Travelling during Covid-19: Why standardising practices in Africa is key in containing the virus

Travelling during Covid-19: Why standardising practices in Africa is key in containing the virus

Dec 28, 2020 Our Blog by Robert
A laboratory technician takes samples for test of Covid-19 at a Nairobi hospital in October 2020. Photo: Dorcas Mokeira/WON.

By Dorcas Mokeira

info@womannewsroom.africa

When I received a confirmation that I will be part of the team traveling to Accra, Ghana, in October, 2020, I was not excited because 14 days after arriving in Kenya from Zimbabwe, we reported the first case of Covid-19.

Having passed through airports of Victoria Falls, Gaborone and Addis Ababa – mingling with global citizens, I was afraid of interacting with my daughter of 10 months then, five nieces and one nephew, their parents, among other close family members in Nairobi. In the same month, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa had reported cases of the virus.

This scary feeling of escaping the virus by a whisker sent chills down my spine as I sat the first test of Covid-19. A negative certificate of Covid-19 is a compulsory requirement to enter Ghana- a now normal global practice. By end of October, the country had confirmed 48,055 cases.

Despite this certificate, payment of another Covid-19 test is compulsory before leaving Kotoka International Airport. Payment is made via an online platform for Ghana before departure from the country of origin. A US$150 payment receipt must be shown at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport before departure and other transit points.

Health office at the JKIA check QR codes of arriving passengers. Photo: Dorcas Mokeira/WON.

Upon arrival in the Accra Airport, all arrivals, excluding transit were led to translucent cubicles for sample collection. In 43 minutes, my results were out and I proceeded to the hotel.

On the return date, I also arrived at the airport four hours before departure for another test, for entry into Kenya after spending five days in Accra. In spite of the hundreds of travellers, test results were ready in less than one hour.  Delegates of our meeting flying back to Malawi were not required to take the test as their country required a valid negative certificate of 10 days- they had taken the test before departure to Ghana, which was till withing the allowed time. Among other features, the certificate from the ministry of health in Ghana has a security barcode, which can be used to confirm authenticity. My certificate from Kenya had a security bar code.

Checks of the negative test certificate were thorough in Ethiopia, as well as JKIA. Upon landing, I gave my telephone number to the medical officers, after my temperature was recoded. Prior to boarding, I had filled a ministry of health, Kenya, form declaring my Covid-19 status, and a quick response (QR) code generated.

For the next 14 days, I received a reminder at around 11 am to report my status via Jitenge code, *299# or Jitenge App. The questions include if I have a thermometer, experiencing fever, cough or flu-like symptoms. The responses are ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. This purely depended on my good will. No repercussions of not reporting.  I responded to the questions every day.

Temperatures of arriving passengers are taken by the JKIA port health facility officers. Photo: Dorcas Mokeira/WON

The Yellow Fever certificate, which has been a mandatory in my previous returns was not important any more.

A month later, I travelled to Sierra Leone. My negative test certificate for entry had a security bar code and upon landing at the Freetown International Airport (also known as Lungi) in Sierra Leone, was checked. By the end of November, 2020, the country had reported 2,412. At the Bole International Airport (Ethiopia), Aéroport International Gnassingbé Eyadéma (Togo) and even at the entry point in Freetown International Airport (Sierra Leone), nobody bothered on to check the validity of the certificates as we flashed them on their faces or they as they rolled their fingers on the negative section only. This means that even with an old or someone else’ certificate, one may slip through the airports.

At the Freetown International Airport, in spite of the low passenger traffic to the place, there were too many loiterers suffocating the little space the airport could afford. Traffic of hawkers of sim-cards, black market money exchangers, taxi drivers, porters among others were more than the arriving passengers. Proper wearing of masks, social distance was foreign to them. I was overwhelmed. I wondered how authorities could allow such chaos to thrive in an airport.  

We took our test at the airport and results could only be available after 72 hours from Sunday evening. For the next four or so days I spent in Freetown, masks were rare. If any, they were ordinary dresses for the chins in Freetown- a free town indeed.

For my return certificate, I could only take another test on Thursday and wait for another 72 hours. I was informed that despite paying for the return test, the certificate to be issues on Thursday is sufficient for transit and entry to Nairobi. On Thursday I collected negative certificate indicating my negative status. The dates showed I had taken the test within 72 hours before returning to Kenya, which was inaccurate. It was actually more than 142 hours old. This certificate issues at the Government hospital never had any security features, making it easy for anyone to fabricate for travel. The same security checks upon return never scrutinized the documents.

They were interested in travelers showing a quick response (QR) code generated from the system, for tracking. As it was a challenge at the airports for some passengers to get the QR codes, some took screenshots of other colleagues to allow for airport checks. If course they fill the details into the Emergency Alert Reporting System(EARS) registration portal by the time of entry into Kenya as it must be scanned before proceeding home. it should be noted that the ‘truth’ of the information given on the online platform and the Jitenge reporting tool is the passengers’. What obliges them to say the truth if they do not want to? 

A screenshot of an inaccurate response from Jitenge. I had not competed the 14 days of reporting. Photo: Dorcas Mokeira/WON.

The Yellow Fever certificate, which has been a mandatory in my previous returns was not important any more.

A month later, I travelled to Sierra Leone. My negative test certificate for entry had a security bar code and upon landing at the Freetown International Airport (also known as Lungi) in Sierra Leone, was checked. By the end of November, 2020, the country had reported 2,412. At the Bole International Airport (Ethiopia), Aéroport International Gnassingbé Eyadéma (Togo) and even at the entry point in Freetown International Airport (Sierra Leone), nobody bothered on to check the validity of the certificates as we flashed them on their faces or they as they rolled their fingers on the negative section only. This means that even with an old or someone else’ certificate, one may slip through the airports.

At the Freetown International Airport, in spite of the low passenger traffic to the place, there were too many loiterers suffocating the little space the airport could afford. Traffic of hawkers of sim-cards, black market money exchangers, taxi drivers, porters among others were more than the arriving passengers. Proper wearing of masks, social distance was foreign to them. I was overwhelmed. I wondered how authorities could allow such chaos to thrive in an airport.  

We took our test at the airport and results could only be available after 72 hours from Sunday evening.

For the next four or so days I spent in Freetown, masks were rare. If any, they were ordinary dresses for the chins in Freetown- a free town indeed.

For my return certificate, I could only take another test on Thursday and wait for another 72 hours. I was informed that despite paying for the return test, the certificate to be issues on Thursday is sufficient for transit and entry to Nairobi. On Thursday I collected negative certificate indicating my negative status. The dates showed I had taken the test within 72 hours before returning to Kenya, which was inaccurate. It was actually more than 142 hours old. This certificate issues at the Government hospital never had any security features, making it easy for anyone to fabricate for travel. The same security checks upon return never scrutinized the documents.

They were interested in travelers showing a quick response (QR) code generated from the system, for tracking. As it was a challenge at the airports for some passengers to get the QR codes, some took screenshots of other colleagues to allow for airport checks. Of course they fill the details into the Emergency Alert Reporting System(EARS) registration portal by the time of entry into Kenya as it must be scanned before proceeding home. It should be noted that the ‘truth’ of the information given on the online platform and the Jitenge reporting tool is the passengers’. What obliges them to say the truth if they do not want to? 

Cleaners sanitise seats from time to time at the Bole International Airport. Photo: Dorcas Mokeira/WON

In this travel experience (Addis Ababa was a transit for three journeys), Ethiopia seemed to me the most cautious country. Upon drop-off by the buses, there were mats at the entry into the airport building, the mats were noted in a number of places within the Bole International Airport building. I was informed they are for disinfection of the feet.

Similarly, a number of staff in personal protective kits from time-to-time sanitised seats, rails and other surfaces like the moving staircases. More others were cleaning trays on which passengers place their belongings during security screening. Being one of the biggest transit hubs in Africa, the level of the caution was commendable.

Mats with disinfectants are placed in strategic paths at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to sanitise the feet of passengers. Photo: Dorcas Mokeira/WON

However, for the three travels social distance was not a priority. Flights were full, especially those from Addis Ababa to Nairobi and back, as well as Lomé and Freetown. This was a real scare. But at least for Ethiopian Airways, passengers were given sanitisers.

Social distance is full flights was a challenge. Other passengers opted to remove masks. Photo: Dorcas Mokeira/WON

Despite the lack of a clear tracing of the cumulative figures of imported cases, policy gaps still expose Kenya and the continent to more infections, now that the world has also been throw into another confusion by the new strains of Covid-19 first reported in the United Kingdom, Nigeria and South Africa, among other countries a few weeks ago.

Now that the skies and other border restrictions have been relaxed, discussions on harmonising protocols, procedures and travel requirements are critical as the continent waits for a vaccine.

This is crucial now that African States are gradually implementing the free trade area, in which among other interventions, they seek to streamline travels through a single passport. 

Harmonised health policies, in respect to Covid-19, should among other issues, standardise the period of validity of certificates, mode of testing and a security feature in which results can be confirmed from any point. In such a system, public and private facilities should post results which can be accessed by other authorised parties as may be defined and protected by access to information policies.

While it is my obligation to report my progress to the Ministry of Health via Jitenge, there should be a way of compelling arriving passengers to report on their status for 14 days. This will reduce the possibility of importing and spreading the virus in case of any cases of Covid-19.

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