Uganda has had cases of truck drivers from neighbouring countries testing positive for the novel Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19). At least all or most of these are detected after tests done at border crossings, and while some presented with symptoms, others were asymptomatic.
First, what is the likelihood of the risk of infected truck drivers being carriers of the virus, and hence agents of the Coronavirus spread? Simple logic suggests that these truck drivers can’t avoid but interact with -19a number of people along the transit routes, especially along the northern corridor. They have to purchase food, a drink, and “resting services” all along the routes. Therefore, they are a potential agent of virus spread.
Second, there is nothing, at least publicly communicated, or known as a common East African Community (EAC) policy on managing the COVID-19 pandemic or guidance on its management. As currently evident, each of the EAC Partner States is independently putting their best foot forward in rolling back the spread of the virus at home.
Preventive measures have hence varied from country to country, primarily informed by volumes of confirmed and suspected cases, with some commonality around the closure of airports, border crossings and domestic lockdowns characterized with standard operating procedures covering stay at home regimes, regular hand washing, and physical distancing aka social distancing and voluntary self-isolation. The exceptions to these rules have included the essential service category such as health workers, food and services transport operators and drivers, among others.
At the intra-region level, allowing cross border transit of essential goods and services was a common natural reaction by EAC governments. This is in part, and many may appreciate, to avert a potential food crisis in an already disrupted supply chain in the region and around the world.
One risk has, however, been left at large: truck drivers infected or who get infected while enroute to their destinations, a potential risk to an already vulnerable group of people: customers and border control officials, food and accommodation service vendors with whom these drivers inevitably interact across the region. Aware that the virus spreads through physical contact and that all these individuals and groups have either a work colleague, a child, a spouse, and a relative or friend they get in contact with almost daily, the risk of COVID-19 spread by this factor is imminent.
This undoubtedly puts the whole populace in, especially the EAC region, at high risk. A question begging answers is: How should the governments in the EAC region handle this?
How then, even at the last minute, should EAC government authorities handle this existential risk?
A quick win common standard policy solution could be:
Truck drivers set to move goods and services along the northern corridor or within and across the EAC region should get tested as follows:
a) Reduce the number of personnel per truck from usually (common) three down to one occupant (driver only)
b) The driver gets tested and certified at source before setting off from country of origin.
c) The driver gets checked and possibly tested again at the first transit border post.
d) The driver gets checked at each of the next border posts (depending on the destination, which determines the number of border posts driver has to cross).
e) The driver is adequately equipped with personal protection gear (face masks, hand gloves, and sanitizers) to prevent in-transit infection and counter infection.
f) The driver is adequately equipped with dry food options, and sleeping clothes (blankets, warm clothing) and only rests/sleeps in the truck at safe city/urban centres at police or petrol stations along the routes.
g) Finally, the driver is checked and possibly retested at a final border post, before entering the country of final destination.
Last but not least critical intervention, is for the drivers to be interchanged at points of entry. This suggests for one truck driver to drive up to the border post of one country and handover the truck to another truck driver at the next border post – to be repeated until the final border post. In this case, the source driver would drive say from Dar es Salam or Mombasa up to Busia and handover to a Ugandan driver who drives through Uganda. Then the Ugandan driver drives to Katuna and hands over the truck to a Rwandan driver until the final destination.
The above are some of the most natural low hanging fruits of common policy options and standard operating procedures, presumably easy for the EAC Partner States to agree on and swiftly implement through cooperation, communication, and coordination between respective ministries of health in the region.
Atuyambe, is the Head of Leadership and Governance at the Training Centre for Development Cooperation in Arusha, Tanzania