How truck drivers are putting Uganda's Covid-19 fight to the test

Monitored. Health workers at Masaka hospital attend to a 34 -year-old truck driver who tested positive for Covid-19 before he was repatriated to Tanzania at the weekend. PHOTO BY ISSA ALIGA

By yesterday, three foreign trans-boundary cargo vehicle drivers, including two Kenyans and a Tanzanian, had tested positive to coronavirus, according to Uganda’s Ministry of Health.

This is within a period of one week. Hundreds of cargo vehicles come into Uganda, others transiting through daily.

This has created apprehension among Ugandans, calling on authorities to keep the drivers and turnmen at border points until their status has been ascertained.

Mr Emmanuel Ainebyoona, the senior communications officer in the Ministry of Health, on Monday told Daily Monitor that 700-1,000 cargo vehicle drivers are screened daily.
After samples have been taken from them, they are released and their status is known after 24 hours.

During Sunday address to the nation, President Museveni said this arrangement will be maintained.

The President said keeping them at the border poses a health risk, is expensive to their bosses and derails business, which ends up hurting the economy.

Mr Museveni instead advised Ugandans to avoid coming into unnecessary contact with them and asked security to ensure the drivers do not mingle with the public on their routes until their statuses have been ascertained.

Stopovers banned
Authorities in various districts had come up with various measures and have shared opinions on handling cargo vehicle drivers and people using illegal border points to move in and out of the country.

The Bukedea District Covid-19 task force on Friday resolved that the drivers should not make any stopover in the area. Some have been stopping in trading centres to siphon fuel to sell to local dealers, rest and buy food.

“These truck drivers are meant to stop at designated points and Bukedea is not one of them so from now on, we shall not tolerate any of them making a stop at the district since we are not sure of their status,” Mr Charles Icogor, the deputy Resident District Commissioner, said.

Five women, who came in contact with a coronavirus truck driver, have been put in isolation centre in Soroti Municipality.

Mr Icogor said security personnel are on the highway daily doing the surveillance. Mr Ezra Tugume, the district police commander, said they were closely monitoring lodges so that truck drivers don’t use them as meeting points with women.

“Some of these lodges had closed doors but were still operating from inside. That is why these drivers were able to meet with sex workers,” Mr Tugume said. He added that they had arrested at least 30 people who were found drinking in groups inside closed bars and lodges in Bukedea Town.

Mr Patrick Odongo, a public health specialist in Lira District, said trucks should have designated stopping points and this should be widely publicised. “No truck should stop in undesignated areas,” he added.

Mr Jimmy Ogwal Kata, Lira District surveillance focal point person, said more than 30 people have been isolated in at the School of Comprehensive Nursing and Midwifery.

The group is said to have come into contact (directly and indirectly) with a Kenyan truck driver who tested positive.

The driver, who passed through, Busia, Tororo, Mbale, Bukedea, Kumi, Soroti, Kaberamaido and Dokolo districts stopped at Abutadi Trading Centre, Amach Sub-county in Lira to buy bananas from two women who are also now under quarantine.

Authorities in Kyotera District have expressed disappointment with authorities in the neighbouring Tanzania who have not enforced total lockdown and still allow people to freely do business and attend both public and religious gatherings.

“What is puzzling us is that our neighbours only enforced one guideline of closing schools and other education institutions, but there isn’t total lockdown and people move as they want,” Dr Edward Muwanga, the district health officer, said.

“At Mutukula border point, Dr Muwanga said samples from all persons with coronavirus-like signs and symptoms had been drawn and taken to Uganda Virus Research Institute for testing.

At the entrance, one has to wash hands first, then proceed for screening. For the truck drivers, we take their samples whether one shows signs of Covid-19 or not,” he said.

Dr Muwanga said an isolation centre had been set up at Kalisizo General Hospital.

Mr Abbey Ngwiire, the district police commander, said there is a 24 hour security presence at porous border points like Kyakatuuma in Mutukula Town Council; and Kamuli in Rakai District to ensure that illegal travellers don’t cross into Uganda.

“UPDF soldiers have permanently been deployed here to beef up our team and we are religiously following the presidential directives and one can only access the country through the main entrance at the common border post at Mutukula,” he said.

Mr Mukasa Mbidde, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly, said the Tanzanian government is still reluctant to enforce all Covid-19 guidelines issued by World Health Organisation.

“As presidents discuss those issues at that level, let Ugandans be vigilant and report all illegal entrants so we fight the spread of the virus within our territory,” he said.

In Kasese District, Bwera Secondary School is being used as holding centre for truck drivers. They are allowed to proceed after their status has been ascertained.

“We hold those drivers as we take their blood samples for testing so that within 24 hours, they are allowed to continue with their journeys,” Dr Yusuf Baseke, the district health officer, said.

Lt Joe Walusimbi, the RDC, said all illegal border points have been sealed. “We have managed to close all the border illegal points. Whoever comes passes through a recognised point and must undergo the testing process before one is allowed to continue,” Dr Baseke said.

Mr Moses Nuwagaba, the Kisoro deputy RDC, said plans were under way to establish quarantine centres for the long route truck drivers entering Uganda from the DR Congo and Rwanda through the Bunagana and Kyanika border posts, respectively.

“Hopefully by next week, we shall have established the quarantine centres at Bunagana and Kyanika border posts to host the long route truck drivers as they wait for the test results.
So far the situation is normal because with the intensified deployment of the UPDF soldiers and other security operatives at border,” Mr Nuwagaba said.

He added that all Ugandans living in Kisoro that claim to be having crop gardens in DR Congo will be considered for food relief because they will not be allowed to cross over to harvest.

There is strict surveillance at the gazetted entry points in the Westnile area. However, many residents are now using illegal routes to cross markets and other business centres in the neigbouring DR Congo.

Mr Andrew Kajoyingi, the RDC, on Sunday said 28 businessmen and women last week crossed to Angola market in DR Congo but were arrested upon their return and are being quarantined.

Mr Kajoyingi said Zombo District has 75 villages that border DRC and urged local chairpersons to monitor all movements along the border.

Mr Aggrey Odong, the chairperson of Paidha Business Community, urged the traders involved in cross border businesses to stop crossing into DR Congo until it becomes safe for them to move.

While the official entry points in Busia are well managed some people are using the many illegal ones. Mr Mike Chris Okirya, the RDC, said Busia has one of the worst porous borders in the country, stretching a distance of 54km from Majanji on the shores of Lake Victoria to River Malaba.

“We have established more than 200 illegal routes along the border which is a big challenge in implementing the presidential directives,” Mr Okiriya said on Sunday.

Smuggled into country
Mr Jackson Barasa, a resident of Busia Town, said since the closure of the border, Ugandans trapped in Kenya have been coming through the porous border points facilitated by locals charging each between Shs4,000 to Shs70,000. He added that they smuggle in people who arrive at the Busia-Kenya bus terminal in the evening, at night and early morning hours.

Mr Charles Wanyama, the Buhehe Sub-county chairperson, said cases of people being smuggled in from Kenya by boats via River Sio have become rampant. “We keep monitoring them and trying to stop them from smuggling people but they wait and bring in people in the night,” he said.

The situation is not any different in Masinya Sub-county, according to Mr Sande Kagera, a resident of Bwaya Village. “Many people were being smuggled in through Bwalira and Hudutu along River Sio. We have some LCs patrolling the area but they are being threatened by some youth who are getting money out of the business,” he said.

However, the situation is moving on smoothly without any congestion of the trucks. In Namisindwa, Mr Moses Wamoto, the RDC, ordered security to shot anybody attempting to sneak into the country illegally, especially at night. Namisindwa has about 32 porous border entry points.

Lt Jude Wandera, the UPDF 3rd Division spokesperson, said all measures have been put in place to re-enforce tight security at all entry points following reports that some people were taking advantage of the porous borders to illegally enter the country putting the lives of Ugandans at risk.

In the eastern region, district leaders at the border districts have deployed at all ungazetted porous border points to counter unscreened foreign truck drivers from entering the county as part of measures to control the rapid spread of the virus. Mr Ahamed Washaki, the Manafwa RDC, said security has been beefed up at all suspected illegal border entry points following reports that some foreigners were sneaking into the country screened.

“I have directed all security agencies to deploy heavily at all illegal entry points to avoid screened people to cross with the virus,” he said.

“It will be a big risk in that they will be importing the virus into the country and definitely will antagonise with the current strategies put in place. We shall not entertain people to take advantage of these porous border points to sneak into the country,” he said.

At the Malaba and Busia borders, security has manned the entry with all truck drivers being screened against the Covid -19 virus. All truck drivers are supposed to undergo screening of the virus before crossing over.

Reported by Alfred Tumushabe, Robert Muhereza, David Oduut, Enid Ninsiima, Patrick Okaba, Peace Giramia, Ambrose Musasizi, Al-MahdiSsenkabirwa, Philip Wafula, David Awori,Kolyanga Mudhanga, Joseph Omollo & Bill Oketch.


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