Thupeyo Muleya Beitbridge Bureau
Border testing and movement controls in place for many months are being tightly enforced for travellers crossing into Zimbabwe, especially on the southern and western borders, in the wake of the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant in South Africa and Botswana.
Officially designated Omicron, the fifth “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation, it has already seen a bloc of Southern African countries being walled off by most of the world with direct flights banned and those flying in from these countries forced to undergo compulsory quarantine.
Apart from the US, from today, and the European Union from late last week, Britain, Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, India and other countries around the world have now announced travel bans or restrictive measures against travellers from South Africa, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Angola and Botswana following the detection of the Omicron variant by South African scientists.
Zambia, an enclave sticking into this group of nine countries, has yet to be included while some countries have extended the ban to Seychelles, where almost the entire adult population has been vaccinated.
Cases of Omicron are now appearing in other parts of the world as countries test for the variant.
Health authorities in Matabeleland South said the tight screening of travellers entering or leaving the country through Plumtree and Beitbridge border posts, in place for many months, was being adhered to.
Matabeleland South Provincial Medical Director, Dr Rudo Chikodzore, who has these two busiest border posts in her province, said her staff was on high alert for the new variant.
“We have boosted our testing capacity for Covid-19 at the borders where there is a relatively high volume of transit traffic. We need to understand the impact of the condition in terms of contraction and fatality levels,” she said.
Besides screening for signs and symptoms, visitors or returning residents were expected to produce a PCR Covid-19 clearance certificate valid for under 48 hours.
Wheel baths, foot baths, hand sanitisers and handwashing basins have been installed at all entry points to buildings around the border posts.
Botswana and Zimbabwe share four ports of entry, Plumtree, Mpoengs, Maitengwe, and Mlambapele but only the Plumtree border is open to essential traffic and returning residents.
Chief co-ordinator of the national response to the Covid-19 pandemic in the Office of the President and Cabinet, Dr Agnes Mahomva, said: “We are now moving forward to ensure we strengthen our response so that we do not get hit by a fourth wave and, if we do, it will not be as bad as the third wave. A lot of capacities have been built. Covid-19 confirmatory testing was initially done at the national level but now it is available throughout all the 52 districts.
Vice President Dr Constantino Chiwenga, who is also the Minister of Health and Child Care, on Friday confirmed the tightening of control measures saying authorities would intensify screening at all ports of entry.
“Strict monitoring of movements at points of entry and border posts is being intensified to minimise the introduction of this new variant into the country,” said VP Chiwenga.
Chief Director in the Ministry of Health and Child Care Dr Maxwell Hove said border towns were among the high-risk areas for new Covid-19 infections due to the prevalence of cross-border related businesses.
He said vaccinating those in such areas, will help protect the communities and also open up economic activities in such towns. An average of 150 people are crossing between Botswana and Zimbabwe daily, while at Beitbridge, which is the only land border between Zimbabwe and South Africa, authorities are handling at least 2 100 travellers per day.
Government is targeting to vaccinate the entire 9.4 million Zimbabweans aged 16 and above, with that target likely to rise as younger age groups are confirmed to be safe for vaccination.
As of Friday, 3 756 498 people had received the first dose while 2 786 976 had been administered the second dose.