DOMESTIC flights are expected to resume today with international ones scheduled to be back on October 1 as the Government continues easing the Covid-19 lockdown.
Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga toured the country’s three main airports on Saturday to assess their readiness to be able to handle traffic safely amid the Covid-19 pandemic. He visited Robert Gabriel Mugabe, Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo and Victoria Falls international airports in Harare, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls respectively. The VP, who is also the Minister of Health and Child Care, expressed happiness that the three facilities were ready to resume work but identified a few gaps that should be fixed in a day or two.
“The facilities are good and I am impressed by what I have been briefed by port authorities here,” he said at the Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport. “They are now prepared for the reopening of ports for domestic and international travellers. There are one or two things which we have advised them to put in place and are not really an issue.”
The Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe and airlines, among them Air Zimbabwe and Fastjet had a long time to prepare for today to ensure that we can fly again for the first time after six months. Sanitisation booths have been set up at the three facilities while staff have been trained and equipped with the required dressing. Temperature checks would be done on travellers and airport staff, while wearing of face masks and social distancing would be obviously mandatory.
With everything ready on the part of staff and port facilities, travellers also need to keep observing the protocols that we all have been accustomed to. We, therefore have no doubt that the measures that have been put in place are adequate for domestic air travel to resume.
While we see no big challenge pertaining to air travel, we aren’t convinced yet that land ports, especially Beitbridge Border Post is really ready for travellers.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa last week announced that his country will reopen its borders from October 1 for international travel. The neighbouring country said it will open three of its airports and one land border post — Beitbridge — which were already operational during the lockdown only for essential travel.
Beitbridge is the busiest land border post in southern Africa. Before the Covid-19 outbreak, it served about 10 000 travellers and 4 000 cars daily off-peak. During peak periods, the border post serves about 24 000 people daily. Last year, more than 708 000 travellers passed through Beitbridge Border Post during the festive season, which is the peak travelling period.
We can safely foretell that if that border post is opened, there is going to be a stampede of people seeking to travel to South Africa and from that country up north. Given that both countries have not overcome Covid-19 yet Beitbridge Border Post has all the potential to be problematic logistically and possibly reverse the gains that our country has scored so far against the infection. In saying this we know that at the onset of the disease in March, most of the imported cases recorded here emanated from our people who were returning from South Africa, Africa’s Covid-19 epicentre then and now.
It is possibly with that in mind that the Government has not committed to reopening Beitbridge Border Post simply because South Africa has done so. Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage Minister, Kazembe Kazembe told our sister paper, Sunday News on Saturday that a decision would be made on the reopening of that port.
Chief Co-ordinator National Response to Covid-19 Pandemic Dr Agnes Mahomva said while numbers of new cases and deaths were going down, the country still needed to be vigilant.
“Things remain the same, people need to remain cautious, we are getting into a new normal; in other words we introduced all these new measures but people should not drop them even if we have zero new infections, people should still continue social distancing, washing their hands, not getting into crowds when looking for transport and keeping masks on, properly covering the mouth and nose. Don’t wear it as a fashion statement, it is so critical as it saves lives.”
It is essential that the Government, when taking a decision on when to reopen Beitbridge Border Post for ordinary travellers, continues with the measured approach that has served us so well since March.
Yes, instilling order at airports should be fairly easy from today and when international flights resume at the beginning of next month, largely because not many people fly. However, Beitbridge Border Post will be different.
Just how would social distancing be enforced in that tiny yard at that border post on a normal day when as many as 10 000 travellers pass through it, not to mention the 20 000-plus who would have to be served there daily over the Christmas break? How would everyone in that multitude be able to appropriately wear their face masks for the long hours they would be in queues in Beitbridge’s typically suffocating summer heat?