‘We are the heroes of our time’

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Sharon Kavhu

On a normal day, clearing a vehicle through an international border does not count anywhere near a mildly pleasant experience.

Make that vehicle a haulage truck, and make the border post one in need of a full migration from the analogue world to the Digital Age, and you have the makings of a frustrating day.

Add to that the protocols and regulations that COVID-19 has unleashed on an unsuspecting world, and what you have are the perfect stimuli for hypertension.

On entering Katima Mulilo Border Post between Namibia and Zambia, the blood pressure of the average truck driver starts steadily rising.

The heat of the region will have already taken its toll, and with breathing masks added to the mix, the truckers are often not in the best of moods.

Getting them to open up on their grievances to The Southern Times is fairly easy. After all, these are men who are just about waiting for someone they can lay it all out on.

The speed with which customs and immigration officials clear them and their vehicles is an obvious complaint. So is the quality of food at quarantine facilities.

Oh, and did we mention the emerging COVID-19 stigma which authorities and societies must quickly confront before it reaches the proportions the world witnessed in the first two decades of HIV and AIDS?

Truck driver Blessing Mapfumo says, “Before COVID-19 the process was slow and yes we understood the situation because there were so many vehicles coming into the country.

“We don’t understand why the process is now worse than before and yet there is less traffic, only trucks. Such delays are the reason why we are still here since early morning.”

It is now late in the day and Mapfumo – who operates between Namibia, the DRC and Angola - says he has been waiting to be cleared for nothing short of seven hours.

And after the bureaucratic nightmare at the border, Mapfumo knows he will have to deal with other problems as he goes about his work.

“We are also essential service providers, just like the nurses. If we don’t supply the basic commodities then there will be shortages in our countries.

“We are actually the heroes of our own time and yet we are treated as if we are the carriers of coronavirus. When people just find out that you are a truck driver they run away; and even if it is in a shop, they can discriminate against you. This is what we are experiencing.”

Whether Mapfumo and his colleagues know it or not, they already have an ally on this matter in Tanzania’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Palamagamba Kabudi.

Minister Kabudi has called on people across SADC to respect truck drivers and recognise that without them, life under COVID-19 would be even more intolerable that it may already seem.

Truckers also say at the Walvis Bay Port quarantine facility, which “offers” a mandatory two-week stay, conditions could be much better.

Charles Banda says, “I understand the meaning of being quarantined but the challenge is that we are not given food when we are at Walvis Bay quarantine facilities.

“Unlike in other countries, like Zambia, where the government gives us food for free and delivers it to the facility, in Namibia you have to make your own arrangements.

“For one to get food you have to call someone to buy it for you because once you are at the quarantine facility you cannot leave until the tests are done within 14 days, or sometimes more. At times for you to find someone to call it is also another problem as people do not want to be associated with truck drivers. As a result we end up starving.”

Added to all this, truckers still have to contend with the traditional problems of their jobs, such as extended periods away from family.

COVID-19 has added to the anxiety of being separated for so long, and the periods of being apart have been extended by the necessity of self-isolation and quarantining of truck drivers.

“Before COVID-19, we used to have four to five trips in a month but now we are only having one trip in a month. This is mainly because of the days to travel and days of quarantine.

“For example if I come to Namibia today, I will be quarantined for two weeks, excluding days of-offloading and clearing of goods. Then when I am released, I am quarantined again for two weeks.

“If the next load is ready, then I have to go because I make money from trips and it means I may end up seeing my family after three to four months,” explains Moffat Kolwe.

Zambezi Region health director Agnes Mwilima tells The Southern Times that delays at borders are unavoidable in the face of contagion.

“… they may feel like they (road users) are being delayed, however, every step of the way is essential for the benefit of everyone,” she emphasises.

She says health personnel are required to methodically converse with drivers and ensure they appreciate the risks of the new coronavirus and the procedures that have to be followed.

Vehicles must also be disinfected, and all of this adds to the time spent at borders.

COVID-19 has brought many disruptions, and the world is learning how best to adapt as it goes along.

For truck drivers, as with everyone else, many discomforts will have to be endured and each day will have to be taken as it comes.

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