Destitute returnees pose COVID-19 threat



. . . More than 200 Basotho cross from SA illegally


MASERU – Having lost their livelihoods in South Africa due to the lockdown, thousands of Basotho migrants are returning to Lesotho, crossing the border illegally. With over 5,000 confirmed cases and over 100 deaths related to the coronavirus, South Africa is one of the most severely affected countries in Africa therefore individuals from that country arriving unlawfully in Lesotho pose a public health threat and put the nation at risk.

Until yesterday Lesotho and Comoros were the only two African countries which have not reported any positive case of coronavirus yet. Comoros’ President Azali Assoumani reported the country’s first COVID-19 case. Regardless, as a precautionary measure, Lesotho imposed a nationwide lockdown to prevent the introduction and spread of the virus. “No persons are allowed into or out of Lesotho during the period of lockdown,” read the Public Health (COVID-19) Regulations.

The regulations state further that “all borders of Lesotho shall be closed” except the six designated points of entry “which shall open for the purposes of the conveyance of essential goods and services”. A press statement issued by the ministry of health yesterday stated that samples of all the three suspected cases of COVID-19 between April 20 and 22 which were sent to NICD in South Africa for testing tested negative bringing to 28 the total number of negative cases so far.

All the three cases involved Basotho nationals aged between 30 and 45 years, two of whom had travelled from South Africa within 14 days prior to showing symptoms.

“The Ministry of Health will continue to carry out active case finding through vigilant screening and testing of all the suspected cases at designated points of entry, at the health facilities and in the communities, as well as monitoring of those on home quarantine,” the statement reads. However, the loophole presented by porous borders allowing Basotho fleeing destitution in South Africa to come back home unnoticed poses a challenge as it falls outside the scope of protocols local health authorities have planned to monitor.

Coronavirus, which caused a disease known as COVID-19, is highly contagious and all it would take is a single infected individual to spread it to a sizeable portion of the country’s population for a catastrophe to be ignited.

“There has been thousands Basotho who came into the country through illegal crossings. Around 2,987 have been put under surveillance and observation to monitor if they will develop COVID-19 signs and symptoms while undergoing self-quarantine,” Communications Minister Thesele ’Maseribane told parliament on Wednesday this week.

“District Public Health personnel is monitoring them,” ’Maseribane added. He was briefing parliament on progress made by the National Emergency Command Centre (NECC) since it was established in March.

It was established to serve as a strategic command and co-ordination mechanism for all government ministries, agencies, local government structures and other stakeholders in the implementation of the national response on COVID-19. He said active search and surveillance had been initiated by the Command Centre Analysis Cluster and ‘areas such as Dille Dille, Sixondo and Mokhotlong along Tlhanyaku and Sani Pass” had been identified as hotspots or risk areas for coronavirus. “Intensive surveillance and active search is still continuing at the community levels. Testing continues to be intensified at all health facilities,” he said.

South Africa imposed an initial 21-day lockdown on March 26 to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Citizens were not allowed to leave their homes except to procure essential goods and services which exclude the purchase of alcohol and cigarettes. The lockdown, which was expected to end on April 16, was extended by two weeks to April 30.

South Africa is home to more than 200,000 Basotho migrants and for the majority of them who work in the informal sector – often outdoors – the lockdown brought an abrupt end to their engagements. Basotho migrants in South Africa pay for accommodation and buy essentials with whatever they earn on a day-to-day basis so the lockdown made their hand-to-mouth existence untenable. The restrictions are set to last several weeks more, possibly months.

Last week president Cyril Ramaphosa announced that his government would from May 1, begin easing the nationwide lockdown that has devastated the economy, while retaining a raft of restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Ramaphosa said the country would move from the maximum disease-alert level 5 to a national level 4, allowing the phased re-opening of some businesses and industries subject to strict precautions.

Last month the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) – The United Nations Migration Agency – warned that the longer the lockdown lasts in South Africa, will see increasing numbers of Basotho migrant workers without a choice but to return to Lesotho through unofficial borders.

“This exposes them to high risk of exploitation, violence and abuse on the road, but also, brings COVID-19 to the susceptible population by the infected returnees,” read the IOM report titled: Migration and Socio-Economic Impact of COVID-19 Crisis: The Case Study from Lesotho.

The report indicated that the best realistic estimate of these Basotho coming through unofficial borders was around 3,000 people who got in through the so-called community crossings in Quthing, Qacha’s Nek, Mokhotlong, Botha-Bothe, Maputsoe, and Mafeteng.

“Anecdotal evidence shows that there is an estimated 200 to 300 Basotho irregular migrants on daily basis coming back through smugglers or bribes as South Africa announced extension of lockdown by 14 days,” it read. “These migrants obviously have no documents. They also have not gone through health screening when entering into Lesotho, but due to the stigma, they are not likely to go to health facilities for COVID-19 screening,” it added. This, according to the report, exposes the migrants’ households to “double risks – incidence of acute poverty and likelihood of transmitting COVID-19 by affected individuals to families, community and nation at large”.

Media reported earlier this week that nearly 3,500 Basotho stranded in South Africa said they needed help with food, medication, permits and transport to return home. Minister of Development Planning, Tlohelang Aumane, said more than 3,433 Basotho have responded to the government’s call that they should register their needs.

But Aumane said the number of those who had registered was just a drop in on ocean considering that that there were over 200,000 Basotho in South Africa. Government this week said it had immediately made available M4 million to help Basotho stranded in South Africa.

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