Paul Mukhwana with his children – from left, Edith, 8, Philip, 6, Steven, 10, and  Alex, 15 – pictured during happier times.
 (Photo by Thomas Froese)

(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, May 23, 2020)

It’s your phone and you pull it out and it’s the other side of the world. This is what it says. Help. Help me. Help us. Precisely, “We are all home with the kids asking for what to eat, so help me get out of this situation, please.”

It’s Paul, from Uganda, in Africa. He’s a friend. A photo of Paul and his children are among those on your kitchen counter. There they are, big smiles, on Paul’s boda-boda. It was a moment. Happier. There are no smiles now. Just this plea.

A 100 kg bag of beans is 450,000 Ugandan shillings. That’s about $165. Posho, a sort of cornmeal porridge, is similar. For 100 kg of rice, it’s 600,000 shillings. It’s basic food. It’s not from The Keg. It might last Paul’s family a month or two. But for him, in this pandemic, it’s out of reach.

Paul’s boda-boda, a public taxi, is his income. But Uganda’s bodas, about 300,000 of them, have been banned for passengers for weeks. This is it. Lose your job and there’s no government cushion in much of the world. No CERB. No relief. Not a drop. Remember, only 15 per cent of the world’s 7.6 billion people live in rich developed nations. The disparities are more than most Canadians can imagine.

So you go to an international money sender, your laptop to Paul’s phone. Some money gets through. Some doesn’t. You’re notified there’s a problem in Uganda – you imagine some corrupt hand in the cookie jar – so your sending account gets shut down. You try another money service. Success. “Paul, I’ve sent some money.”

“Don’t forget Gloria,” Paul reminds you. Remember Gloria from this space? She’s the Ugandan teen mom. She needs food. As does her boy, Andrew Thomas. And Gloria’s mother, Helen.

Other friends contact you. “We can’t fathom what we can ever do if numbers reach what we’ve seen in Western Europe.” This, from Dr. Eve Nakabembe, a Ugandan obstetrician who’s key to Save the Mothers, the East African – Canadian non-profit founded by your wife. You think of this, the especially-vulnerable mothers and children clinging to life with even more uncertainty.

From Nigeria, in West Africa, it’s Rick Bradford, a Hamiltonian, dropping a line. You saw him early this year: visited village schools, rode motorcycles, wrote about it here also. That was then. And now? “The national power is off for days at a time,” he tells you. “With state borders shut or highly restrictive (unless you pay bribes), goods don’t get to villages.”

This is Africa, waiting for the fullness of pandemic like waiting for the fullness of night. Earlier this month only about 2,000 COVID-19 deaths were reported across the continent of 1.2 billion. But reporting from developing nations is spotty. And God only knows what will happen once the wolf gets through the door.

You’ve seen enough African hospitals. You know that, even with no pandemic, locals often see hospitals as the place to go to simply die. There are no resources.

For every million people, Uganda has about one intensive care bed. Canada? About 120. The World Health Organization estimates that Africa, 41 of its 54 countries reporting, has about 2,000 ventilators. Ontario alone, with 86 times fewer people than Africa, has at least 3,000. South Sudan, population 11 million, has three vice-presidents. And working ventilators? Four.

Or consider handwashing, so crucial to fight COVID-19. In Liberia, according to the UN, just three per cent of homes have access to clean water and soap.

This is our broken and tear-stained world of disparities. Some people are envisioning bodies across Africa’s streets. Get ready. Maybe.

The continent is also diverse and historically it’s learned virus-fighting lessons. Also some developing nations – those with strongman politics – may manage because they can implement tough measures easier. Walk around Kampala, Uganda’s capital, without a facemask and face jail. Open your business unlawfully and maybe get charged with attempted murder.

This is life for Paul, and untold millions of Pauls living in the daily beat of places that aren’t so far away. Waiting. Wondering. Asking for help. Ignore their pleas to our own peril. Because with pandemics there are no borders. What goes around comes around. This is one thing that we do know for certain.