Truck drivers: Haunted essential workers

By Stephen Otage

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, parts of Naguru Police Barracks, Mbuya, Bweyogerere and Namanve Industrial Park in Kampala and Wakiso districts were home to several informal food eateries and makeshift kiosks. From these, several youths and women used to eke out a living, with many of their clients being truck drivers from Kenya, Tanzania and other countries who would offload their cargo at the container depots in the area. The same situation was in other urban centres around the country where the truck drivers used to make stopovers.

When government announced a host of measures to control the movements of truck drivers after several of them tested positive for coronavirus, all the kiosks closed. The truck drivers were also blocked from accessing several other shops at their former stopover points for fear that they would spread the virus.
With more truck drivers testing positive of Covid-19, the taskforces in different districts have moved to restrict movements of the group. Mr David Maine, a driver with Palm Oil Transport Company, who said he has plied the Uganda-Mombasa route since 1985, revealed that this is the worst experience he has gone through his entire life.

He said before departure from Mombasa, Kenyan authorities test their temperature four times, at Mackinon Road, at Manyani, Kikuyu Central and the Kenyan side of Malaba border.
Mr Maine said trouble starts when they enter Uganda.
"You cannot stop anywhere.

Wherever you pass along the way from Mombasa to Kampala people call us Corona," he said last week. Contrary to government reports that trucks are escorted to their next resting centre, he said they do not need to be escorted because they plan their journeys. He said since last Monday when he arrived at Namboole, the designated resting centre, he had not taken a bath because there was no water at the resting centre.

The drivers we found at the parking yard were cooking food. The centre had only two makeshift toilets, which were set up for the more than 100 drivers who spend the night there. The drivers said they depend on colleagues who drive trucks to load cargo in factories where they fetch water in jerrycans and bring it to the resting centre.

Mr Joseph Nyama, who works for Tahmeed Transport Company, said while efforts are being made to screen them for the virus, the resting centres designed by government are not conducive. Mr Nyama said after leaving Mombasa last Monday, he arrived in Malaba on Saturday. He said he got his results last Sunday and he was told to proceed to Kampala without stopping anywhere.

"I left Malaba with only Shs30,000, which is almost finished. Food here is expensive. A cup of black tea is Shs1,500.

A meal is Shs 5,000. I cannot afford this. A bottle of water is Shs2,000.

I am surviving on a cake I bought from Kenya," he said, adding that due to the Covid-19 tests at the borders, a route which previously took him one week now takes two. Mr Paul Mathenge, who drives for Liberty Freight Forwarders, said he left Mombasa three weeks ago, taking clothing to Rwanda. At Mirama Hills border, authorities told him to offload cargo onto a Rwandan truck and he returned to Uganda.

He added that despite the several negative tests he has taken, he is more worried of contracting the disease from the shared toilets in Namboole because they lack water, sanitisers and bathing facilities. Mr Mohammad Ssekalala, a driver for RI Distributors, said he is surprised by the sudden stigma towards truck drivers. He said ever since President Museveni directed that they sleep in their trucks, life has never been the same.

"Wherever you pass, be it in Uganda or Kenya, they call you Corona. You can imagine a person who has never been tested calling you who is tested Corona. It is stigmatising.

One day I tried to go home in Ntinda. My neighbours ran away, shouting 'Corona has come' and my family members locked me out of the house," he narrated. Mr Suleiman Kiggundu said his truck is now his kitchen, toilet and bedroom.

He said he cannot get to his home in Kawempe Division, Kampala, due to stigma. He says he has tested negative of Covid-19 five times. Mr Eric Muchwa, the police officer-in-charge of the resting centre, admitted that they lack adequate basic needs.

He said many trucks arrive in the evening but the biggest challenge they are facing is lack of water, toilets and bathing facilities. "We are dealing with suspected cases but we do not have sanitisers and masks. Please help us and inform Kampala Capital City Authority that we need these facilities," he said.

Ms Sylvia Nalukwago, who had set up a makeshift restaurant at the resting centre, said she is instead incurring losses because the drivers come with their food and cook inside their trucks. Mr Julius Bukosi, a shopkeeper in Kireka, said the number of truck drivers roaming in the area and interacting with local people has diminished. "They used to come mainly in the evening but because of the curfew, they stopped," he said.
Mr Saulo Nzira, a resident, said since the outbreak of Covid-19, the truck drivers have disappeared from the area.

"It is easy to tell them from their accents. Kenyans speak only English and Swahili and you can tell them from their accents," he said. WHAT LEADER SAYS
Mr Omongo Ndungu, the executive director of the Uganda Professional Drivers Net Work, said they have made a number of proposals to the Ministry of Health, which they said should be adopted as standard operational procedures for designated resting centres.
Mr Ndungu said they have also asked government to provide enough sanitary facilities in the seclusion centres.

They also want the truck drivers who handle cargo offloaded in Uganda to be monitored to avoid contracting the disease.

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