Ugandan authorities are seeking to legally mandate vaccines in draft legislation aimed at boosting the East African country's drive to inoculate more people against COVID-19.
The proposed bill, which is subject to changes as it faces scrutiny by a parliamentary health committee, calls for a six-month jail term for failure to comply with vaccination requirements during disease outbreaks.
“It is the right thing to do,” said Alfred Driwale, a public official who leads Uganda’s vaccination efforts, speaking of the proposed changes to the country's public health law.
Attempts by Ugandan officials in recent months to enforce limited mandates have been unsuccessful. A vaccine requirement for people using public transport faced opposition from operators, and bars have returned to business after an extended lockdown without strict adherence to pandemic-era rules.
Uganda's health minister announced in January that more than 400,000 vaccine doses were to be destroyed after they expired before being used. That's a considerable loss to a government that has administered only about 12.7 million doses and whose goal is to inoculate at least half of its 44 million people.
President Yoweri Museveni had warned last year that local officials would be held accountable for any expired doses, putting pressure on them to administer substantial batches of vaccines that often arrived with looming expiration dates.
Now it appears authorities will try to codify vaccine mandates.
“We survived, and almost eliminated polio, because of vaccines,” said Fox Odoi, a pro-government legislator who is an outspoken supporter of vaccine mandates. “I don't have polio now because of the vaccines that I took.”
Odoi, who chairs the parliamentary committee on human rights, said the government has "a political responsibility” to enforce vaccine mandates in a country with a weak health system and facing widespread vaccine hesitancy. There have been reports of fake COVID-19 vaccination cards sold in downtown Kampala, Uganda's capital.
John Nkengasong, the head of the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has previously warned that African governments might have to resort to vaccine mandates if their citizens aren't eager to get increasingly available doses.
African nations such as Zimbabwe and Ghana have announced vaccine mandates for public employees and others.
In Uganda, which has reported more than 162,000 virus cases, the U.S. alone has donated 11 million vaccine doses — part of a wave of charity toward developing countries whose leaders have accused rich nations of hoarding vaccine doses at their expense.
Still, Africa remains the world’s least vaccinated continent against COVID-19, with about 11% of the continent’s 1.3 billion people fully jabbed.
Only six of Africa's 54 countries had met the global target of vaccinating 40% of their populations against COVID-19 by the end of 2021, according to the World Health Organization.