Since Covid-19 became a pandemic some six weeks ago, East Africa has been engaged in a frenzied battle to stop the infections curve from rising exponentially.
A variety of measures including partial lockdowns have been instituted across the region, with varying degrees of success.
Kenya and Rwanda have seen the case burden rise despite the lockdowns while, until this week, Uganda appeared to be on course to flattening the curve.
By April 20, the number of recoveries had overtaken active cases from a peak of 63 confirmed infections. The mounting sense of optimism was deflated when, on April 23, a livid Dr Jane Ruth Aceng, Uganda’s Minister for Health, announced a rise in the tally to 74 confirmed cases. Public and even official attention quickly turned to the source of new cases—six Kenyan and five Tanzanian truck drivers.
Within hours, Kenya and Tanzania were stigmatised as the source of Uganda’s faltering effort against Covid-19. The incident amplified calls to ban cross-border movement by truckers.
Earlier, Uganda and South Sudan had both issued decrees mandating deportations of EAC citizens who test positive for coronavirus in their respective territories.
Indeed Uganda had overseen two such deportations in which Tanzanian and Kenyan long distance drivers were returned to their respective countries.
Besides being a deviation from regional protocols on free movement of people and World Health Organisation guidelines on how cases should be handled, that approach ignores practical realities. As Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has pointed out, moving sick people over long distances rather than quarantining them at the nearest facility puts the patient’s life at risk and also multiplies the potential for spread through contacts.
Covid-19 is both a health and economic emergency. The world over, decision makers are torn between saving lives and saving the economy.
As landlocked countries, the economic and health crisis in Uganda and South Sudan would be exacerbated if their umbilical cords to the coast through Kenya and Tanzania were cut off. With subdued international trade, intra-regional trade should actually be encouraged.
It is not only addressing supply deficits across the region, but it is helping dampen the prospect of hyper-inflation. It is also sustaining demand, which is vital to saving jobs.
Although concerns about Tanzania’s handling of the crisis have merit, shutting borders and forced repatriations while providing psychological comfort achieve no tangible benefit. Some of the initial proposals, such as limiting crews in long distance goods vehicles to a single driver are also not practical.
Over the ages, the temptation to present disease as an external problem has always been difficult to resist. In Europe, syphilis was called the German disease by the French while in Britain it was the French disease. Yet that did not stop the onslaught of the disease that killed humans for four centuries before a cure was found.
Pre-testing long distance drivers before they cross borders and tracking their movement through existing customs technology is a more rational and sustainable approach. That should address the top of mind safety concerns, while also allowing a vital trickle of commerce to continue.