Covid-19 crisis at Nimule-Elegu border threatens to spill over

Saturday June 6 2020

Truck drivers stranded at BLD parking at Elegu

Truck drivers stranded at BLD parking at Elegu Trading Centre Amuru District recently. As the main gateway into Southern Sudan from the port of Mombasa, the Nimule-Elegu border post is of strategic importance to the EAC region. FILE PHOTO 


The Ministry of Internal Affairs on Thursday sealed off its headquarters in Kampala after one of its own staff tested positive for Covid-19 at Elegu border post in Amuru District.

The Nimule-Elegu border post has become an infection zone, with more than 200 cases now reported from the place.

Sources within Internal Affairs ministry said their senior staff had interacted with other colleagues at the head office, forcing the Ministry of Health to close the headquarters on Jinja Road in Kampala.

The result is the latest in a string of Covid-19 positive cases emanating from Uganda’s northern neighbour, throwing the country into panic.
Already, seven health workers were last week confirmed Covid-19 positive, all from the north.

The eighth health worker to test positive for Covid-19 was registered at Mulago in Kampala on Thursday.
Mr Jacob Siminyu, the Internal Affairs ministry spokesperson, had earlier confirmed that one of their own had tested positive for the contagious virus and had been evacuated to Mulago National Referral Hospital for management.

“There is one officer who tested positive from Elegu. He was repatriated to a health facility and picked up by the Ministry of Health officials and he is now at Mulago from where they are taking care of him,” Siminyu said.
Asked about the safety of the other staff and what measures the ministry has put in place to protect the frontline immigration workers, Mr Siminyu said they have been given personal protective equipment and other supplies.


“On the issue of safety, we provide personal protective equipment, facemasks and sanitisers to all our staff. But you know Covid-19 is a behavioural disease. If you don’t maintain personal protection, for example, you are at risk. If you touch your soft parts, you will be at risk. So I ask all our officers to be vigilant and cautious. They should always put on facemasks and shields as frontline workers,” he said.

Crisis at Elegu
While Uganda has imposed strict measures to stop the spread of Covid-19, the situation across the border has remained precarious.
An internal briefing to the Ministry of Health states: “…only God knows and can protect South Sudanese. The leaders behave more recklessly instead of being role models. Generals sleep in the same squeezed hotels with all their escorts. Even members of the national taskforce do the same. The issue of social distancing is not there, people don’t wash hands, and are seen walking freely, no wonder many may test positive.”
“There are many death cases but go unreported,” the briefing added.

The situation across Uganda’s northern neighbour is so worrisome that it may invalidate Uganda’s efforts.
Quoting sources from inside South Sudan in Nimule district, a source whose identity is under protection at Elegu border post said: “There is free movement and interaction of people all over the different towns. Bars have remained opened, with people drinking and interacting like before Covid-19.”

The source said markets have remained open, with people freely socialising in the markets. So, the truck drivers join the free life there for the time they are in those places.

Most Non-Governmental Organisations have scaled down operations in South Sudan. The source said this has an effect that all the good social and health education messages they were managing before have been reduced. The source said most of the ruling class officials don’t care and threaten the technical staff who try to do the right things.

“There is implementation challenges as the few people from the ruling class, who are illiterate, don’t want to listen to any technical advice from staff who are more informed and majority are not from the ruling class,” the source said.

Covid-19 taskforce cases
Several members of the South Sudan Covid-19 national taskforce and other high-ranking government officials have tested positive to the disease and the source said the figures are higher than those reported.

“There is more prevalence rate among the VIPs as they enjoy socialising and even hugging each other. The only thing is, the media is barred from publicising the information,” the source said.

Crisis at parking yards
Long distance truck drivers have been the main source of infections coming to Uganda.
However, while drivers from other countries are turned away at the point of entry when they test positive, the same is not happening at Elegu border post with South Sudan.

Sources on the ground say samples are taken and truck driver are allowed to proceed to their destinations.
The impact is that by the time they are intercepted, they would have already interacted with many contacts.
Capt Mike Mukula, the NRM vice chairperson for Eastern Uganda, on Wednesday tweeted that several people in Teso Sub-region have been infected by a driver who passed through the Elegu border post.

“In Teso, one case of a driver/businessman who came through Elegu border post has infected several people in Soroti, Kumi and possibly Bukedea now…the strain from South Sudan appears to be more aggressive and highly infectious...,” Mukula tweeted.

Back in South Sudan, drivers said the places where they are forced to park have no clean sanitary facilities and are forced to defecate in the open. Our sources said accessing clean water remains one of the challenges they face and that drivers are sometimes forced to stay for five days without bathing.

“We don’t see social distancing and strict follow up of handwashing with soap as seen here in Uganda. Again, the majority of the truck drivers think there is no coronavirus and they are just in a hurry to make business. The places where they park is crowded, you can’t even complain or else risk being tortured,” the source said.

The source said many drivers are kept in confinement for more than two weeks and freely mix within their circles.
“When releasing vehicles to Uganda, they do it at will. They might say, today we release only 100 cars, and that is it. They have a long line of cars waiting inside South Sudan, but they can’t do much. People don’t wear masks and the enforcement is relaxed, unlike in Uganda.”


Ministry speaks out

But the Ministry of Health says the problem with South Sudan needs a regional approach. Dr Joyce Moriku Kaducu, the State minister for Primary Healthcare, says Uganda, South Sudan and the other East African Community member states need to form inter-governmental and inter-ministerial committees to handle the cross-border issues.

“We have seen the problem coming from South Sudan through Elegu and we have said the problem can only be solved if these governments work together. Our heads of state must champion this and I know they have met and said it is the ministers of health to come up with technical plans on how to address the problems. We cannot work alone and succeed if South Sudan is still facing these huge challenges,” Dr Moriku said.

She said through regional approach, Uganda may help South Sudan with the expertise they lack.
She said the problem has been the long-time taken for the results to come out and now that testing centres have been established in Adjumani, Gulu University and Arua to address the challenges emanating from South Sudan.

“The Adjumani centre must have already started working, which I need to confirm. There is also another centre in Gulu University so we hope this will reduce the turnaround time for the results so that we deal with positive cases expeditiously,” she said.