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Africa's essential truckers say they face virus stigma

NAMANGA, Kenya (AP) — They haul food, fuel and other essential supplies along sometimes dangerous roads during tough economic times. But Africa's long-distance truckers say they are increasingly being accused of carrying something else: the coronavirus.

While hundreds of truckers have tested positive for the virus in recent weeks, the drivers say they are being stigmatized and treated like criminals, being detained by governments and slowing cargo traffic to a crawl.

That has created a challenge for governments in much of sub-Saharan Africa, where many borders remain closed by the pandemic, on how to strike a balance between contagion and commerce. Countries are struggling to reach common ground.

“When I entered Tanzania, in every town that I would drive through, they would call me, ’You, corona, get away from here with your corona!’” said Abdulkarim Rajab, a burly Kenyan who has been driving trucks for 17 years and recalls when drivers were being accused of spreading HIV during that outbreak.

Rajab and his load of liquefied gas spent three days at the Kenya-Tanzania border, where the line of trucks waiting to be cleared stretched into the distance and wound around the lush hills overlooking the crossing at Namanga.

Tanzania closed the border there this week, protesting Kenya's efforts to re-test all incoming truckers, including those who even had certificates showing they had been tested in the previous 14 days. It was the second time the frontier was closed in less than a month and was taken after many Tanzanian truckers with negative results started testing positive at the border.

Many truckers must sleep in unsanitary motels and interact with many people, increasing their risk of contagion. They’re often stuck for days at a border waiting for virus test results, mingling in crowded parking lots.

Some told The Associated Press they try to elude authorities or switch off their phones when they enter Uganda so they can't be ordered to pull over. More than half of the country's 507 coronavirus cases as of Wednesday have been confirmed among truckers.

New government orders largely confine truckers to their vehicles and have designated rest areas along highways to limit contact with residents. Authorities say the restrictions are necessary, but the truckers see them as biased and unjust.

When a driver takes a bathroom break, "the people in the area start chasing him, saying, ‘You want to leave your COVID here.’ That’s discrimination,” said Byron Kinene, a Ugandan who heads the Regional Lorry Drivers and Transporters Association.

Several Kenyan truckers driving through northern Uganda to South Sudan on May 30 made a distress call after locals threatened them as they sought to park, Kinene said. Health authorities in East African countries don't have enough tests for their population, so they focus instead on highly mobile truckers.

“We are concentrating on hot spot areas. We are picking many (truckers) who are positive,” said Pontiano Kaleebu, who heads the Uganda Virus Research Institute, the government testing agency. “This is not unfair. This is the reality.”

The testing at the border is often slow, frustrating and risky. “The challenge is the number of people who come. They are so many,” said Aggrey Keya, a Kenyan lab technician at the Namanga border. Taking samples raises the possibility of getting infected, Keya said. Processing the samples can take two days, along with another three days for truckers to clear customs and immigration. Some drivers report waiting for up to a week.

The East African Community regional bloc said May 30 it wants to monitor truckers via mobile phones and issue certificates declaring their health status. But the measure can't be implemented until each country sets up a coordinating office and gets the necessary equipment, and no start date has been set.

That means countries like Kenya and Tanzania, which have responded differently to the pandemic, will continue their own restrictions. Tanzania hasn’t updated its number of virus cases since April 29. While its president claims the virus has been defeated, African health authorities want its government to be more transparent and the opposition fears a cover-up. Officially, cases remain at just over 500 while the opposition says the real number could be in the tens of thousands.

Neighboring Kenya and Uganda have enforced strict measures. The countries are on major transport corridors that serve a large part of central and southern Africa. Some trucks coming in from the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa head for South Sudan, which is emerging from civil war.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has said banning trucks is “suicidal” in a region where delivery by other means, including air and sea, is underdeveloped. Some truckers have staged protests on the highway leading to the Kenya-Uganda border recently, citing alleged mistreatment in Uganda. The four-day protest, during which truckers deflated their tires, caused a huge traffic jam inside Kenya.

Feeling harassed, some truckers refuse to cooperate with authorities, switching off phones or giving the wrong contact address if their sample tests positive, said Ndugu Omogo, head of the Uganda Professional Drivers Network. He said some drivers have been mistreated when arrested.

Ally Akida Samwel of Tanzania, waiting at the Namanga border post to haul maize to Kenya, said some officials refuse even to touch a trucker’s documents, asking they be read aloud instead. “On the other hand, drivers themselves are scared of getting the coronavirus from the people, so most prefer to sleep in their trucks and not hotels,” he said. “I stop and cook on the roadside, and I am on my way. If you are scared of me giving you the coronavirus, I am also scared of you giving it to me.”

Muhumuza reported from Kampala, Uganda.

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