“I was volunteering in Uganda when the virus broke”

Hamish Newall, 19, North Devon (UK)

When the virus broke, I was volunteering in Uganda through a British government program, the International Citizenship Service, delivering sexual health sessions in schools. I arrived in February and I was staying with Mama Florence, a disability rights activist who looked after three of her grandchildren, in a small village.

Mama Florence looked 60, although she was probably younger than that as the life expectancy in Uganda is 45. We lived in a brick house with a corrugated roof. All of our water had to be fetched from a borehole, about 300 meters away. The toilets were dropped toilets, the shower was a bucket shower. Kids had no nappies. But one of the key points of the program was to discover and remember that despite the high level of poverty, there is still dignity. The people that I was meeting were full of joy. They had dignity. 

Hamish pours some fresh water during his volunteering in Uganda.

I was discovering this completely new culture when on March 19th, my fellow volunteers and I were suddenly told we were about to leave, almost two months earlier than planned. England already had lots of coronavirus cases. The President of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, had shut down schools and cut off all public gatherings. Before then, locals had been nothing but friendly and welcoming. But this changed: they started calling “coronavirus” at us as we were driving in a bus. I assume this was because we were white — they started noticing that we were potential travellers and thought that we might be bringing Coronavirus. 

I’d like to stress that locals had never been hostile before. It was quite shocking and distressing to some of the British volunteers. I simply accepted it as something that was happening. It wasn’t very threatening, and locals were essentially making a good point: we need to not travel. We can’t be spreading the virus. And if the virus hits these African communities, it’s just gonna be devastating.

We got back to London on March 23, the day that the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson called a lockdown. So it was really, really tight — we were on the last flight out from Entebbe, Uganda. Some volunteers with a separate organization weren’t so lucky — they were refused to board on the plane because their connecting flights in Dubai had already been cancelled.

It was a shame to leave, but it was also necessary.

I am  in a really lucky position now. I’m at home, in North Devon, working for the Center for Combating Digital Hate, which trials young volunteers being online and direct messaging people who are spreading misinformation inadvertently. I am focusing on Twitter. Because its algorithm prioritizes tweets based on how much engagement they have received, when people are sharing them to point out they contain misinformation, they are actually increasing their exposure, doing more harm than good. My role is to get in touch with these users and let them know.

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