Mak researchers support Govt efforts to address COVID-19 challenges, youth unemployment and drug abuse

With support from the Government of Uganda through the Makerere University Research and Innovations Fund (Mak-RIF), academics from the School of Psychology in 2020 set out to investigate and provide solutions to various national development challenges. Through different projects, the The Vice Chancellor, Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe (C) with the Principal CHUSS, Dr Josephine Ahikire (5th L) and the researchers at the end of the dissemination eventsresearchers sought to, among other issues, establish and address the psychological impact of the public health measures put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19, the factors undermining adherence to the measures, and the COVID-19 related mental health challenges in refugee settlements. The researchers also investigated factors fueling drug abuse in schools and the causes of unemployment among the youth and refugees in the country. On 1st-2nd February 2021, the researcher disseminated their findings to the Makerere University community and general public, making strong recommendations to avert the challenges. The joint dissemination seminars were graced by the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe.

Research projects and recommendations for addressing the challenges

Under a project titled; Children’s Tales: the Reality of COVID-19 related trauma on school children in rural Busoga, a team of researchers led by Dr Richard Balikoowa investigated the linkage between the COVID-19 preventive measures and the increasing trauma amongst school children in three representative districts of Busoga sub-region. Using child-friendly qualitative methods like drawing, story circles and focus group conversations, the researchers assessed over 418 children’s perception of the public health measures and their understanding of public information about COVID-19.

Disseminating the research findings at Makerere University on 1st February 2021, Dr Balikoowa informed participants that all sampled children decried the COVID-19 preventive measures. He explained that the uncertainty (lack of clear information) on when the schools and worship centres, would open, the feeding challenges, and the different forms of violence exacerbated by the preventive measures increased trauma amongst the children. In The Vice Chancellor addressing participantstheir report, the researchers indicated that whereas 3.11% and 22.73% children reported little or no signs of trauma, 46.17% and 27.99% reported moderate and severe signs of trauma. The study however revealed that there were other underlying factors that traumatized the children, noting that COVID-19 only contributed 2.7%.

In a bid to address trauma amongst the children, the researchers called for better packaging and dissemination of information on the pandemic to ensure it reaches all children including those in rural areas. “Children have been largely neglected in all communications regarding COVID-19. There is urgent need for child-tailored messages to avoid uncertainties that may increase trauma amongst the children,” the researchers explained. They called for continued sensitization and counseling of children in a bid to avert serious psychological effects like peritraumatic and pre-traumatic stress disorders, as well as pathological aggression that may result into intergenerational and multigenerational trauma challenges.

In a study titled; “Wandering the COVID-19 Corridors: Examining the Social Distancing Prevention Measure among the Restless Youth in Uganda”, the researchers namely; Dr Florence Nansubuga (Principal Investigator), Dr Khamisi Musanje and Dr Martin Baluku sought to establish the factors undermining adherence to the social distancing measure amongst the youth. The study conducted in Kampala and Wakiso districts revealed that the attitude of the youth towards the pandemic was one of the major causes of complacency. Presenting the findings of their study, Dr Nasubuga noted that whereas 94% of the youth had sufficient knowledge about the pandemic, the majority were adamant to practice the preventive measures. “Many of the youth believed they were not susceptible to the virus –that it was a disease of old people and the whites. Others thought the disease had been turned political to fulfill the interests of those in power,” she explained. Besides attitude, the researchers observed that there were several cultural factors (habitual routines) affecting the implementation of social distancing. “In many of our cultures embracing is viewed as a sign of affection. Social distancing has therefore been perceived as a barrier not a benefit,” she noted.

The researchers observed that the health belief model on which the social distancing measure is premised disregards social norms that govern human choices and habitual routines. In the event of COVID-19, the researchers recommend the use of the social practice model, particularly the component The Principal, CHUSS, Dr Josephine Ahikire delivering her remarksof community of practice in the efforts to transform health seeking behaviors amongst the youth. The researchers call for community engagement in addressing the challenges.  “It is important for health agents/professionals to co-opt credible community agents like researchers, politicians, religions leaders, teachers, private medical practitioners and community development workers as change agents in all efforts aimed at clarifying the myths and averting the effects of the pandemic,” the researchers advised.

Investigating and Addressing COVID-19 related Mental Health Challenges in Refugee Settlements in Uganda – In this study, a group of researchers led by Dr Martin Baluku examined the impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of refugees in Uganda. The researchers also sought to assess the psychological barriers affecting adherence to the recommended COVID-19 preventive measures in refugee settlements.  Focusing on Kampala Metropolitan area and Bidi Bidi (Yumbe district), the researchers engaged 371 refugees to ascertain the challenges they were experiencing following the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent measures put place to avert the pandemic. The study revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the psychological challenges of the refugees. It also revealed that the perceived threat, psychological inflexibility and some acculturation styles (especially separation and marginalization) as well as avoidant coping styles were important predictors of non-adherence to the COVID-19 preventive measures. To avoid post-traumatic stress disorder and severe depression amongst the refugees, the researchers appealed to the government to scale up psychological services in the refugee settlements.

Similarly, research conducted by Dr Martin Baluku et al on Refugee Entrepreneurship and Skilling for Self-Reliance (RESS-R) underscored the need to scale up entrepreneurship in refugee settlements as one of the most feasible means for integration in the social-economic setups of host communities. The study conducted among 582 refugees in Bidi Bidi (Yumbe District), Kiryandongo, and Kampala revealed that the level of education amongst refugees was generally low to support entry into formal employment, justifying the need to engage refugees in entrepreneurial activities. 

Decent jobs demand for multiple skills that are associated with the youths’ full development. These include cognitive and non cognitive skills/soft skills to allow people relate well with others. However, there is a big skills gap created by the absence of soft skills in the current education system, a factor tremendously undermining access to decent employment among the graduate youth in Uganda. In their study titled; “Embracing Soft Skills as the Building Blocks for the Realization of Decent Employment among Youths in Uganda” researchers from the School of Psychology led by Dr The Dean, School of Psychology, Dr Grace Kibanja presided over the dissemination sessionsFlorence Nansubuga expressed concern over the low performance of youth on a number of soft skills including self-efficacy, leadership skills, communication and networking skills, yet they are critical to business success and obtaining decent work. To minimize the challenge, the researchers have called on managers of education institutions to integrate methods and activities that promote soft skills in their training and assessment programmes.

In a bid to minimize drug and substance abuse among school-going children, researchers led by Dr Leon Matagi undertook a baseline survey in primary and secondary schools in Uganda to establish the factors fueling the vice. Their study titled; “Drug and Substance Abuse (DASA) in Primary and Secondary Schools in Uganda: Baseline Survey Implications for National Sensitizations”, revealed higher levels of drug abuse in government and rural schools compared to private and urban schools. According to the researchers, drug and substance abuse in primary and secondary schools was mainly fueled by peer pressure, child neglect, lack of counseling and guidance, ignorance, easy to access drugs, stress, and weak administration. They call on the government to increase sensitization programmes, noting that knowledgeable students are less likely to engage in drug abuse. They also appeal to the government to set up strict laws against the vice.

Addressing participants at the end of the two-day dissemination event, the Vice Chancellor of Makerere University, Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe commended the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHUSS) for the renewed vigour in research. “CHUSS is increasingly turning into the leading research unit in the University. This is a great achievement and I commend you for it,” he said. The Vice Chancellor emphasized the significant contribution of the Humanities and Social Sciences to the economic transformation of nation states, noting that neglecting the disciplines would be extremely dangerous. He commended the School of Psychology for the well thought out research projects that directly address Uganda’s development challenges. “I implore you to ensure this research is result-oriented. It should not remain on your shelves but be used to contribute to policy formulation. Many of the projects are failing because they are implemented without critical research,” he noted. Commenting on the social economic transformation of the country, the Vice Chancellor said academics had a critical responsibility of ensuring the region remains stable. “We have a role to play in ensuring our countries remain stable so that our children have a good future. Without stability, there cannot be growth and we can easily be enslaved,” he explained.

The Vice Chancellor appreciated the Government for the support extended to various research projects at the University. In addition to the projects funded under Mak-RIF, the Government supports a number of other projects under the Presidential Initiative on Science and Technology.

In his remarks, the representative of the Grant Management Committee, Prof. Charles Masembe said the fund (Mak-RIF) had significantly improved the research profile of the University. “I wish to extend our sincere gratitude to the Government of Uganda for extending this funding to the University. Through this support, we have been able to conduct high impact research on national development challenges, thereby making ourselves more relevant as a university and contributing significantly to the transformation of our country,” he said. Through the Mak-RIF, the Government has so far contributed UGX60 billion towards research at Makerere University.

Prof. Masembe applauded the researchers, saying their projects had largely addressed issues from a development perspective.

The Principal of CHUSS, Dr Josephine Ahikire appreciated the teamwork exhibited by the School of Psychology in implementing the research projects. According to the Dean, School of Psychology, Dr Grace Kibanja, every academic staff has been attached to each of the 13 RIF projects at the school. The Principal also commended the school for including graduate students on the projects. She appreciated the Government for the support rendered towards research at Makerere University. She also thanked the University Management for creating an environment that enables academics to fulfill their mandate as researchers and innovators.

The two-day blended events (physical and virtual) were moderated by Dr Samuel Ouma, Dr Simon Nantamu and Dr Khamisi Musanje.

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See below the detailed presentations and pictorial of the researchers

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