Ebola tests resilience of Uganda’s cross-border trade

Uganda has heeded WHO’s warning to keep its border with DRC open during the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak on record.

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Near the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a health worker stands on duty at Bwera Hospital's isolation centre, where people are screened for the Ebola virus [File: Joseph Burite/Al Jazeera]

Kasese, Uganda – Cargo trucks waiting to clear customs snake their way towards an iron gate guarded by heavily armed security officers. Off to their flank, queues of travellers move through tarpaulin tents where government health workers screen them for the Ebola virus.

This is the Mpondwe border crossing. Located about 424 kilometers (263 miles) west of the Ugandan capital of Kampala, it’s where Jennifer Kobusingye has plied her trade for over a decade – importing cosmetics from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to sell in Uganda.

Like other small-scale traders, the grandmother of two takes out loans to purchase goods to resell at a slight markup – a business that normally earns her roughly $27 in profit each week.

But these are not normal times.

“Whenever a case of Ebola is registered, we don’t cross to Congo for a month or two,” Kobusingye told Al Jazeera. “And a month without work – or even two weeks – is a huge loss.”

Though the border between Uganda and DRC has remained open, Kobusingye’s struggles demonstrate how the fear surrounding Ebola is negatively impacting some sectors of Uganda’s economy.

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Health workers dress up in protective gear at Bwera Hospital near Mpondwe, Uganda near the border with the DRC [File: Joseph Burite/Al Jazeera]

Open borders cannot stop fear

The DRC – Africa’s most populous country after Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt – is in the grips of the second-largest Ebola outbreak on record, and the country’s worst ever.

Since the current outbreak was first declared in August 2018, more than 3,000 infections have been confirmed, and more than 2,100 people have lost their lives to the deadly viral disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

In July, WHO declared DRC’s Ebola outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, its highest level of alarm.

That classification came with an explicit warning to neighbouring countries not to exacerbate the crisis by closing their borders or placing restrictions on travel and trade with the DRC.

“Such measures are usually implemented out of fear and have no basis in science,” said the WHO Emergency Committee for Ebola in a statement. “They push the movement of people and goods to informal border crossings that are not monitored, thus increasing the chances of the spread of disease. Most critically, these restrictions can also compromise local economies and negatively affect response operations from a security and logistics perspective.”

In August, a nine-year-old girl who was exposed to Ebola in DRC and developed symptoms that were identified as she was crossing into Uganda. Rather than turn her away, authorities had her transported to an Ebola treatment centre in Uganda, where she died shortly after her arrival.

‘It was through our screening process that this family was coming even to seek medical treatment,” said Uganda Ministry of Health spokesperson Emmanuel Ainebyoona.

“We have also an open-border refugee policy, so we continue to welcome those ones who are running away from instability, those ones who are coming to seek medical treatment and those ones who might be seeking to trade where there is a market day,” Ainebyoona told Al Jazeera.

Uganda exports around $189m worth of goods to the DRC annually, according to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, underscoring the strong financial incentive to keep the border open.

Amelia Kyambadde, Uganda’s trade minister, told Al Jazeera she expects trade between the two countries to “grow this year”, but has not followed up with data to confirm the forecast.

But it doesn’t take a border closure for Ebola to have a real, negative impact on an economy.

In 2014, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa cost the economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone $2.8bn, according to World Bank estimates.

“That may not be very different from what we may face here because similarly, the Ebola case in Uganda was at a border district, there’s a market in Mpondwe, and a lot of movement across the border per day,” said epidemiologist Herbert Kazoora, programme head at the African Field Epidemiology Network.

“With the outbreak, you definitely expect traders to reduce their movement, and that has a negative impact on the economy,” he said.

TradeMark East Africa is a non-profit trade-facilitation agency that implements hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of donor-funded projects aimed at boosting trade by easing the movement of goods across borders.

Some of those projects include so-called “one-stop border posts” that save time by ensuring cargo does not undergo duplicative checks between countries.

The agency is looking to construct one-stop border posts along the Uganda-DRC border, but the Ebola crisis has hobbled those plans. 

“When a case of Ebola is identified, the caution that you get from the Ugandan Ministry of Health and the WHO is to limit body contact. Yet some of the work that we do requires body contact if you have site meetings and such,” said Richard Kamajugo, chief operating officer of TradeMark East Africa.

“Some of the timelines agreed could not be met, but the work is still continuing,” he told Al Jazeera.

The agency is now considering taking the unprecedented step of integrating health facilities and isolation centres at border posts it constructs.

“The major lesson really is that the issues of health at such borders – which are prone to cross-border disease, and dangerous diseases like Ebola – is that that needs to be factored into the planning of the borders,” said Kamajugo.

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A visitor sanitizes her hands with chlorine water before entering Bwera Hospital near Mpondwe, Uganda [File: Joseph Burite/Al Jazeera]

Tourism takes a hit

Tourism is another sector that can easily fall prey to Ebola fears. Tourist arrivals to Sierra Leone fell by over half during the 2014 West African outbreak of the disease. The fear was so acute that tourism in parts of Africa where there was no Ebola were also impacted, according to a report by the World Tourism and Travel Council.

“Tourists cancel once you say you’re Ebola threatened; they can’t risk their lives,” Everest Kayondo, chairman the Association of Uganda Tour Operators, told Al Jazeera.

Hospitality executive Spacey Kawarach told Al Jazeera that tourists are cancelling plans to Uganda because of the outbreak.

“Even though for us we know that the situation was long contained and we continue to operate normally without fear, it takes time to rebuild the trust amongst your clientele,” she told Al Jazeera.

Caution is a way of life

Only 14 confirmed Ebola infections in the DRC were reported last week, the lowest in a year. WHO officials told reporters Thursday that the epidemic is now confined to rural but less-secure areas of the DRC, which makes it more difficult to stamp out the disease. 

Funding the fight against the virus continues to be an issue. As of October 2, WHO had received only $61m of an estimated $120m to $140m in donor funds that the organisation needs to combat the outbreak through December.

Meanwhile, Uganda’s cross-border trade with DRC continues to be put to the test.

At Mpondwe, caution is a way of life. While customs officials wore no protective gear on the day Al Jazeera visited, they avoided shaking hands in a conscious effort to avoid body contact.

At the border’s main police station, chlorine water for handwashing was available at multiple points.

“When the alert was raised, the entire border communities went on high alert, including customs officers,” Ugandan commissioner for customs, Dicksons Kateshumbwa, told Al Jazeera. “All incoming travellers are screened upon arrival and so trade has been going on normally, but with a lot of precautions.”

Hussein Kiddedde, chair of the Uganda Freight Forwarders Association, told Al Jazeera that Ebola might slow business, but that it can’t stop it entirely, because people must make a living.

“Even with Ebola, people move,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera