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How COVID-19 Testing Has Caused a 'Humanitarian Crisis' at Africa's Busiest Border

Why Global Citizens Should Care
As citizens travel between South Africa and Zimbabwe, crossing the border has been met with delays caused by COVID-19 testing procedures. This has seen thousands of citizens wait for an average of four days to access both countries. A lack of water and sanitation facilities, along with little space to adhere to social distancing, have also made the border vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. The United Nations’ Global Goal 3 calls for good health and well-being, and this goal can only be achieved if effective measures are put in place to manage travel between countries during a global pandemic. Join the movement and take action on this issue here.

Severe backlogs at Africa’s busiest border, the Beitbridge border post between South Africa and Zimbabwe, have resulted in a humanitarian crisis that has seen immigrants, visitors, and truck drivers stuck between both countries for an average of four days without food, water, or security as they wait to access either country.

The congestion at Beitbridge border has mainly been caused by COVID-19 testing and test verification, as well as national lockdown regulations implemented by both countries, that come in addition to the existing border screening process. While testing for the virus and screening test documents were introduced to the border earlier in 2020, both countries were not ready for the volume of travellers that needed to follow these new protocols over the festive season and at the beginning of the new year. 

At the peak of the border crisis in the days surrounding Christmas, queues of vehicles waiting to cross the border spanned up to 15 km (9 miles) for both ports of entry. While there has been a slight ease in these numbers, the border remains busy and backlogged well into 2021 with the South African government explaining that there is not much else that can be done to alleviate the problem. 

According to eNCA, the crisis resulted in 15 deaths of people who were waiting to cross the border during the festive season. Circumstances surrounding these deaths are still unclear and continue to be investigated, however the news outlet has suggested poor health and safety conditions could be the cause. 

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Executive Director of the Federation of East and Southern African Road Transport Associations, Mike Fitzmaurice, who used GPS data to analyse the border delays at the beginning of the crisis, broke down the health and safety implications of being stuck at the border during these serious delays. 

“The drivers spend three days in the queue with little or no sleep, because if they sleep they lose their place in the queue; there are no sanitation facilities, no running water, and nowhere to prepare food safely,” Fitzmaurice told the Daily Maverick

According to News24, not only do those crossing the border have to worry about access to food, water, and sanitation; they have also been more vulnerable to muggings and attacks at night as truck drivers at the border have reported being targeted and having their possessions stolen by criminals. 

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Chairperson of the South African Association of Freight Forwarders Dr Juanita Maree reiterated the growing concern regarding the safety of drivers.

“Criminals are looting and stealing from the trucks and drivers have given up hope of getting home to be with their families while sitting in unbearable heat of more than 40 degrees Celsius,” she told TimesLive.

It is not unusual for the Beitbridge border to be busy during the festive season – in 2019 alone more than 200,000 travellers crossed into Zimbabwe from South Africa in the week leading up to Christmas. However, the introduction of COVID-19 regulations at the border and each country’s ever-changing national lockdown protocols have led to longer delays and chaos at the border.

Measures that both countries have taken to curb the spread of COVID-19, especially as South Africa has officially entered its second wave and a new strain of the virus was discovered in the country in the last month, have been the main cause of congestion at the border.

The border procedure has been extended to include COVID-19 testing and the verifying of test documentation. Those who wish to enter the country need to show a negative COVID-19 test result that is less than 72 hours old. Those without this documentation must head to a separate queue to test for the virus.

According to Mail & Guardian’s Thought Leader, the COVID-19 mobile testing clinic reportedly had just two workers running tests on hundreds of travellers. Social distancing was reportedly not adhered to and this created a high-risk area for those wishing to test at the border. With water and sanitation in very short supply, the border and the testing facilities themselves have the potential to be superspreaders of the virus. 

With the testing procedure causing congestion and serious delays, the South African Health Department had to suspend COVID-19 screening for vehicles leaving the country and entering Zimbabwe in order to allow for the flow of traffic.  

During the festive period, South Africa entered into a more severe lockdown level that includes a curfew from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., meaning that cars at the border between those hours are forced to stay there overnight, or even longer than that. 

On Monday, the crisis reached a new peak as the Zimbabwean government announced a ban on international travel, which resulted in hundreds of people heading to the border to enter back into South Africa all at once. 

With the new travel regulations in Zimbabwe and South Africa’s nine-hour curfew, thousands of people have been stuck at the border over the last few days with nowhere to go. The situation even resulted in fake COVID-19 tests being given to officials at the border. South Africa’s Minister of Home Affairs Aaron Motsoaledi confirms that more than 50 counterfeit tests have been handed to authorities.

Further solutions to ease the Beitbridge border crisis have yet to be announced by both South African and Zimbabwean governments.

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