Truck pile-up at Malaba border as Uganda seeks mandatory Covid-19 testing

A truck pile-up has started to build along the Kenyan borders with Uganda following Kampala’s call for mandatory testing of all drivers at border crossing points, even as transporters threatened to suspend haulage of cargo through the Northern Corridor if the issues is not addressed.

Uganda directed mandatory Covid-19 testing of all incoming travellers, including truck drivers, on December 20 last year.

As a result, long queues have been reported all the way from Amagoro in Kenya, a few kilometres from the Malaba border post, since January 1.

“I did Covid-19 test at Inland Container Depot in Nairobi and I have a valid certificate which is still valid for seven days. Why am I forced to get tested again?” asked Mohammed Mahmud, a truck driver.

The new directive by Uganda authorities proposed the review of the Regional Electronic Cargo and Drivers Tracking System (RECDTS), which allows Covid-19 testing after 14 days, to a shorter duration of 7 days, due to the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant, which has a shorter incubation period.

Due to ongoing trade barriers, Kenya Transporters Association (KTA) has threatened to suspend hauling of cargo until the Ugandan government reconsiders its new directive.

“We are urging Ugandan authorities to consider the new directive and drop the $30 charge per test, which is an additional cost since in the other East African Community (EAC) states, Covid-19 tests are carried out free of charge. We also want clarification of how frequently the test will be carried out and their duration,” said KTA chairman Newton Wang’oo in a statement copied to the ministers of Health in Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda.

“We need assurance on the safety and the security of drivers and trucks in case the result turns out positive. Where will the drivers be isolated and at what costs? Who will pay the cost? What will be the duration of isolation period if the driver is asymptomatic?”

Since 2020, the region has been operating RECDTS, an initiative that was supported by Trademark East Africa (TMEA), to monitor Covid-19 cases across the borders.

Ministries of Health in the EAC share Covid-19 results from various tests centres and the results are acceptable across the borders, easing crossing time.

Introduction of the $30 charge for the test by Uganda goes against EAC agreement. Kenya and Rwanda have been offering Covid-19 testing for free to drivers after EAC Health Ministries agreed to share the cost in mid-2021.

The Federation of East African Freight Forwarders Association (FEAFFA) president, Fred Seka, also protested against Uganda’s move.

He said the new directive will increase other operational expenses such as the demurrage charges that are likely to arise due to the increase in truck turnaround times as the private sector attempts to adjust to these new measures.

The region has been setting up systems to ensure no more testing is done at the borders to avoid traffic snarl-ups and Uganda’s new measure is introducing a direct additional cost to the private sector which is likely to hurt the end consumers of the cargo being traded across our borders, Mr Seka said.

“The private sector is currently taking advantage of the free Covid-19 testing provided by some of the partner states, something that this new approach will deprive them of. All EAC partner states should be brought on board to avoid causing unnecessary tensions among them,” he added.

“The EAC secretariat should coordinate the review process to ensure all national concerns, including those of Uganda, are considered. This will minimise disruptions as they were witnessed when Covid-19 first struck.”

FEAFFA secretariat urged the region to fast-track the adoption of the EAC Covid-19 vaccine passport, arguing that it will promote the uptake of the Covid-19 vaccine among truck drivers and other logistics sector workers.

“As a normal practice, all stakeholders in the regional transport and logistics industry should be adequately mobilised and sensitised on this new approach before it is implemented. The consequences of a sudden shift in approach are likely to be more harmful as we are starting to witness,” Mr Seka said.