Despite government restricting external travel to essential errands as a way of containing the spread of Covid-19, the Department of Immigration is defying the order by continuously issuing border passes without asking reasons for travel.
For instance, Chitipa Immigration Post has continuously issued border passes to small-scale businesspersons, who trek to Tunduma in Tanzania through the Mbilima Border Post.
This reporter was issued one on February 12 2021 to travel to Tunduma, and was expected to pay K10 000 at Mbilima so that he could travel in his own vehicle. This is just one of the many documents that are issued at the border.
On several occasions, even government vehicles from the Boma travel to Tunduma on government
workers’ shopping errands.
Yet, despite this evidence, deputy spokesperson in the Department of Immigration Wellington Chiponde insisted that travel is restricted and no border passes are issued unnecessarily.
He said: “The land borders are technically closed, only with the exception of those that are in the category of essential services.”
Yet, if The Nation investigation is anything to go by, the borders, especially Songwe in Karonga and Mbilima in Chitipa, are not fully equipped to enforce Covid-19 measures.
At Songwe Border post, border officers said they stopped testing for Covid-19 on December 21 because government is not providing resources. Worse still, people hardly wear face masks, rarely wash hands, and passenger vehicles are rarely disinfected.
We arrived at Songwe Post on February 4 2021 to observe how law enforcement agencies were implementing measures and on February 6 2021, we acted as small-scale businesspersons, set to travel to Kyela in Tanzania— about 18 kilometres from Songwe—to buy merchandise.
On three occasions, we were denied a border pass, but officials from the Immigration Department constantly told us that “you can still go, but we won’t give you the border pass, remember there is a government ban on travels”. won’t give you the border
Many small-scale businesspersons took advantage of the ‘verbal permit’ and were seen crossing into Tanzania, without being checked, and many others were returning with their merchandise after a successful shopping trip to the neighbouring country.
At 12.18pm, a decision was made to go through the Malawi gate at Songwe River, where two security guards allowed us, without any questions, to walk through the gate and enter Tanzania. And we did.
One of the people, whose job is to check temperature, warned of the Covid-19 situation in Tanzania, telling us to remove masks immediately we enter the Dodoma soil.
“Kumenekotu ma mask amaletsa, [They do not entertain masks that side], Ndiye mungowasunga m’thumba mpaka mubwelere [just keep them in your pockets until you return],” he said with a smile and we obliged.
Like moving from one village to the other, the four of us walked freely and passed through the Tanzania gate before we hired a taxi heading to Kyela.
After four hours at Kyela, having bought a few goods and cooling off at Forty- Seven Plaza, we returned to Malawi.
At the Songwe Border Post, border patrol in-charge inspector Christopher Chirwa said all returning residents should wash hands, have their temperatures checked and if they are using a car, it has to be disinfected before entering Malawi.
“No one is supposed to enter Malawi without undergoing this. If you do not
comply, you are not allowed,” he said, expressing optimism that someone had the situation under control. undergoing this. If you do not
In an interview, Ministry of Health Principal Secretary Charles Mwansambo said the Department of Immigration is part of the response team and has rules to follow to help contain the spread.
He said: “Breaking the law is bad, and those who do that, especially at this time when the pandemic [is more brutal], must be taken to court.”
In July 2020, Minister of Health Khumbize Chiponda directed health officials in Karonga to start testing anyone showing symptoms of Covid-19 at Songwe Border Post.
But last week, Karonga director of health and social services David Sibale said they did not have enough resources for the health personnel to carry out the exercise.
He said: “We started testing, but we had some challenges for us to continue. We were testing until December 21 2020, with support from the World Health Organisation [WHO]. But when WHO withdrew their support, we did not have funds to continue.
“A team that collects and tests the samples commutes daily from Karonga Boma. So, there are plans for the Ministry of Health to place a container laboratory at Songwe Border, we may resume thereafter.”
Sibale said it costs K1.9 million a month to carry out the exercise—catering for a driver, three laboratory technicians and an environmental officer