Regional truck drivers are not the most popular fellows in Uganda today. Were it not for President Yoweri Museveni repeatedly coming to their defence in his regular Covid-19 updates, the poor fellows would by now have been stigmatised out of the country, which would be to everybody’s disadvantage.
The Corona-wary population’s attitude is understandable. For over two weeks, there had virtually been no new infections of Uganda residents. This means logically, that the lockdown should have been lifted.
But with all the 52 local cases completely cured and discharged, another equal, actually higher number of cases had been registered, all truck drivers. So the lockdown had to continue.
But Museveni has been strenuously explaining that the truckers are essential or else the country would be brought to its knees. These are the guys who bring in fuel and other necessities, including salt which Uganda couldn’t manufacture until a couple of weeks back. They also carry the country’s exports out to the sea.
The president goes ahead to explain why a whopping 2,000 trucks enter the country every day. It is due to the decay of the railway system. And it is not the truckers who messed up the national and regional railways. So until the railway system is revived to beyond its past capability since it has to serve a much bigger population than it did at the collapse of the first East African Community in 1977, you have to cope with the truck men.
The president has thus been imploring his grandchildren — as he calls the millennials — to keep off the truckers. We can presume that the president’s call to the sisters is supported by the local men, not so much out of fear of the coronavirus but due to jealousy. Maybe we should call for a quick revision of the truckers’ training manual which seems to emphasise that they splash cash at local girls in every town they stop.
Practical steps are already being taken to reduce the number of truck drivers entering Uganda. These include the sensible one which should have started 43 years ago when the old EAC collapsed — bringing in fuel by ship. The MV Uhuru docked last week from Kisumu at Kampala carrying 800,000 litres of fuel — an amount that requires 40 average trucks to carry by road! So if eventually all Uganda’s imported fuel is carried by train or pipe from Mombasa to Kisumu and then onto a ship to Kampala, there would be far less truck drivers to blame for the persistence of Covid-19 in Uganda.
The port boss in Kampala was seen on TV assuring the country that the ship’s captain would not be allowed ashore and he had to turn back to go and bring more fuel from Kisumu.
But there is even no need for that assurance for nobody ever blamed airline pilots, for example, for bringing disease into Uganda. Yet the airline pilots probably do the same things in their five-star hotels as the truck drivers do in the slum shacks around the roadside towns where they stop.
But because of their numbers, the truck drivers cannot escape being a problem. But really, if some 50 truck drivers are found to be Corona positive in one month, it works out to three per day. Surely, if we had 2,000 planes landing at Entebbe airport per day from outside the country, the medics would certainly find at least three pilots to be carrying an infectious disease among them daily.
Ever an optimist, President Museveni has pointed out the positive side of finding coronavirus in the truck drivers. He says it will make the regional authorities take the health standards of the truckers as seriously as those of the pilots.
For the thorough examinations of the truckers are bound to reveal, and are already revealing other problems that they may be having, or which some of them certainly have.
The president wondered how anyone should be surprised if a guy with high blood pressure or diabetes causes an accident when driving a 40-tonne trailer. Indeed, that is not an accident; it is a logical outcome of putting a heavy truck in the hands of a sick man.
A few more speeches from Museveni and Ugandans will stop looking at truck drivers like lepers, and the girls who follow them as suicidal lunatics.
But whether in the long run more measures to reduce the trucks like the fuel ship from Kisumu will be taken, only time will tell. If the Corona wave passes sooner than later, then don’t expect serious changes from the East African authorities, as we know them.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]