/ 19 March 2020

Covid-19 regulations cause confusion for sheep shipment

Sheep being transported
Shipping out: A cargo vessel docked in East London this week to collect 60 000 sheep destined for the Middle East, but the national health department was not initially aware of its presence. (Randell Roskruge)

A cargo vessel that docked in East London harbour on Wednesday exposed fissures in the national and provincial departments’ response to Covid-19.

As Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula on Wednesday announced a ban on cruise liners after six passengers on board a cruise liner that docked in Cape Town this week presented with symptoms similar to those of Covid-19, a less glamorous vessel, the Al Messilah, was docking in East London to collect more than 60000 sheep destined for the Middle East.

The sheep, valued at about R180-million, have been gathered from farmers in the Eastern Cape as part of an export agreement between Middle East-based livestock traders Al Mawashi and local farmers.

It is the second such ship to dock in the harbour in six months; the Al Shuwaikh collected 61000 sheep last September. Both vessels belong to Al Mawashi, which has branches and feedlots in Kuwait, Dubai, Australia — and now, South Africa.

Its arrival put to the test the cohesiveness and co-ordination of the South African government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as initially it seemed as if the national department of health — the department responsible for testing and screening people presenting symptoms — was not aware of the ship’s arrival.

On Wednesday, Mbalula announced his department’s regulations in line with the national disaster declaration proclaimed earlier this week. These included the prohibition of crew changes and passenger disembarkation at two harbours — Saldanha and Mossel Bay — and the banning of all passenger cruise liners from South Africa’s ports.

This was as the government revealed that the number of people who tested positive for the deadly virus had breached 100 by Wednesday morning. The latest figures, released on Thursday afternoon, state that there are 150 cases in South Africa.

When asked about the vessel at midday on Wednesday, the national health department initially said it was not aware that the ship — which was carrying 53 crew and had been to Australia and then Kuwait before making the journey to East London — was set to dock in South Africa.

Spokesperson Popo Maja later said the department was advised that the crew would not disembark and South Africans would be allowed to assist with the loading as long as there was no interaction with the crew.

Eastern Cape health MEC Sindiswa Gomba told the Daily Dispatch that her office would test the entire crew for Covid-19.  

State rail company Transnet, whose authority also extends to the country’s ports, on Thursday said none of the Al Messilah’s crew were allowed off the ship as new protocols do not permit any crew to disembark, except in special circumstances, such as the need for urgent medical attention. Tests would be conducted only in the event of any of the crew presenting symptoms.

“The vessel’s master has the first responsibility of advising port health of any illness onboard,” said Terry Taylor, Transnet’s corporate affairs manager for the East London port. “This is standard procedure and occurs prior to any vessel arriving in port. Port health will conduct testing or screenings on board in the event of any illness and potential contact.”

Ordinarily, foreign vessels need a clean bill of health (from the port health division), as well as details of the last 10 ports of call to be recorded before it can enter a port. In terms of the new protocols to deal with Covid-19, any foreign ship that has been at sea for less than 14 days will not be granted a clean bill of health as that is less time than the typical incubation time for the virus.

Taylor added: “Transnet has also implemented additional procedures for all vessels entering South African ports in line with national department of health standard operating procedures for [Covid-19] and we are working with port health and all relevant authorities in managing vessel activities.”

The trade and export of livestock and meat products is regulated by the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform, and Rural Development, which issues permits that allow for export. Department spokesperson Reggie Ngcobo said trade was continuing as usual because the department “has not received any communication from our trade partners regarding the suspension of trade due to coronavirus”.

The presence of both ships has stirred discontent from animal rights groups including the National Council of SPCAs (NSPCA) and Ban Animal Trading, which have both lamented alleged poor treatment of the animals on these vessels.

Last month when the NSPCA — together with Afriforum — approached the high court in Makhanda with an application to ban live animal trading until the ministers of justice and agriculture can agree on appropriate legislation to govern the process.

But the application was dismissed with costs after the NSPCA’s legal team, led by retired prosecutor Gerrie Nel, filed the incorrect motion in court and the sheriff did not serve the 14 respondents — including the department of agriculture and Al Mawashi.

On Wednesday the NSPCA found itself in court after Al Mawashi filed papers in the East London magistrate’s court to challenge the NSPCA’s warrant to monitor the loading of the sheep this week. The warrant was revoked with costs, but replaced with a court order for NSPCA officials to board the ship to examine the conditions in which the sheep are kept, the organisation said on Thursday.

“It is important to note that, although this decision was not completely favourable, the NSPCA is constitutionally charged to protect the animals in South Africa and that is exactly what we intend to continue to do” said Marcelle Meredith, NSPCA executive director.

Al Mawashi managing director Ilyaas Ally said this week that none of the ship’s crew exhibited any symptoms of Covid-19. He said the court application was not an attempt to evade transparency, adding his company went to court only because the NSPCA requested, in its warrant application, that an undisclosed number of individuals board the vessel. “We need to explicitly state that we are not evading transparency,” Ally said. “Department of agriculture vets have inspected the vessel, and secondly, the NSPCA in the court order gives three inspectors access to the ship. The inspectors are currently on the vessel.”

Although there has been no scientific evidence that shows coronavirus can be passed between animals, its spread has had an effect on the industry. In Australia, the federal department of agriculture announced it would not put independent observers on to export ships for the next three weeks.