Covid-19: Fixing the challenge of transnational truck drivers

Tuesday May 5 2020



Nicholas Sengoba

Nicholas Sengoba 

By NICHOLAS SENGOBA

Uganda has so far recorded 97 cases of the dreaded Covid-19. Fifty-two of these have recovered, 18 are still active (under treatment) and, thank God, no one has died.

To follow Uganda’s progress on the number of people tested for covid-19, quarantined, etc., go to (https://www.health.go.ug/covid/.)

Of these 97 cases, about 30 are foreign truck drivers who ferry goods from neighbouring countries into Uganda. The drivers are tested at the border and allowed to proceed to their destination while they await results. In case they are positive, the Covid-19 taskforce officials have the task of tracking them down, securing them and safely returning them to their country of origin.

For this, the Ministry of Health (MoH) is depending heavily on Uganda Revenue Authority (URA.) In 2013, URA introduced a $5.2 million Electronic Cargo Tracking System (ECTS).

It works like this; a gadget also known as an e-Seal, which is linked to a Global Positioning System (GPS), is attached to a cargo container or vehicle as it leaves its source into Uganda. It is triggered in the system and then tracked at a command centre with huge screens or computers giving real time updates on the whereabouts of the truck.

When the goods arrive at the destination, and the container is removed, the gadget is withdrawn and disarmed by a URA officer. So the driver of the truck is only visible and traceable when the e-Seal is armed and on the truck with goods. The e-Seal is for the goods, not the driver.

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If a truck from Mombasa, Kenya, has an infected but tested driver leaves Malaba for and Internal Container Depot (ICD) in Kampala, it may take them about seven hours if we stretch it. Then the gadget is removed and the driver is now relatively free from the ‘prying eyes’ of the system.

The challenge here is that the Covid-19 test results may be ready after 48 hours. The driver may in the interim mingle with some people and infect them before the Covid-19 taskforce locates and returns them home. Worse still, they may cross out of the border and back into their country of origin without being traced.

This denies Covid-19 taskforce the opportunity to trace and isolate their contacts while they were inside the country. The driver may also have a Ugandan friend along the way, say in Mukono, who takes over the truck to deliver the container to ICD in Kampala on their behalf.

This leaves the driver some leg room to mingle with the people in Mukono before he takes back the truck after the mercenary returns from Kampala.

Definitely, this is a grey and dangerous area. My twenty cents would be that we go back in time before the ECTS. There was a physical escort system; only that this time the security officers do not seat in the trucks but in their own vehicles.

We should e-Seal the trucks but then only allow them to travel in and out of the country in a convoy under armed escort from the front and at the rear. So about 100 trucks leave the border and are handed over to another escort group in Jinja, then to another in Kampala.

The same happens on the return journey and in case of transit until they leave the Uganda. Any accidents or mechanical breakdowns should be secured by armed guards so that there is no room for leaving the vicinity of the truck and mixing with Ugandans until test results are delivered. T

he truck may then be towed away to a secure place and the driver placed under quarantine as he calls for his superiors to repair the truck. The second issue here is the one of the turn man.

There have been suggestions that each truck is only allowed one person – the driver. No, they should instead allow a turn man. The turn man acts as a mechanic and handy man in most cases.

For instance, in case of a puncture or need to inflate one of the tyres using pressure from the engine, the driver definitely needs a hand. The same happens when there is need to manually transfer fuel from a reserve tank to the main tank.

If he is alone, he may call for help from people within the vicinity and infect them in case he is carrying the coronavirus. As for the issue of using Ugandan drivers to commandeer and steer foreign trucks within the borders of Uganda, I am afraid this does not seem to be viable.

Most of the trucks on the road are not in good condition and may require a driver to ‘train’ and get used to them and their unique habits. Drivers usually know what sounds and signs their trucks communicate and thus when to stop, do some maintenance or keep pushing.

This change is also a risk to the safety of the cargo and the truck. It has implications in case the goods are insured and the new Ugandan driver causes the damage or loss of both the cargo and the truck.

That is why physical armed escort both into and out of the country will be the solution to this challenge paused by foreign truck drivers in the era of Covid-19.