This is a horrible message to write, and we’re deeply sorry to be sending it. Over the next few paragraphs, let me explain how we arrived at this decision.
2020 has been incredibly challenging for so many people, including the community of Masaka and all us at The Uganda Marathon.
Uganda has fought through some of the toughest lockdown measures in the world. All borders were closed for months. Children missed over 6 months of education through school closures. Businesses banned from trading and all gatherings forbidden. A country with 52 intensive care beds in the entire country was unprepared to treat a pandemic – so they had to prevent it before it could take hold.
But against this backdrop, together alongside hundreds of runners from previous Uganda Marathons, so many people have donated, supported, cheered on and contributed to keeping our community in Masaka alive and fighting.
With your help, two isolation wards were funded and built at the local hospital. Over thirty tonnes of food was offered to more than 3,000 families suffering, with no income. Handwash and temperature check equipment was made available to all 14 rural medical clinics. PPE including face shields given to every medical professional in the main hospital. Income support grants were funded to all 35 seasonal marathon staff facing unemployment. You have helped achieve so much and brought hope and resilience to a horrible situation.
We owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone who has supported us and Masaka this year, not just for all of the above, but also for the touching and heartfelt understanding and supportive messages that so many of you have sent through, given the circumstances and the cancellation of the 2020 event.
Which leads us to this message. Right now, the news in ‘developed’ nations isn’t as bleak as it has been – a vaccine is being rolled out, thankfully. However, as we look to the situation in Uganda we, sadly, must be honest and realistic.
All of our international staff, and most of our wonderful, brave and bold Uganda Marathon runners – are in low-risk, low-priority groups, and it looks very doubtful that any of us will be vaccinated by mid-May (the latest date that a vaccine would provide immunity for at the commencement of the event). This means that we could well be creating a super-spreader event by bringing in runners – mainly from US, UK and EU – countries currently experiencing the worst outbreaks globally – into a country with no vaccine available and just a handful of ventilators and ICU beds to deal with those who might fall ill because of us.
Furthermore, roll-out of vaccines to developing nations such as Uganda is scheduled to begin later in 2021, and until then the likelihood of being able to hold a mass-participation event such as a marathon looks low to impossible. The Ugandan government is still restricting outdoor gatherings to 200 people. Which is barely enough to cover international runners, let alone local entrants, event team, community, artists and every other aspect of what makes this event so special and memorable. Given the nature of the event week, it’s simply not possible to create this immersive cultural volunteering experience, with a mass participation sporting event – and do it justice – with the necessary social distancing in place. We have explored solutions such as mass testing and group “bubbles” in the community but it would be next to impossible to strictly carry these out, without seriously impacting your experience and enjoyment.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there is the upcoming Ugandan General Election. This is an event that happens every five years, and every five years President Museveni is declared the winner amidst a short sharp burst of violence and unrest. The election is scheduled for 14th Jan 2021, however the swearing in of the new President will take place mid to late May.
Uganda is largely an extremely safe place to visit, and politically very stable. Over the last 5 years – including the previous election year – runners have never seen instances of unrest or been given reason to believe that Uganda is anything but a safe and beautiful place to visit in Africa. However, this election is going to be the closest and most uncertain since democracy returned to Uganda in 1986. There is likely to be unrest both over the election, and the swearing in. Furthermore, our Ugandan board of trustees is unanimous in their opinion that the pandemic will be used as a pretext to shut down the country in a bid to control this. This could well lead to a last-minute cancellation of the marathon itself, and lockdown on all movement – possibly whilst you are in Masaka yourselves. At best, our trustees expect severe disruption around the swearing in, making your arrival and final preparations for the event difficult. We have already seen unrest – including loss of life – as campaigning started last month. This is the earliest election unrest has begun in living memory, hence our new stance on its possible effects.
It is the confluence of these four factors: most visitors won’t be vaccinated, none of the local community will be vaccinated, the government will almost certainly not allow mass-participation events, and safety of yourself and the event during possible political unrest, that have led us sadly to the fact that this event – even if permitted by the Ugandan Government – would be a pale imitation of what it has been in the past, and will be again in 2022.
Whilst there is a possibility that the above issues will resolve by May 30th, there is also a strong possibility that they will not. For both yourselves and us, the implications of being forced to make this decision – or having it taken out of our hands by the Government – last minute in April or May is far worse. It’s still possible for most participants to cancel or amend vacation/flight plans. Cancelling now also means the event is financially secure enough to take the hit and still be certain to take place subsequently, in June 2022. By April most of our non-refundable expenses would be committed and the cancellation would be the end of the organisation, the race, and your chance to experience this incredible experience.
We understand the timing of this – just before Christmas – is rubbish. It’s terrible for us too, yet the growing election unrest, and depressing and unrelenting Covid waves have meant this is the best decision to take, and take now. We are letting you know at exactly the same time we are telling our event team – giving you as much notice as possible. The New Year is a time when people’s attention turns to training, signing up for marathons, the coming summer’s holidays – and we would only be giving false hope and assurance if we went into that period telling you – and others thinking about registering – “looking great, all systems go”.
At this point, the only thing that we can say with complete certainty is that the Uganda Marathon team is 100% committed to holding this event a year later, in June 2022. This decision heartbreakingly means redundancies for the team, now. However, your team have committed to stay on as part-time volunteers and keep the fire burning until we can pick up where we left off in 2022. Thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.
If you are currently registered for the 2021 event then your place has been deferred to the 2022 event. In 18 months you’re invited to spend a week getting to know incredible projects, working to help the community in Masaka, and stand next to them on the starting line of The Uganda Marathon, preparing to run though the breathtaking tracks of rural East Africa. After a week of helping a community recover from the worst economic crisis in a generation. Your story is going to be brilliant – frustratingly just more patience before you get to write it.
This information is coming to you as we are confirming it. Apologies for the torrent of text – we want to give you all the information as we have it, as soon as we have it, before any new year plans start to take shape.
This has been a very difficult decision, and we are immensely sad to have had to make it. This is made especially difficult as the projects in Masaka are currently in their greatest need since the first event in 2015. We will still be working to support them in any way we can throughout 2021 – including a virtual race on June 6th – and making the 2022 event absolutely worth your wait.
Please please do contact us with any questions you have, any thoughts etc. We’re in this together, and we will make a difference, together, in Masaka over the next 18 months.
With love and thanks, from all of us:
Andy M, Henry B, Lizzie, Andy B, Andy T, Tom T, Eric, Ian, Andrew M, Cissy, Henry W, Julia, Edna, Esther, Faridah, Adam, Tom C, Saidi, Moses, John, Shadia, David, Becca, Katie, and the hundreds of people who you’ll meet and run with in Masaka in 2022.