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.
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.
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.