East African truck drivers face COVID-19 backlash

Kenya’s Namanga border has been classified as a high-risk area by the government after recording a high number of COVID-19 infections in the area, especially among truck drivers.

Drivers who transport essential goods to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan say they are harassed and attacked because of rumors that drivers are transmitting the coronavirus across East Africa.

Truckers transporting goods across the eastern Africa region to landlocked countries say that they face difficulties at border points because of the virus.

“The communities along the routes that we use are attacking us, pelting us with stones whenever we stop to take a rest,” said Felix Juma from Kenya’s Rift Valley region, who ferries oil to South Sudan through Uganda via the busy Namanga border. “The police, the soldiers, and the governments are all hostile to us fearing that we are not only transporting goods but the deadly virus. These are issues that Uganda government needs to address.”

He warned residents from landlocked nations to expect long delays in the delivery of goods and services.

Juma has been stuck at the border for five days but said his colleagues “have been here for more than 10 days. The truck lines are so long and there is poor service and the health facilities that check for COVID-19 are understaffed.”

At the Katuna – Gatuna border of Uganda and Rwanda, drivers are not allowed to cross into Rwanda. Kenyan Kimani Njoroge was forced to give his truck to a Rwandan who is assigned by the state to take the goods to its destination. Failure to comply would mean he has to pay a $500 fine and be escorted by officers who monitor his movement.

As Kenya’s diagnosed cases began to soar to 737, with four deaths, the government said Wednesday it is on high alert and will tests all truck drivers, wishing to enter, at a mobile laboratory at the Namanga border.

Businessman Martin Wechuli from Namanga told Anadolu Agency that because of the nature of their jobs, truckers are in a high risk category. “We appreciate the business but you know that truckers have many stops they mingle and interact socially with so many people at restaurants, hotel and nightclubs, what better way to spread the disease than this way, we should ground them.”

Most of the diagnosed cases reported this week for COVID-19 in Kenya have been from truck drivers. Kenya’s Health Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) Rashid Aman said the laboratory will help ease congestion at the border point.

“We also collected and tested samples from truck drivers in Tanzania at the Namanga border point on the Tanzanian side. Twenty-five of these samples tested positive for coronavirus, 23 of these are Tanzanians, one a Rwandan national and one a Ugandan national.”

Protests at the Namanga border by truckers have gotten the attention of regional governments that promised to formulate clear plans to ensure service at vital border points is not crippled.

The protests have caused hostility between communities and truckers and is threatening relations between nations that have always lived side by side in harmony.