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EA Business Council seeks end to COVID-19 testing for truck drivers

A health worker takes a sample from a truck driver undergoing a test for COVID-19 in Busia, a town bordering with Uganda in western Kenya on May 14, 2020.
Brian ONGORO / AFP

Kampala, Uganda | THE INDEPENDENT | The East African Business Council (EABC) has called for an end to mandatory testing of truck drivers for COVID-19 at border points, saying the resulting congestion is stifling trade among the partner states.

The EABC also wants all control systems at the various crossing points harmonized, citing Uganda-Tanzania and the Rwanda-Tanzania borders, where cargo is moving almost seamlessly. Stagnant queues of trucks headed to Uganda through the Busia border currently stretch more than 15 kilometres while the traffic snarl-up to Malaba from Kenya is as long as 30 kilometres.

With about 55 trucks covering a kilometre, it implies that more than 2,400 trucks destined for Uganda are stalled at the crossing points, which is disrupting cross-border trade and costing the economy. The snarl-ups are also disrupting the flow of goods thus increasing operational costs for traders, causing wastage of volumes of perishable goods and fueling corruption cases.

But at the same time, various border points are facing a constant shortage of COVID-19 reagents and testing kits while distressed truck drivers awaiting and collecting their test results are neither observing social distancing nor wearing protective masks.

A statement from the EABC says, “Testing COVID-19 at border points should come to a stop to ease congestion which is stifling cross-border trade and reducing trade volumes, just when the region is struggling to recover from the pandemic.”

Kenya’s Ministry of EAC Affairs and Regional Development led a group of private sector stakeholders at the Busia One-Stop Border Post (OSBP) and Malaba OSBP, to ascertain the cause and impact of the crisis on Thursday. They found out that most Ugandan truck drivers travel without COVID-19 certificates, planning to get tested at the Kenyan side of the border, resulting in congestion on the Ugandan side.

EABC Chief Executive Officer Dr Peter Mutuku Mathuki says many Ugandans cross the border to test from the Kenyan side where it is free of charge compared to Uganda which charges truck drivers 65 US dollars per test.

However, the bigger problem is on the Kenyan side with trucks entering Uganda from Kenya stalling at the border points for up to four days, waiting for testing and results for the drivers. The truck drivers were one of the categories that the government listed to pay for the test, alongside members of the public who are only seeking to know their status.

Unfortunately for the truckers, theirs is mandatory if they have to continue with the business. Their complaint was that the cost is too high and should be addressed by the government. They have even offered to share the cost of the test, saying the move has made the cost of doing business even higher.

Kenneth Ayebare, the chairman of Uganda Cargo Consolidators Association says they are forced to transfer part of the cost onto the customers, making imports more expensive.

Kenyan health officials at Malaba said that there is a shortage of covid-19 reagents, which is also delaying the testing. EABC is urging East African partner states to provide adequate reagents at the border points to accommodate the testing demand.

“It is very critical for transporters in the region to also embrace the recently launched Regional Electronic Cargo and Driver Tracking System (RECDTS) to improve the truck turnaround time and allow partner states to electronically share truck drivers’ COVID-19 test results.”, Dr Mathuki adds.

According to Uganda Bureau of Statistics, Uganda exports to Kenya stood at USD 46.9 million in August 2020, a slight decline from USD 48.3 million recorded in the same month last year, but almost double that in July 2020. Kenya’s exports to Uganda stood at USD 88 million as of August 2020, a jump from USD 53.9 million in the same period last year.

Dr Mathuki says over the period of the pandemic so far, trade has dropped by more than half, but his worried that by the end of the year, the whole region might lose billions of dollars in economic value.

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