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Omicron Dashes Hopes of Expatriat Zimbabweans' Christmas Home Coming

FILE: : An overloaded bus makes its way to Zimbabwe with cross-border shoppers from Johannesburg.
FILE: : An overloaded bus makes its way to Zimbabwe with cross-border shoppers from Johannesburg.

This close to Christmas, scores of Zimbabwean travelers would normally be packed at bus stations, rushing to get home from neighbouring South Africa, to see their loved ones. However, bus drivers are seeing far less people than expected.

They had been hoping for a bumper festive season this year to help their businesses recover after COVID-19 shut the borders for much of 2020.

However, the emergence of the Omicron variant of the virus prompted Zimbabwe in November to announce mandatory, 10-day quarantine for arrivals from South Africa in government-approved facilities, at own expense - a cost many of Zimbabwe's migrant workers in South Africa cannot afford.

For Albert Mawere, a local bus driver, the last two years have been extremely difficult. Having last seen his family and children in 2018, due to financial constraints.

He is determined to travel despite the quarantine mandate when him and his wife arrive in Zimbabwe.

He told Reuters that he has had to also borrow money in order to afford their quarantine costs.

"We are going to travel three days, you see, and you see as they say that when they quarantine us, we must use our own -- monies you see. Yeah, we are prepared to do that, you see because we stayed long time here in South Africa, you see. So, we must see our parents also, yeah," he said while waiting for the bus.

However, for bus drivers like Augustin Chibaya, this year's Christmas season remains grim. In normal times, Chibaya's bus would be full of luggage and belongings of Zimbabweans making the 24-hour long trip home.

"Since Covid started we don't have business, look as you see it's very quiet, even the boots are empty - no business. This quarantine, this Covid is killing our business. People are scared, when they go to Zimbabwe, they're getting quarantined. So, no one is here compared to other years," he said while standing in front of his empty bus.

Chibaya's firm would normally send four buses per day with up to 60 passengers during December.

Now it sends one, sometimes with as few as five people on board.

He and other drivers at central Johannesburg bus station told Reuters the loss of business had affected their ability to support their families.

Chibaya was struggling to afford food, let alone presents for his children this year.

(Jody Khan, Shafiek Tassiem,Sisipho Skweyiya)