This close to Christmas, the undercarriage of Augustin Chibaya’s bus would normally be packed with the belongings of Zimbabweans heading home from SA to see their families. Instead, it’s empty — and he and his missing passengers are struggling.
When SA became the second country to identify the Omicron coronavirus variant in November, after Hong Kong, Zimbabwe imposed 10-day quarantine in government-approved facilities on arrivals from SA, at their own cost.
That ruled out travel for poorer Zimbabweans, who cross the border in large numbers in search of work, and dashed the hopes of bus drivers like Chibaya for a bumper festive season after the Covid-19 pandemic shut the borders for much of 2020.
“Look, no business,” Chibaya, 37, said, gesturing into the empty cargo hold. Just a handful of suitcases stood ready for loading nearby.
“This quarantine, this is Covid killing our business.”
Many countries have imposed travel bans on Southern Africa with the avowed aim of trying to protect their populations from Omicron by minimising imported cases, though some have since lifted them.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says punishing countries for identifying variants is dangerous and scientists say such restrictions have little impact once Omicron starts to spread inside a country’s borders.
Zimbabwe, which is on international travel ban lists, recorded 50 infections with the highly transmissible Omicron variant on December 3, then sharp rises in Covid-19 infections.
In mid-December, the government extended the quarantine requirement for two more weeks. A government spokesperson was not immediately available for comment on criticism of the restrictions.
While there are no reliable figures for the number of Zimbabweans in SA, about 200,000 live here on a special permit for asylum seekers.
Chibaya’s firm would normally send four buses a day to Zimbabwe in December, each carrying up to 60 passengers on the two-day trip. Now it sends one, sometimes with as few as five people on board, he said.
He and other drivers at a central Johannesburg bus station said the loss of business had made it hard for them to support their families.
Many Zimbabweans, among them Munashe Chikomo, were hoping to make their first trip home since the start of the pandemic.
The 30-year-old Cape Town-based marketing manager last visited his parents and younger brothers in February 2020 and now feels locked out of his country.
“It was horrible,” he said of learning he couldn’t go.
“You can’t restrict us from coming home.”