development partners like the World Health Organisation (WHO), European Union, and the UN family.

So where is our money going?" Obuku wondered. Obuku also queried Uganda's testing policy, which he said is highly inefficient.

"The current tests are not cost effective, according to the WHO (Choosing Interventions that are Cost Effective) guidelines. We need a test that costs $21 (sh77,000) maximum and anything below," he said.

Rationale of payment

Dr Charles Olaro, the director of clinical services at the health ministry, explained that when Uganda began the COVID-19 response, majority of the cases were coming from border points of entry and the bulk of truck drivers who got tested were not from Uganda.

"Government was bearing almost 70% of the above costs," he said, adding that Kenya is also charging for the tests.

He further argues that it is believed that Ugandans coming home can afford the charges.

"Those that did not use the window to return when Government was still carrying out free tests, will have to pay. If you have not returned to the country by now, then that means you are not under pressure and you can afford to pay for the test," Olaro said.

Despite the sporadic cases being registered in Kampala, Olaro said Kampala is one of the areas where the ministry intends to carry out rapid assessments and this shall be free of charge.

He also dismissed claims that some health ministry staff will turn this into a money-making venture. Dr Misaki Wayengera, the chairperson of the COVID-19 scientific advisory committee, acknowledged that the decision to start charging for COVID-19 tests was approved by his team.

The concept of paid-for testing, he explained, applies only to people who want to test without any specified reasons for exposure, for example, those intending to travel abroad.

It does not apply to those who suspect themselves of having been exposed, either by their nature of work or social interactions.

"Uganda is a poor country and cannot afford to simultaneously carry out tests for response, as well as for those who desire. Currently, the government testing targets highrisk groups, alerts, suspects and contacts of cases. So it attains the goal of capturing all emerging cases for response," Wayengera said.

Status report

The Ministry of Health has registered 44 new COVID-19 cases from samples tested on August 30. This brings the total of confirmed cases in the country to 2,972.

The new cases include contacts and alerts from Kampala (41), Wakiso (5), Kitgum (2), Arua (2), Gulu (1) and Tororo (1). There was also one returnee from the United Arab Emirates who tested positive and a truck driver who arrived at the Malaba point of entry.

Uganda also recorded two COVID-19 deaths. Both fatalities are Ugandan nationals and residents of Kampala. Recoveries currently stand at 1,288.

Politicians' demands:

The Forum for Democratic Change party in its weekly press conference also queried the new path by the

Hassan Kaps Fungaroo, the party's mobiliser for the northern region, said it is unbelievable that the government can even think of charging people for the test.

"Testing, isolation and treatment are measures that all governments have employed everywhere, to curtail the pandemic," he noted.

He said the people who test are not the beneficiaries of the testing, but the public because that is how victims are identified and isolated.

"This move by the Government is an indication that it has lost the fight against COVID-19. If some people already feared to test when it was still free, what will the situation be like when you start charging," he noted. Instead, Fungaroo proposed that government seeks funds and takes the sole responsibility of testing and treating, on top of enforcing the Standard Operating Procedures.

Additional reporting by Jeff Lule