Drivers transporting goods complain of ill-treatment, having to endure constant Covid-19 testing and being stigmatised
Botswana’s stringent measures to keep the Covid-19 coronavirus at bay have become frustrating for truck drivers ferrying goods from South Africa.
Complaining of inconsiderate and “inhumane treatment”, the drivers said they were being made to feel as if “we are carriers of the virus – even after we are cleared by the tests”.
They added that they were being escorted into Botswana to offload products and escorted back to the border post into South Africa, without being allowed stops to eat or for bathroom breaks.
While some improvements were recorded this week, drivers transporting food, groceries and fuel into Botswana alleged that they were also made to wait for their Covid-19 results in a quarantine-like set-up at the border gate for up to three days without access to water, ablution facilities or anywhere to buy food.
Truck drivers said they had no problem with the diamond-rich country stepping up its preventive measures, especially after a driver recently tested positive in Gaborone and sent panic waves across Botswana.
However, they added, they expected the authorities to consider their wellbeing too and to treat them with respect and dignity.
After brief protest action by truck drivers last weekend, Botswana’s government promised to address concerns.
The drivers had threatened to block the border post at Ramatlabama, near Mahikeng, if remedial action was not taken.
Drivers who arrived at the border post on Tuesday said they found partable toilets and showers as well as a person selling cooked food.
They attributed this improvement to the protest.
City Press spoke to several drivers at Ramatlabama border post.
All of them said they were not keen on entering Botswana, while those returning home said they were not looking forward to doing the transit through that country again.
When testing anyone for Covid-19, healthcare workers have to push a cotton swab gently up the nasal passage and into the cavity between the nose and mouth to collect a fluid sample for analysis.
Many of the drivers City Press spoke to described this as an uncomfortable and painful procedure.
“They push this thing that looks like a long earbud up my nose until I feel it touch my throat,” said one.
“I do not think it is done gently here as I have seen some of my colleagues bleed for some time afterwards.
“I am haunted by this procedure each time I approach the Botswana border. This is something I cannot get used to … I have never done the test anywhere else, but I have a feeling that the nurses doing it in Botswana are rough.”
Drivers also complained that they were required to undergo testing every time they needed to deliver goods into Botswana.
A driver at the border post spoke of his experience just after having his immigration papers processed.
He was about to hop into his truck and make his way to the security checkpoint, joining the long line of trucks snaking some distance from the border post precinct.
He said: “I have a smooth trip from Durban, where I load wheat, but everything changes as I approach Ramatlabama border. That is when my nightmare begins. Firstly, I am haunted by the painful feeling of a swab being pushed right up my nose.
“Then comes the thought of spending days in a camp-like setting.”
Said another driver: “We are not allowed to bring meat or eggs and other perishables to cook while awaiting our results, and the last time I was here, there were no water points or toilets. We were under guard and were not allowed to leave the camp.”
Negative results mean little
Drivers say testing negative for Covid-19 brings relief – but it does not mean that they are off the hook.
“I feel as if the only reason we are allowed into Botswana is because we are carrying essential goods. Clearly, the authorities would rather see robots driving these trucks, otherwise why would I be treated as if I was carrying the virus even after the test has declared me negative?” said an angry driver.
“While they do not want drivers with Covid-19, it appears as if they do not want those without the virus either. We get escorted into Botswana and back, irrespective of our results.
“Covid-19 cases may be high in South Africa, but does that mean we deserve such horrible treatment?”
Botswana's truckers are also frustrated
A Batswana truck driver, who asked to remain anonymous, said he received the same treatment from border authorities.
“It does not matter where you come from – those of us resident in Botswana are equally frustrated by the same set of procedures. I get tested and await my results, just like everyone else, before I can proceed back into Botswana,” he said.
“And I know how it feels to spend days without water and proper ablution facilities while awaiting Covid-19 results. It is highly frustrating for us.”
Another Batswana driver told City Press that he had not seen his family at all since the lockdown started.
“I would have to go into 14 days of isolation before being allowed to see my family. I cannot afford to do this as the time I
am given off would be over before the end of the isolation period. So, we spend this time off at the company depot.
“It is sad that I sometimes drive past the area in Gaborone where I live. I cannot make that illegal turn to my home as I could be accused of infecting the entire village. I am treated as if I have tested positive for Covid-19 even though I am negative.”
Business feels the pinch
Goddy Struwig, a director at bulk freight transporter Loubser Bulk Services, said the arrangement in Botswana was bad for business.
“It would not be a problem if drivers could be tested, get their results and proceed to offload. But we have lost millions because drivers wait for results for up to three days, and what would normally be an in-and-out trip gets extended,” Struwig said.
Winds of change
Speaking at a media briefing this week, Thulaganyo Segokgo, Botswana’s minister of transport and communications, said concerns raised by truck drivers had been addressed.
He said mobile toilets and showers had been installed at the border post in areas where truck drivers were awaiting their Covid-19 results. He made assurances that drivers would be able to buy food.
But, added Segokgo, there would be no compromising on the processes put in place to control the spread of the virus. “The drivers have to be tested and wait for their results,” he said.
Covid-19 status and response
Botswana, which has been in lockdown since April 2, when it only had three cases of Covid-19, is gradually easing its restrictions.
However, the country seems to be tightening its regulation protocols when it comes to those entering its borders from outside.