25 Apr CoronaUganda #4: Keep on Truckin’ (and Testin’)
We are in week 3 of lockdown and things in Gulu remain rather quiet and calm. We have received the biggest uptick in cases of late – 11 newly confirmed cases yesterday. While Uganda has closed its airport at Entebbe and land border points, exceptions exist for the transport of important goods, including food, life-saving medication, and medical equipment, as well as fuel. Yet, our jump in cases (and indeed virtually 100% of detected cases in the past couple of weeks) have been tied to truck drivers crossing the border carrying these goods. Sometimes these driver are transiting through to deliver essential items to other landlocked nations like DRC and South Sudan.
The current protocol here is to test the drivers at the border and to allow them to continue on.
Testing capacity in Uganda has increased noticeably in the past few weeks, going from rough 150 to now over 1000 people per day, showing the progress the country has made in ramping up its efforts to address the dreaded COVID-19. Yesterday, there were over 1,300 tests conducted; just over 1,000 for truck drivers alone. Still, much more needs to be done to increase testing capacity (like virtually every other country on the planet).
While Makerere University, one of the most respected higher learning institutions in Africa, has been commissioned to develop localized testing kits that can drastically cut down the costs of testing to increase capacity (read about some exciting progress here), there continue to be snags in getting results quickly. It is hard to know here what the lag time is between test and verified result, initially it was 2 days, the Uganda Virus Research Institute can churn out results in a mere 4 to 6 hours. Yet, this time estimate does not account for transporting samples from border points to the centre, which cannot happen continuously and may create backlog.
While the impacts of testing capacity have obvious implications for lifting lockdown restrictions, the worrisome thing here is the lag time between test and result while truck drivers make their way through the country. Museveni and other officials have warned truck drivers not to stop anywhere on their journeys – but these people still have bodily functions that require them to stop, including for eating and rest.
Women have explicitly been warned not to interact with drivers along the road (not only are many women roadside providers of on-the-go drinks and snacks, but truckers are known to engage with sex trade workers). So many of the women (and men) that are prone to and rely on close interaction with truckers live hand-to-mouth, so finger wagging from the government to either women or truck driver not to interact with one another might not be a strong enough deterrent.
There is reportedly a GPS tracking system that helps law enforcement monitor the movement of these drivers – though the number of drivers passing the numerous points is estimated to be over 1000 per day, and I have reservations about whether there is indeed enough equipment to monitor all vehicles in this fashion. We read tweets from the government on a daily basis of their efforts to them hunt down the drivers who are positive, seemingly in a dangerous game of cat and mouse.
People seem to be increasingly worried (and indeed angry) at the government’s continued allowance of trucks through their home. We have seen protests in the US and elsewhere against lockdown restrictions, and many people here are eager to get back to work to put food in their families’ bellies.
With virtually all cases now coming from abroad the drivers themselves may be at risk of being targeted by fearful communities who are watching closely the virus’ progression of neighboring countries. Worry is mostly concentrated on Kenya and Tanzania, as these are where most of the traffic flow stems from. Social media video of dozens of Kenyans escaping a quarantine spread on networks like wildfire were cause for alarm for some. But more worrisome perhaps is the situation in Tanzania – specifically the government’s lax response and steadfast position that the virus can be “prayed away”. If Uganda has for far contained the outbreak fairly well, there is an increasing danger coming from neighbouring countries, especially Tanzania.
Truckers, the government says, cannot be stopped nor delayed from transporting these essential goods. While numerous Ugandans understand this necessity, some are calling for a full closure of borders. Others have suggested clever adaptations like getting agreements with companies to sanitize trucks and switch drivers at the border points. This would also employ some Ugandans who are in dire need of employment right now, but could inflate costs to companies, not to mention goods’ prices or decrease payments to the current fleet of drivers. If the world can move mountains to stop the spread, this option could be considered to put people’s mind at ease and protect the current drivers.
Museveni, however, continues to whinge on about his conception that the spread is due to people’s indiscipline and carelessness – effectually blaming people for falling ill. But with the vast majority of cases now being imported, will he change his tune?