Two veteran LGBT and health rights activists have issued a desperate global call to funders and well-wishers to support an HIV/AIDS call centre in Uganda that now is swamped by callers fearing infection by the new corona virus.
By Kikonyogo Kivumbi
With a total of 48 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the country as of midday April 04, many people are afraid. Following a countrywide lock-down announced last Monday by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, people cannot readily access information on the pandemic. Some people even fear that the corona virus is an evil spirit.
Most of the factual messaging about the virus is still in English, the country’s official language. But there are more than 50 ethnic groups and languages yet to access translated information they can read in their mother tongue, or have read to them by others.
The SALT helpline’s overload was described by Ms Peace Baguma, the project manager of the call centre, which is known as the Support on Aids and Life through Telephone (SALT) line, and Ms Solome Atim, a representative for persons living with HIV/AIDS on the Uganda Global Fund Board — the Country Co-ordinating Mechanism (CCM).
They said Saturday in Kampala that the helpline is overwhelmed by people calling from various parts of the country, especially people living with HIV/AIDS and members of Uganda’s LGBTI community who are still in the closet.
Ms Baguma is a counsellor and member of the LGBT advocacy group Uganda Health and Science Press Association (UhspaUganda).
SALT’s toll-free telephone number is 0800100330.
“You do not need to have call credit on your phone to call the toll-free line and be counselled or referred to appropriate health care service providers. The bill for those calls is paid by the non-profit SALT. [Normally] each month at most SALT pays a total of 1.7 million Uganda shillings (about US $450). But in crisis-counselling times like in this Covid-19 era, the bill greatly goes up to about 4 million Ugandan shillings (about US $1,059),” she said.
“Most people living with HIV fear that the virus may severely affect them, so there is panic. They need to talk to someone they can trust,” Ms Baguma addded. Some of the callers are government employees still in the closet. They fear divulging information to a government call centre for fear of losing their jobs due to their sexuality, she noted.
Because SALT does not discriminate or stigmatize, it is popular with LGBT Ugandans seeking health information.
Callers are more comfortable knowing the counselor understands them, Ms Baguma said.
Most of the callers are women, but some men also call. Men in general have poorer health-seeking behavior than women do, and often have to followed up by the call centre to ensure they actually went for health services they need.
Ms Atim said:
The online counseling services have been very helpful including for those still living in fear but wanting to access appropriate care. During this COVID-19 time it has become more important than ever. … What is currently needed is adequate funding so that she can call, receive [advice and referrals, then be called] back with follow-up to see if services have been received. MoH (the Ugandan Ministry of Health) and development partners, please help functionalise the SALT helpline. We beg!
To meet the growing demand, SALT seeks to add two staff positions while also paying its past-due telephone bill.
Uganda’s Ministry of Health and its partners have official call centres to handle fears and worries on HIV/AIDS management and COVID-19 in Uganda. But Baguma says that people fear losing their jobs if their SOGIE confidentiality is breached, which they fear can happen through an official call centre.
At SALT, in contrast, “This call centre is for everyone, including transgender persons and LGBT members. As a counsellor and person living with HIV, I do not discriminate,” Baguma said. She said she has received numerous calls from people and when she refers them to the official ministry of health landlines for COVID-19, they decline. After all, homosexual activity is still illegal in Uganda.
No assurances have been given so far that the official call centres will counsel a diverse group of Ugandans, irrespective of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression.
Dr Henry Mwebesa, the director general of the Uganda’s ministry of health, says that the mnistry has partnered with telecom companies to increase the capacity of the official call centres, following a partnership with MTN Uganda, Airtel Uganda, National Information Technology Authority Uganda, Marie Stopes Uganda and Communication for Development..
Those partners, according to the health ministry, will provide people who will work in the official call centres.
Previously, the health ministry had a team of less than 20 people handling enquiries regarding COVID -19 at the call centre. However, due to the increase in the number of calls received, the lines have been continuously busy with some people resorting to calling police to get assistance.
The Ministry of Health numbers to call to get assistance are: 0800 100066, 0800 203 033 and 0800 303 033.
How SALT call centre can be helped
The centre currently owes the telephone company Shs 4.23 million (about US $1,119). The company has so far declined to give a waiver.
Currently, the centre can receive calls, but it cannot call out.
Kikonyogo Kivumbi, the author of this article, is the executive director of the Uganda Health and Science Press Association.