A decision by South Africa’s Department of Health (DoH) to increase coronavirus protocols has been blamed for the havoc at the Beitbridge border with Zimbabwe, resulting in a building backlog of trucks stretching for several kilometres on the Harare road north of the crossing.
The directive, gazetted on December 3 and signed by health minister Zweli Mkhize, states among other things that people entering the republic “must be subjected to screening on arrival at the point of entry”.
Importantly, it requires inbound travellers crossing the Limpopo River for personal or professional reasons to provide Port Health officials with a completed health questionnaire and a “valid negative Covid-19 Polymerase Chain Reaction test result, not older than 72 hours from the date of departure from the country of origin”.
Also included in the directive is the instruction that should anyone arriving be found to display signs and symptoms of Covid-19, a medical examination entailing testing and isolation could be administered.
Unfortunately the DoH, and not for the first time either during the pandemic, has neglected to make provision for the kind of capacity that sudden and rigid rollout of stringent Covid-curbing measures requires.
According to a clearing agent based in Musina, the border has been turned into a “complete mess” since health officials started implementing the directive.
Port Health officials insist on checking everyone at the incoming gate of border control, and although a gate for abnormal freight leaving South Africa has also been made available for Covid screening, “it’s still a mess”, said the agent whose name and company affiliation is known to Freight News.
“It doesn’t matter that you split the queue for checking passengers and truck drivers, it’s still a single-lane bridge and is causing a huge back-blast of trucks that can’t move.”
Moreover, truck drivers are now getting tested on top of having to furnish health questionnaires, and although the test in question is quick, transporters want to know why this is necessary.
In addition, everything, according to Port Health authorities in its obstinate wisdom, has to happen at the two entry points where the screening is done.
It’s also stupefying that the testing section is only working between 9:30am and 5pm.
Said the agent: “Of course that makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Covid is only valid during those times. Imagine what it’s like when a bus full of passengers arrive at the border and none of them have filled in questionnaires because the bus companies don’t hand them out.
“They all gather in the same area where the drivers are tested, resulting in congestion and the crush of traffic we currently see north of the border.”
Private-sector attempts to unblock the border, with customs officials offering space to accommodate passenger screening and thereby free up the cargo lane where drivers were getting tested, had unfortunately been rejected by Port Health, the agent said.
“They’re scared that passengers could try to dodge screening, but surely there are barricading measures that could be implemented to make sure that all passengers hand in their questionnaires.”
However, it was the stupidity of limiting testing between certain hours, the agent said, that was probably having the worst impact on southbound movement at Beitbridge.
“It’s simply unreal to see what is happening at the moment. I mean why do this at a 24/7 border if you can’t work for 24 hours, seven days a week. It just doesn’t make any sense.”
What is also confounding is that haphazardly implemented screening measures where capacity is not considered, if given any thought at all, cause people to mass into areas where social distancing goes out the door.
Basically it's like trying to contain an outbreak by organising a super-spreader event.
Earlier this year it was particularly evident at borders such as the Zambezi River crossing south of Kazungula in Zambia where truck drivers kept pouring into Botswana where they were tested for Covid-19 and expected to wait for days on end in an area extremely ill equipped for an influx of people.
In the presence of Covid-19 and the threat of spreading the virus, common sense seems to leave the building.
You would imagine that the DoH has learned by now that measures such as the screening checks implemented at Beitbridge are self-defeating, at least from a social distancing point of view.
“It just shows what can happen when too much power is given to health authorities who act in haste so the rest of us can repent at leisure,” the agent said.