Harare……MASS deportations among Southern African states are driving up the region’s Covid-19 caseload amid an upsurge of imported cases regionally in the last two weeks.
While all Southern African countries have banned passenger air and land travel in and out of their countries, deportations have not stopped.
Statistics in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi indicate that deportations, mainly from regional economic powerhouses like South Africa and Botswana, now threaten to become leading vectors of inter-state transmission and could spark an upsurge in COVID-19 cases among fearful residents. Health experts say governments should respond by either pausing deportations or to reform how they are handled by imposing strict health checks before any more migrants are sent back.
In total, South Africa – the country hardest hit by the pandemic on the continent – has deported some 439 Mozambicans and 538 Zimbabwean nationals as well as hundreds of Malawians, Zambians between April and May, according to available figures.
Botswana has also been very active on the deportation front, sending home some 500 Zimbabweans, dozens of Zambians and some Namibians during the same period, according to a senior Botswana immigration official.
This also comes as Mozambique last week deported 43 Zambian and Zimbabwean sex workers who had been arrested for violating coronavirus restrictions.
The Mozambican media quoted Beira director of the police provincial command, Fernando Ribeiro, as saying they were picked up after being found drinking in groups, violating the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown.
However, in most incidents, over-stayed visitors permits and a lack of valid travel documents were the two main causes of the deportations. Under current visa waiver agreements, citizens of all countries can only remain on casual visits in a respective SADC country for a period not exceeding 30 days.
Virus testing by both sending and receiving countries before and after deportation have so far not been reliable or robust. Although mass testing has proven to be effective in other jurisdictions, economically hamstrung regional countries have of late been testing only those deportees who report symptoms, mainly fever due to the shortage of test kits.
As such, quarantine facilities mainly in Zimbabwe and Malawi which now host thousands of people are turning into hot-spots for COVID-19, intensifying concerns as to the risk of contagion via deportees.
Malawi, Zimbabwe and Zambia, which have had relatively low case counts before the arrival of the numerous deportees they experienced during the course of this week.
Malawi recorded 100 new cases in one day on Monday to bring the number of total confirmed cases to 336 while Zimbabwe had as of Monday recorded 203 cases, inclusive of those deported from Mozambique.
Most of the cases involved are Botswana and South Africa deportees. To make matters worse, the deportees, who include ex-convicts, have been vanishing from the quarantine centres in huge numbers, further increasing the risk of the virus spreading across the region like a wildfire.
In Malawi, media reports suggested that a total of 300 people escaped while 118 bolted out of these detention centres in Zimbabwe this week alone. A Botswana immigration spokesperson Onkarabile Nato said most deportations are of those who voluntarily offer themselves up.
“In most cases, these are people who do menial jobs and have gathered themselves in groups after losing their income because of the lockdown to voluntarily go back home. We assist them in that regard. This is happening on a weekly basis,” Nato said.
“There are of course cases of border jumpers. If they are caught, they will be repatriated to their respective countries,” she added.
Malawi Ministry of Health spokesperson Joshua Malango said: “The situation is worrying. We are trying our best but things seem to change course now and again. The deportations have really become a game changer here.”
Zimbabwe’s chief Covid-19 national coordinator, Agness Mahomva, said the government had, realising the severity of the situation, deployed soldiers to beef up security at quarantine centres as well as tracking down those who have already escaped from quarantine.
“If you escape from quarantine, you would have committed a crime and it becomes a matter beyond health. So for now, soldiers and police officers are tracking those who escaped for prosecution. They have also been deployed to secure the quarantine centres because these deportees are a real cause for concern, particularly when they escape and go into the communities as some have done,” she said.
Health experts have warned that the region’s governments should seek UN agencies and humanitarian organisations’ assistance in setting up decent reception centres and improving protocols that ensure fair treatment and resettlement of returnees.
In addition to that, calls have been made to ensure the maintenance of channels of dialogue with communities that receive returning migrants, ensuring that they follow strict quarantine rules so as to minimise the risk of violent backlash.
Continuing to deport migrants without taking these steps and in disregard of the potential for contagion is a recipe for turmoil.