- Beitbridge border post in Limpopo has recorded 104 Covid-19 cases since Sunday 3 January 2021.
- This comes amid a sudden surge in pedestrian traffic which has overwhelmed border officials.
- While travellers identified to be Covid-19 positive are denied access to South Africa, many more have been exposed due to poor social distancing protocols and limited face mask wearing.
- Health authorities have urged all people entering through Beitbridge border to self-quarantine for five to eight days.
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Testing facilities at Beitbridge border post, connecting Zimbabwe and South Africa, have identified 104 positive Covid-19 cases since Sunday 3 January. Congestion at the crossing has been described as a “humanitarian crisis” with a lack of social distancing, limited mask wearing and delays of up to three days raising red flags around a potential “super spreader” event.
While queues began to form at Beitbridge in early December, the situation deteriorated rapidly just before Christmas. With panicked travellers vying for position to make it home for the holidays, a 15km traffic jam overwhelmed port authorities.
South Africa’s department of home affairs scrambled to ease the congestion, which was quickly becoming a health hazard amid reports of several deaths. Although Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi dismissed reports of multiple fatalities and blamed the crisis on lawless truck drivers, more than 400 port health and home affairs officials were deployed to assist with Covid-19 compliance processes.
The situation deteriorated further, when Zimbabwe enforced a hard lockdown, featuring a travel ban and 12-hour curfew. Fearing being stuck in Zimbabwe, thousands of travellers made a mad dash for Beitbridge border.
Even with port health and home affairs reinforcements, Beitbridge was quickly overwhelmed.
“There is nothing more we can do,” said a defeated Motsoaledi in conversation with News24. “We sent all the extra people, the army, the police, health officials. We won’t be able to send anymore.”
The crisis doesn’t bode well for either South Africa or Zimbabwe, both of which are currently gripped by a burgeoning second wave of Covid-19 infections which far outweighs the veracity of the initial outbreak. As South Africa’s healthcare system buckles under the weight of record-breaking active infections and coronavirus-related deaths, health officials worry that the poor health conditions at Beitbridge border may add to the surge.
“From a public health perspective, things as they are unfolding at the border pose major health risks to thousands of people there,” explained Neil Shikwambana, spokesperson for Limpopo’s department of health.
“When a person tests positive, their passports are taken to immigration where it will be stamped no entry and then afterwards be deported back… no person testing positive is allowed into the country,” he added.
But the problem extends far beyond denying access to travellers who test positive for Covid-19 at the border. While at least 104 Covid-19 infections have been detected, many more travellers have been exposed to the virus while waiting in queues and holding areas.
“This is a serious cause for concern because due to the incubation process there are people who might leave the area having contracted the virus but not showing,” explained Shikwambana.
“We do have registers with the details of those who are crossing but following all of them might be a mammoth task, hence we encourage them as individuals to self-quarantine for five to eight days when they arrive at their respective destination before they interact with other people.”
Shikwambana added that two government employees stationed at Beitbridge border had tested positive for Covid-19.
Adding to the pressure already placed on understaffed border processing facilities, Covid-19 testing centres which uncover positive cases are required to close for decontamination. On Wednesday evening, Limpopo’s department of transport and community safety confirmed one such closure, adding that the site would “reopen on Friday 8 January”.