By Faruk Kirunda
The issue of truck drivers who have tested positive for Covid-19 after going through the Eastern border post is worrying many people who regard the idea of testing them and letting them continue on their journey before knowing their results as meaningless.
So far, three foreign transnational cargo vehicle drivers, including two Kenyans and a Tanzanian, have tested positive for Coronavirus. Voices from various angles including the public have been calling on authorities to keep the drivers and their aides at border points until their status has been ascertained. This position has been resisted by, among others, President Yoweri Museveni, who, during his Sunday, April 9 address said the arrangement would be maintained.
The president reasoned that holding the drivers in the border area poses a health risk and is bad for the economy and wellbeing of people would be adversely affected. Business would be affected and supplies to the population, already short on essential needs, would further dwindle. The merchandise transported by the truckers is not only for Uganda but other countries along the Northern corridor. Uganda is landlocked. We depend on supplies which go through other countries. We cannot unilaterally cut off the supply routes when ourselves we rely on the open lines from elsewhere. Such a decision requires consultations among the concerned states.
The importance of maintaining supply lines open is connected to the wisdom of President Museveni in including supply trucks among the few categories of vehicles permitted to operate during the nationwide lockdown. If supplies are cut off, then the war against the disease will be lost since people will fall due to lack of essential items that they are used to. The economy also needs to remain alive in every aspect possible.
Statistics show that on a daily basis the trucks that enter Uganda are in hundreds. Between 700 and 1,000 cargo vehicle drivers are screened daily. If out of these, only three have tested positive for Coronavirus, it means that incidences are quite minimal and should not lead to blocking off an entire corridor. The good thing is that testing centres have been established at all border points to arrest the possibility of carriers importing infections with them.
When they crossover to Uganda and after testing, then they self-isolate in their trucks as they continue to their destination. If within 24 hours results come in and they are sick, they are accordingly officially isolated and accorded necessary treatment. The fact that they are “essential” for the survival of others means that they must take precautions to avoid spreading or contracting the disease as they do their job, otherwise they would lose their essentiality and become a liability.
There is a cultural myth surrounding truckers. This is partly responsible for the apprehension in the public. Truck drivers have always been thought of being accessory in the spread of other infectious diseases, more so those which are sexually transmitted such as syphilis, gonorrhea and Aids. They are said to have a string of lovers all along the route.
The Coronavirus era may help bring this myth to an end and help stem the spread of any ailment problematic to man and other useful living organisms.
It is to be recalled that all initial cases of Covid-19 which were recorded in Uganda were either brought in from outside. There is no way Ugandan authorities would not do all that is possible to prevent new entries. That’s why Entebbe airport was shut down for passenger travel, only leaving a window for cargo freight. I am sure it is the sane on water. Truckers should not think that they are indispensable during this time and that they must flout regulations at will. Museveni is very considerate when deciding on anything, which trait enables him balance interests of those involved in any situation but if he concludes fully that the interests of Ugandans are at stake, he stops at nothing to secure that.
I know he is continuously observing this issue and will come up with a new formula around it if necessary. Ugandans should be patient about it. Options are many including having drivers from within Uganda taking over haulage of supplies from the border points.
What Ugandans should do is put pressure on authorities manning the border district to stringently control border points and to ensure that drivers do not make any stopover in their area. They should only stop at designated points. Surveillance and monitoring patrols should be intensified!
In general, most people continue to adhere to the guidelines of the president and leaders in the various districts are enforcing then religiously. If anybody imports the virus into the country or antagonises the current strategies put in place against its spread within the borders, it will not be Museveni to blame.
Pressure should instead be directed to authorities in charge of neighbourig countries to establish that no carriers cross over into Uganda (and other sister countries) without being screened. Simple as that!
The author is a Presidential Assistant in Charge of Media Management