More than 1,500 truck drivers and their turn boys, who are forced to wait for their Covid-19 test results for days in Busia, have created a booming business for locals, who apart from hawking merchandise, are also hosting some of them in their homes.
The situation has been worsened by lack of accommodation facilities as many hotels, restaurants, bars and guest houses continue to remain closed save for few that are operating illegally.
A number of chang’aa dens in the border town are now popular with the drivers, who flock them to quench their thirst and beat boredom.
“Some of the drivers stay at a den in Korinda, where they are offered laundry services and food at a fee. They don’t wear masks or sanitise. They socialise freely as if things are normal,” said a resident.
The source also disclosed that prostitution, with young girls as targets, is thriving. “A good number of these women are alleged to have sneaked from Uganda through the porous border,” he said.
The spread of the virus could further accelerate through bodaboda riders, who ferry the truckers to a testing station at Alupe, some without requisite protective gear like masks and sanitisers.
Fearing that the cases may overwhelm the region, the County Coronavirus Emergency Response Committee chaired by Governor Sospeter Ojaamong’ and County Commissioner Joseph Kanyiri a week ago issued an entry ban on all trucks whose drivers do not have Covid-19 negative certificates 48 hours before departure from point of origin.
The drivers will not be allowed entry into the county through Malaba, Mayoni or Bumala routes,” said Mr Ojaamong’.
More than once, the governor has expressed frustration that the treatment facility in the county is already overstretched, with lack of staff and equipment to match the rising number of cases from the pandemic.
BLAMED TRUCK OWNERS
By Sunday, more than 300 drivers had tested positive from a sample of over 6,000. Currently, health officers test a daily average of 600 samples.
With anticipated mass testing, the number of positive cases is expected to increase sharply. As the number of Covid-19 cases continues to increase, Mr Ojaamong’ said his government may be forced to convert other hospitals into treatment centres to the detriment of the local communities, where the health facilities are located.
Mr Kanyiri blamed truck owners for flouting the government’s directive of having their drivers obtain Covid-19 negative certificates 48 hours from the point of origin.
“We could manage local cases, but not with such rising numbers of truck drivers. Soon we shall embark on mass testing of hawkers, roadside sellers and other calibre of people who interact with truck drivers to ascertain the magnitude of the pandemic in the county,” he added.
Early this week, the Kenya National Highways Authority announced plans to start decongesting Malaba and Busia border towns by building trailer parks on the 10 and six acres procured by Busia County government in Malaba and Busia respectively.
Meanwhile, Kenyan drivers in Tanzania have appealed to President Kenyatta to intervene and bring to an end cross-border wrangles that have led to their trucks being held by Tanzanian officials.
A spot check established that for close to a fortnight, the drivers have been held hostage at the border, with over 128 cargo trucks impounded.
The dispute between the neighbours has been triggered by different approaches taken by health officials to stem the spread of Covid-19.
Drivers in Isebania town over the weekend said that despite being allowed to proceed with their journey, Tanzanian officials have declined to release their trucks, a move that has subjected them to extreme living conditions.
Some of the drivers who arrived in Tanzania on June 2 said they had run out of cash and were surviving on little soft loans from mobile cash providers.
“We’re appealing to President Kenyatta and Tanzanian President John Magufuli to come to a consensus and end the cross-border impasse that has subjected us to severe hardships,” said Mr Anthony Juma, a truck driver.
He said that despite submitting their Covid-19 test results to Tanzanian authorities, they could not be cleared to get into Kenya by Tanzanian port health officials.
Migori County has recorded 30 Covid-19 positive cases, with three being truck drivers.
County Health Executive Iscah Oluoch said the three drivers currently receiving treatment at Macalder Hospital in Nyatike were from Eldoret, Nairobi and Kajiado counties.
“They tested positive at the port health centre in Isebania as they were being cleared to cross into Tanzania,” Dr Oluoch said.
The standoff comes more than a month after Kenya’s Transport minister James Macharia and his Tanzanian counterpart Isack Kamwelwe met to ease tensions over the diplomatic row caused by the Covid-19 crisis.
Ms Millicent Achieng, a truck owner, expressed concern that the standoff has left them unable to service their loans.
“We have been treated in a rude manner, with some officials across the border telling us to first tell President Kenyatta to apologise to Tanzanians over Covid-19 before the trucks are released,” she said.
However, the Kenya Revenue Authority station manager Richard Kibor noted that they are in consultations with Tanzanians to end the stalemate.
To contain the virus, the national government has seconded at least 29 experts to the county to intensify sample taking from truck drivers in Busia and Malaba border points. The move is expected to reduce traffic snarl up along the busy northern corridors.