Uganda and South Sudan governments' decisions to deport a Tanzanian and Kenyan nationals who tested positive for Covid-19 has strained relations among EAC member countries, putting at risk cross-border movement of goods in the region.
The repatriations, which are against World Health Organisation guidelines on how to handle pandemics such as the Covid-19 outbreak, have also put to test the East African Community common market and free movement protocols.
Uganda is on record for having decided to repatriate a Tanzanian and Kenyan truck drivers who tested positive for coronavirus, while a South Sudanese taskforce on the Covid-19 pandemic also resolved to have two sick Kenyans evacuated by air.
"A male Kenyan truck driver, aged 27, was found positive among the 372 truck drivers tested yesterday. His sample was also collected at Malaba entry point. Arrangements are being made to return him to Kenya for treatment close to his family," read a statement released on April 20 by Uganda's Director General of Health Services, Dr Henry Mwebesa.
Source of concern
With an average of 1,000 trucks entering the landlocked Uganda every day, long-distance drivers have become a key source of concern for Kampala, as they have proved to be the highest source of imported coronavirus positive cases.
Out of 11 new Covid-19 positive cases reported in Uganda on Friday, six were Tanzanian truck drivers who arrived via the Mutukula border post while five were Kenyan truck drivers who entered the country through the Malaba and Busia border posts.
Of the six EAC countries, Kenya had the highest number (336) of Covid-19 cases as at last Friday, followed by Tanzania (284), Rwanda (154), Uganda (74) Burundi (11) and South Sudan (5).
The global number of infections had shot to more than 2.7 million as at Friday afternoon, with over 191,000 dead.
Dr Mwebesa, in a telephone interview, denied that Uganda had adopted a policy of repatriating coronavirus patients to neighbouring countries.
"The truck driver in question returned to Kenya of his own volition. When we tracked him to the border, we were informed that after reaching his destination, Tororo Cement Company, he returned to Kenya on his own," said Dr Mwebesa, adding that there are Kenyans on treatment at Mulago and Entebbe hospitals.
Uganda's public health surveillance teams, backed by security forces, are said to have also mounted a search for a Tanzanian truck driver 'to return him home for treatment' on April 16.
"The other case is a 34-year-old Tanzanian truck driver from Dar es Salaam who arrived at Mutukula border post (on) April 16, he did not exhibit any symptoms consistent with Covid-19," said Dr Mwebesa.
Juba has also suffered cases of imported Covid-19 patients from the expatriate community, including the United Nations Mission on South Sudan.
In a statement dated April 18, South Sudan's High Level Task Force on Covid-19 pandemic, chaired by First Vice President Riek Machar, stated that it would seek special permission from "the Embassy of the Republic of Kenya to land aircraft 5Y-HOT CARAVAN C208 at Juba International Airport on MEDEVAC (medical evacuation) operation of two Kenyan nationals."
Article 23, 26, and 27 of WHO's International Health Regulations (IHR) 2005 provide that travellers found in a health-risk declared area should be treated at the place of diagnosis.
Tanzanian public officials declined to comment on the repatriations, while their Kenyan counterparts were guarded in their responses.
The Tanzanian Director of Communication at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Emmanuel Boholela, referred The EastAfrican to the Ministry of Health for comment.
The Minister for Health, Ummy Mwalimu, had not answered our calls by the time of going to press.
Government spokesman, Dr Hassan Abbas, did not also answer our calls or respond to text messages.
"We have treated many foreign nationals who have tested positive for Coronavirus from Comoros, Cameroon, Pakistan, Burundi, and DRC. As a country we have not found it appropriate to repatriate them because of the risk involved while on transit," said Dr Patrick Amoth, the acting Director General in Kenya's Ministry of Health.
"It is surprising to act in that manner because you stand a high chance of infecting more people if you allow a coronavirus patient to travel over a long distance when it should have been appropriate to treat them in the country where they were tested," added Dr Amoth.
Kenya's Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary Macharia Kamau said the matter involving the truck drivers was being handled by both the ministries of Trade and Health.
"Our major concern is whether cargo that was on transit gets to the desired destination in a secure and faster manner as envisaged under the Multi Agency Protocol to facilitate movement of cargo across borders of which I am a member," said Johnson Weru, Principal Secretary in Kenya's Ministry of Trade.
The governor of Busia County, which borders Uganda to the East, in a statement released by governor Sospeter Ojaamong described the repatriations as 'unfortunate' and capable of causing tension between the two countries.
Uganda on Thursday said it is devising measures to control entry of cross-border cargo truck drivers.
The Minister of Internal Affairs, Jeje Odongo, told reporters that the national task force is studying possible remedial actions such as relay driving, whereby a driver from a neighbouring country hands over the vehicle to a Ugandan driver at the border crossing after the vehicle has been sanitised.
The Ugandan driver then takes the cargo to the final destination, or hands over the truck to another driver at the border crossing in case of lorries transiting to Rwanda, South Sudan or eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The other measure that is being discussed, according to the minister, is deploying rapid test kits at the border so that test results are obtained before drivers enter Uganda's territory.