Current Covid testing rules seem to target the pocket, not the nose

Author: Daniel K Kalinaki. PHOTO/FILE. 

What you need to know:

  • Everywhere, the efficacy of control measures is constantly being tested and adjusted, with large dollops of science and common sense, to balance between public safety and living.

South Africa’s announcement, at the end of November, that its scientists had discovered a new variant of the coronavirus was met with pandemonium as many countries banned flights and passengers from the country.

The rules happened so quickly that some passengers found they could not be allowed off the aircraft when they landed at their destinations. Many people knew then – and the whole world can now see – that the decision was silly and pointless.

First it assumed that the variant had come out of South Africa. This wasn’t true. It turned out that it had first been spotted in neighbouring Botswana in samples from visiting European diplomats.

Secondly, banning flights to and from Southern Africa was illogical. It was punishing a country for a good deed done to alert the world, and a disincentive to other countries should they find new variants. It also did not work.

The highly transmissible virus was already swirling across the world. Today many of the countries that banned flights out of Southern Africa have more cases of Omicron than the region.

We need not get into the dubious decision to ban flights from Africa while allowing those from regions with higher cases.

Many countries have walked back these flight bans. Some countries are even considering dropping the need for PCR tests for arriving air passengers.

Everywhere, the efficacy of control measures is constantly being tested and adjusted, with large dollops of science and common sense, to balance between public safety and living.

Everywhere, that is, except here. Truck drivers brought regional trade to a halt last week over Uganda’s requirement to subject them to Covid tests on arrival at a cost of $30. By one count a trucker would pay more than $250 in this Covid penalty by the time they arrived in Bujumbura from Kenya.

The truckers rejected government’s offer to reduce the cost to $25. Even an offer to waive the test fees for a week to decongest the border has left truck drivers noses out of joint. It is time to reassess the whole testing infrastructure.

One problem is inconsistency. A truck driver crossing the border is required to do a PCR test as is a plane passenger, but a man riding a bicycle or walking across the border is not. Unless the virus is powered by A-1 jet fuel or diesel, it is clear that this testing is targeting the pocket, not the nose.

In addition, it defies logic to insist on retesting air passengers who already have a negative test from a few days earlier, while asking schools not to test pupils returning to congested classrooms. Or, for that matter, allowing people to sit in crowded matatus and buses without allowing them to sit, even with social distancing, in pubs.

Like the rush to ban flights from Southern Africa, mistakes can be made in initial responses to new turns in the pandemic. But we should have the courage and humility to learn from them and discontinue them incase they cause more harm than good.

We should also be mindful of unintended consequences, as seen in cases where busybody local functionaries started dragging people out of buses to forcefully vaccinate them.

Or requiring proof of vaccination to access certain spaces which, in the absence of a fool-proof system, then saw a surge in the forging industry on Nasser Road. If it continues, we will soon have more people showing ‘proof’ of being fully vaccinated than vaccines received.

Two years in, the underlying facts are clear. Vaccination reduces the risk of serious illness and death; the priority public health policy should be to encourage people to get vaccinated, and reassure those who still have concerns about it.

Testing can be used to nudge people towards vaccination, say be requiring unvaccinated people to show proof of negative test results, done at their own cost, before entering public places. This is not how the current testing regime feels like, especially when subjected to people who are already fully vaccinated, and even have a recent history of a negative test.

And while we are at it, if we must charge for the test in dollars, let us mark the exchange rate to the market. There is currently a nice spread of almost two dollars per test, and another Shs5,000 handling fee, more if one pays by mobile money! If you can’t stop poking through our nostrils then at least don’t rifle through our pockets while at it.

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and  poor man’s freedom fighter. 

Twitter: @Kalinaki

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