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Algeria’s lessons from The Plague in the age of coronavirus



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image captionThe Plague has been flying off bookshop shelves worldwide

The Mediterranean city of Oran was the setting for a famous fictional outbreak of bubonic plague in Algeria under French colonial rule. The BBC’s Lucy Ash finds parallels between Albert Camus’ novel The Plague and how the country is coping with the coronavirus pandemic amid political upheaval.

Although it was published 73 years ago, today The Plague almost feels like a news bulletin. It has been flying off bookshop shelves around the world as readers struggle to make sense of the global spread of Covid-19.

Sitting in his office in the Mohamed-Boudiaf Hospital, where many of Oran’s coronavirus cases are treated, Professor Salah Lellou says he is exhausted.

An expert on tuberculosis in Algeria’s second city, he’s been working flat out for months, rarely leaving the hospital before midnight.

“The sick arrived in a very serious condition. Everyone was panicking – patients and the staff. We had a terrible time of it.

“We’re not sure if we’ve arrived at the peak, or if there’s a second wave because right now we have another spike in cases.”

Haunted by the novel

The third worst affected country in Africa after Egypt and South Africa, Algeria has officially reported 43,016 cases of coronavirus, including 1,475 deaths.

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image captionOran, a port city on the Mediterranean, was the setting for The Plague, which in the novel was in total lockdown

It imposed a strict lockdown after the first infection was recorded at the end of February and in much of the country night-time curfews remain in force.

With his salt and pepper moustache and receding hair, Prof Lellou is older than Camus’ hero, Dr Bernard Rieux, but he seems equally devoted to his patients.

Unlike many in Oran today, he is familiar with the novel set in his hometown and almost seems haunted by it.

“We weren’t able to avoid thinking about the plague Albert Camus described during this pandemic… Most patients were very scared, there were a lot of rumours going around. Everyone was caught off-guard.”

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image captionMedics have been under pressure during the pandemic

In Bouira, east of the capital, Algiers, a hospital director was cornered by angry relatives of a patient who had just died of Covid. He jumped out of the second-floor window of his office to escape, suffering multiple fractures.

“There was a parallel between coronavirus and Camus’ plague. People started to blame the authorities,” says Prof Lellou.

In Camus’ novel, the Cathedral of Sacré-Cœur in downtown Oran – now a public library – was the setting for a fiery sermon delivered by the Catholic priest, Father Paneloux, who tells the congregation they have “deserved” the calamity which has befallen them.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Algeria’s mosques have been closed and religious leaders like Sheikh Abdelkader Hamouya have been delivering health messages and sermons online.

He has a reputation as a progressive but when he reflects on the meaning of the pandemic, there are echoes of Camus’ 1940s Jesuit priest.

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s a message from Allah to believers, and to all people, to come back to him. To wake up!” he says.

Virus halts protests

Many Algerians tell me that the real danger they face is less the coronavirus itself and more the way the authorities are exploiting it for other purposes.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe protesters want reforms in a country where a third of young people are unemployed

Before the pandemic brought the world to a standstill, Algeria was swept up in a wave of peaceful protests – known as the Hirak, Arabic for “Movement” – which eventually forced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down in April 2019 after 20 years in power.

Despite the celebrations that followed, the candidates to replace the aged president all belonged to the old guard. A former prime minister became head of state in December after widely boycotted elections.

Abdelmadjid Tebboune promised to extend a hand to the Hirak movement to build a “new Algeria”. He talked of reforms and the need to “separate money from politics”.

But with no sign of desperately needed jobs, protests became increasingly tense, with scores of activists arrested.

The authorities say Algeria is threatened by a rerun of the bloody violence of the 1990s – known as “the black decade”.

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image captionYoung volunteers have been distributing donated food aid to needy families during the lockdown

Just as the stand-off seemed to be reaching a climax, coronavirus emptied the streets. Activists like Afiff Aderrahmane agreed to temporarily halt the protests.

The web designer threw himself into charity work, setting up a website to put donors in touch with organisations which distribute food and other aid to needy families and the homeless during the lockdown.

“The Hirak during the quarantine transformed itself into one enormous act of solidarity,” he says.

Solidarity during a crisis is a major theme in The Plague.

Mr Aderrahmane could be seen as a modern-day version of Camus’ character, Jean Tarrou, who organises sanitary teams of volunteers to accompany doctors on house visits, transport the sick and support those in quarantine.

“In fact many Algerians have something in common with him… the urge to help others in difficult times,” says Mr Aderrahmane.

Fascism and repression

The sanitary teams organised by Tarrou may reflect Camus’ own experience of fighting in the French resistance.

image copyright@Nime_BD

image captionWalid Kechida, portrayed here by cartoonist Nime, is behind bars for irreverent images shared on Facebook

Written just after World War Two, the novel has often been interpreted as an allegory for the Nazi occupation of France with the rats that bring the disease representing the “brown plague” of fascism.

But it can be interpreted in myriad ways and may also contain lessons for the excesses of an authoritarian state.

Walid Kechida,

the young creator of Facebook page Hirak Memes, was charged in April with offending the president and religious authorities with his irreverent images.

Although the authorities released some political prisoners to mark Independence Day on 5 July, many high-profile detainees like Kechida remain behind bars.

Earlier this month, prominent journalist Khaled Drareni was sentenced to three years for “inciting an unarmed gathering” and “endangering national unity”.

The government also passed a controversial law against “fake news” and blocked three websites that had been covering the pandemic and protests.

From 4,000 miles away, a radio station has been trying to fill the information gap.

Radio Corona International was set up by Abdallah Benadouda, an Algerian journalist now based in Providence, Rhode Island, in the US.

In 2014, he got on the wrong side of Said Bouteflika, the then-president’s brother, was sacked, blacklisted and after getting death threats, he and his wife fled.

The radio station airs each Tuesday and Friday to pay homage to the days of the street protests – and Benadouda says it helps to keep the flame of the Hirak burning.

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media captionCelebrations after the president of Algeria resigned

“I’m trying to do my best to be part of the revolution. So my body is in Providence but my mind and my heart are in Algeria.”

In The Plague, there is a French journalist – Raymond Rambert – who’s been sent to report on housing conditions in Oran and finds himself trapped as the city goes into lockdown. He is desperate to return home.

I think of Benadouda as the mirror opposite of Camus’ character. He is a journalist stuck on the outside, yearning to get back in. And his anguish increases with the mounting repression in Algeria as he worries about the safety of his contributors there, where frustration is increasing.

‘Inoculated against violence’

But like the vast majority of Algerians, Benadouda fears chaos. During the 1990s when the military fought an Islamist insurgency, 200,000 people died and 15,000 were forcibly disappeared.

Abdelkader Djeriou, the star of a gritty TV drama set in Oran, agrees. The actor often addressed huge crowds during the Hirak and was briefly imprisoned last December.

“Our experience of what we call ‘the black decade’ has inoculated us, it gave us some maturity to not be confrontational, and to avoid violence.

“This pandemic has really caused the mask to slip. We’ve seen that it’s civil society which helps the poor and those in need.”

Camus understood that when disaster strikes, people show their true colours.

The current crackdown on anti-government protests is a far cry from the freedom Algerians enjoyed at the start of the Hirak.

Algerians who know the novel might have recognised Camus’ warning against complacency at the very end of the book when he says that the plague bacillus – however the reader interprets it – never dies or disappears for good.

You can listen to Lucy Ash’s BBC World Service Assignment programme about Algeria’s Plague Revisited here.

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Another blow as Judge throws out Kiggundu’s lawyer Muwema



When court sat on Friday to hear the Kiggundu’s application to stop independent audit, he did not have a written application, and Justice Henry Adonyo instead ordered the plaintiff’s lawyer Fred Muwema to go make a written application seeking court to dismiss the audit and return to court on September 30 for a hearing of the application. But this adds more pressure on Kiggundu who is choking with the loans.

On 31 August, the judge ordered the Institute of Certified Public Accountants of Uganda (ICPAU) to carry out and independent audit into the accounts of the businessman and financial statements exchanged between the two parties, and present a report to court.

When asked by journalists why he has filed for an application seeking dismissal of the audit, Fred Muwema had this to say. “We are saying that let the validity and legality of those credit facilities (loans) be decided first before you can audit” He said.

The ruling on the application of the main suit to determine whether the businessman owes loan arrears to the bank is set for 5th October 2020, after which a date for hearing of the case will be set.


Hamis Kiggundu through his companies Ham enterprises and Kiggs International (U) ltd sued DTB branches in Kenya and Uganda for deducting money from his accounts something which the bank contends and said they only acted as per the loan agreement of deducting 30% from Kiggundu’s accounts to recover the credit facilities rendered to him between February 2011 and September 2016

But Court documents filed by the bank in their defense shows that Kiggundu, between February 2011 and September 2016, was granted various credit facilities by the said DTB Banks.

First, via Ham Enterprises Limited, Kiggundu obtained a loan of $6,663,453 and another Sh2.5bn from the DTB (U) to finance his projects in the real estate business.

Later, according to New Vision, he got a facility worth $4.5m through Kiggs International (U) Limited from DTB (K) and mortgaged his properties, which include Plot 328 located at Kawuku on Block 248 Kyadondo, three plots that include 36, 37 and 38 on Folio 1533 Victoria Crescent II situated in Kyadondo and land on Makerere Hill Road on LRV 3716 Folio 10 Plot 923 Block 9.

Documents show that as of January 21, 2020, Kiggundu was in default on payment obligations of $6.298m on the loan facility of $6.663m, as well as sh2.885b on the demand overdraft facility of sh1.5b and the temporary demand overdraft facility of sh1b.

The banks say that Kiggundu was in default on the payment of another $3.662m out of a total loan facility of $4m and another $458,604 on a loan facility of $500,000, as of January 21, 2020.

The DTB consequently served him with a demand notice to either pay up or lose the assets that he submitted as collateral security. The bank threatened to attach a plot on Makerere Hill Road and other prime commercial properties.

Analysts says that Kiggundu’s lawyer is playing delaying tactics aimed at stopping the independent audit as ordered by the court earlier. Kiggundu had wanted court to believe his own audit of loan transactions, but that would amount to injustice to the banks that gave him money-DTB Uganda and DTB Kenya.

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Minister Rukutana charged with attempted murder, remanded




The state minister for Labour, Gender and Economic Development Mwesigwa Rukutana has been remanded to Kyamugorani prison in Mbarara district.

Rukutana appeared before Ntungamo Grade One magistrate Nazifah Namayanja this afternoon from where he was charged with seven offences related to attempted murder, assault, malicious damage, and threatening violence.

Rukutana was captured in a video that went viral on social media showing him grabbing a gun from one of his bodyguards and started shooting at a vehicle belonging to supporters of his political rival Naome Kabasharira. At the time of the incident, Rukutana had just lost the Rushenyi country NRM flag to Kabasharira.

The prosecution alleges that on September 5, 2020, at Kagugu village in Ntungamo district, Rukutana and others still at large assaulted Julius Niwamanya and threatened to kill or injure him together with three others. The others are Stuart Kamukama, Dan Rwibirungi, and Moses Kamukama. 

It is also alleged that Rukutana also willfully and unlawfully damaged a motor vehicle registration number UAR 840X Toyota Rav 4 type which belongs to Moses Muhumuza.

According to the Judiciary public relations officer, Jameson Karemani, Rukutana has not taken a plea of these charges against him since they can only be tried by the chief magistrate who was not in court today.

As a result, the magistrate decided to send him to Kyamugorani, awaiting his return to court on Tuesday.      

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Lira district headquarters closed over COVID-19




Lira district headquarters have been closed after one staff tested positive for COVID-19 last week. 

On Monday morning, district staff were blocked at the gate with only the deputy chief administrative officer, his secretary and the receptionist allowed access to their offices. 

Paul Samuel Mbiiwa, the deputy chief administrative officer says that only heads of department will be allowed at the headquarters while the rest will work from home. He adds that the restriction will help to curb the spread of the virus.

“You see corona is not a joke. We have taken a step at fighting it and that is why you are seeing the staff outside. Even in my office here I do not want people to come if there is anything we can discuss on the phone.”

Francis Okello Olwa, a senior community development officer who doubles as the district spokesperson says that the entire district offices will be fumigated and closed for two days.

Health authorities in the district are planning to take samples from all the staff because they could have interacted with the one who tested positive. Currently, there are 19 COVID-19 patients under treatment at Lira regional referral hospital.     

On Sunday four health workers at the hospital tested positive for COVID-19. Dr Patrick Odongo, a senior medical officer at the hospital also succumbed to the virus.  

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