A humanitarian health situation posing significant risk to the residents of Beitbridge town and travellers passing through the Zimbabwean border hamlet is developing after South Africa’s Department of Health (DoH) implemented strict coronavirus testing measures for all inbound travellers.
According to Mike Fitzmaurice, chief executive of the Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations (Fesarta), at least 2000 trucks and their drivers are currently detained at Beitbridge waiting to cross into South Africa.
“This is not the sort of thing that should be happening in a small town like this where there are no barriers. Nothing to keep people apart or enforce social distancing.”
Earlier this week he warned that the situation was getting worse, with truck parks in Beitbridge filled to capacity and trucks spilling into residential areas.
“There are no amenities for the drivers and they’re turning to people in the town to help them with things like food and water.”
Fitzmaurice calculated that it took up to seven days for some trucks to get through the chaos created by the DoH’s Covid-curbing measures, and that because some drivers didn’t want to lose their places in the queue, they didn’t sleep.
He added that public-sector officials had held a meeting and endeavoured to institute certain measures to speed up testing – such as bringing in more personnel, providing the antigen tests to which drivers are subjected on a 24-hour basis, and separating ordinary travellers from truck drivers – but this has not materialised.
The fact that there’s only one table manned by a solitary person who only works from 9:30 till 17:00 at a 24-hour border has made a mockery of the department’s handling of Covid testing, according to Fitzmaurice.
“We were told last week that they would separate passengers from drivers to decongest the testing area at the border but it hasn’t happened.
“We were also told that they’re bringing in a 24-7 team seeing as Beitbridge is a 24-hour border, but that hasn’t happened either.”
As a result of the undertakings that haven’t materialised, Fitzmaurice said he doubted whether the DoH had followed through with making health questionnaires available online – which was meant to have been implemented yesterday.
In the meantime, with an arrival rate of about 500 southbound trucks at the border and DoH Covid-checking capacity falling far short of demand, Fitzmaurice believes that even if the department honours its undertakings it will be too little too late.
“How are they going to clear that border before Christmas? It’s not going to happen. It’s going to be jammed up until after Christmas. With the volume of cargo going through that border, they will never catch up.”
A letter, (*) drafted by Fitzmaurice and sent to health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize to highlight the dire plight of drivers stuck north of the Limpopo, also appears to have fallen on deaf ears.
“It took two emails before they at least acknowledged receiving the letter, but they haven’t responded to its contents,” said Fitzmaurice.
To make matters worse, there’s no way of getting around the Covid congestion at Beitbridge.
“It’s really the only border serving the north-south line through Zimbabwe. Transporters can use Kazungula crossing on the border between Zambia and Botswana but it’s still ferry operated and can only handle about 180 trucks a day, if the pontoons are operating.”
* Please see the column posted today, “Impassioned plea to SA health minister to address Beitbridge humanitarian crisis", for the full transcript of Fitzmaurice’s letter to Dr Mkhize.