Border post protocols have always been a problem; Covid-19 has really just highlighted those with tragic consequences. This scenario is a double-edged sword for the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA).
The potential of long-distance transmission of Covid-19 brought to mind Charleen Clarke’s (editorial director) award-winning piece some years ago, which highlighted how truck drivers were being infected with HIV/AIDS by prostitutes along their routes, transmitting it to their own partners on their return home. With the lethal and prolific profile of the Covid-19 virus, how convinced are we that truck drivers are not, even unknowingly, increasing the risk of spreading the virus across both provincial and regional borders?
Testing this theory was the International Journal of Infectious Diseases (IJID), which reviewed 10 weeks of public data issued by the Uganda Ministry of Health over the period March to end May 2020. IJID classified three categories in Uganda: international arrivals, community members and long-distance truck drivers. Out of a total of 89 224 persons tested, 442 tested positive during that period, of which the majority, 317 (71.8%) were truck drivers.
IJID therefore concluded that long-distance truck drivers can be considered the highest risk group for Covid-19 in Uganda. We do not know if anyone is similarly undertaking such research in SA, but it is worth noting one of the reasons why truck drivers are most vulnerable; that being their large and extensive social network over long distances, primarily urban and crowded places like border posts, trading centres or ports and goods sheds.
If, as the IJID suggests, truck drivers represent the general prevalence of the communities from where they come, this would mean that regional long-distance truck drivers, arriving from and delivering to, neighbouring countries would be considered major carriers of the virus. But let us not poke that dragon before we review the chaos that Covid-19 has manifested.
While all SA border posts require certification of negative Covid-19 results, there have been reports that, with the right amount of exchanged cash, these can be purchased illegally, as revealed at Beitbridge specifically. Obviously, transporters test their drivers but when they are stuck for days at a border in 20 km-plus queues, given the enormous hiccups and added processing of documentation by officials including Covid-19 screening and testing, many of these certifications expire.
Having to wait another 24 to 48 hours for a new test can compromise a delivery, play havoc with logistics schedules, and, worse, there is no guarantee that the drivers are practising social distancing. Beitbridge became a humanitarian crisis with at least five deaths reported, and losses for freight companies of up to R2-billion.
Freight associations Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Association (Fesarta) and South African Association of Freight Forwarders (SAAFF) pleaded with the government to heed their warnings and advice, to ensure the return of a smooth flow of goods and people, particularly given the introduction in January of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA), which aims to bring 30-million Africans out of poverty through cross-border trade.
Transporters are considered the enabler of AfCFTA, providing the means to provoke economic activity between African countries through the free movement of capital and people. The volume of trade exports could increase by some 29% by 2035 because of AfCFTA, says the World Bank, but only if supporting services work in tandem.
It may be that Covid-19 has exacerbated and weighed down border controls, but these protocols needed to be revised long before the virus reared its ugly head. And yet further compromising the industry is the number of unprovoked, sometimes violent, attacks on transporters, who are robbed of their cargo by hungry masses. With three million South Africans having lost their jobs due to the Covid-19 lockdown, it is obvious that some form of anarchy will emerge but the cost to the industry has devastating consequences for the economy, and ultimately the consumer.
The cycle of economics is such that sound and safe delivery of people and goods increases economic productivity, has job creation benefits, and attracts much-needed investment. This we know but the benefits will only flow if impacts are distributed and resources are merged to stabilise untenable situations.
The government needs to take cognisance of the industry representative associations’ advice. As an ambassador of this crucial industry, Charmont Media Global, and its publications Focus on Transport & Logistics and The Transport Manager’s Handbook, adds its voice to the union of appeals. Change is inevitable, let us make sure it is not done to us, but something we do together.
– Kerry Dimmer, guest editor