The East African Community is trying to curb the spread of the new coronavirus among long-distance truck drivers in the region while simultaneously facilitating the transport of goods between member states amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

There are plans to deploy mobile lab clinics at border crossings in line with resolutions from a recent emergency bilateral meeting between health ministries of Kenya and Uganda, as well as EAC officials.

“Following the increase of Covid-19 cases among truck drivers from Kenya transiting through Uganda, we have proposed four testing centers in Mombasa, Kemri-Nairobi, Eldoret and at Malaba-Uganda border,” acting head of Health in the EAC Secretariat, Michael Katende, was quoted as saying.

“We do not have testing facilities at the Kenya-Uganda border. Therefore, the region is planning to deploy mobile laboratory kits at Malaba on the Kenya-Uganda border to carry out testing,” Katende said, adding that Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi have already received their mobile labs.

Prior to the meeting, the regional bloc had issued new guidelines, suggesting among other things, that all border crossings should be kept open for freight traffic so that trucks can be cleared as quickly as possible. 

The new guidelines also require testing for all truck drivers while states are to set up special stopping points so that drivers have as little contact with the population as possible. Although not binding, the guidelines are meant to enable joint action.

EAC member states are interlinked at many levels, hence the need to come together and issue regional guidelines. While the move helps to reduce mistrust among truck drivers and border officials, an issue already causing new frictions between Kenya and Uganda, the new procedures come with their own implications.

Media reports last week showed a 30 kilometer-traffic jam at the Kenyan town of Malaba on the border with Uganda due to the mandatory testing. A result of this is reduced clearance for the goods being moved and slower trade between the neighbors. For instance, logistics startup Kobo360 said it has seen clearance for its truck drivers carrying essential goods shrink to less than 50 percent.

The new procedure has also increased the cost of transport from Nairobi to Kampala. Truck drivers are seeing additional fuel expenses, increased mileage per trip, and even truck and cargo security, raising drivers’ monthly costs. The increased costs are further expected to lead to increased prices of goods for the end-user, as the extra cost will be passed on to consumers.

More so, small and medium-sized companies that depend on cross-border trade are particularly threatened by delays and restrictions, economist Robert Kappel told German publication DW. ”Many of the farmers or small entrepreneurs must now try to sell their products elsewhere but often the local market is limited.”

As of Monday, Kenya had the highest number of infections in the region with 490 confirmed coronavirus cases, followed by Tanzania with 480, Rwanda (259), Uganda had 89, South Sudan (46), and Burundi with 19. Kigali is also tightening border controls for movements from Dar es Salaam after seeing a spike in the number of positive COVID-19 cases, most of which are linked to cross-border truck drivers especially from Nairobi and Dodoma.

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