Truck driving is by definition a hazardous job, with the constant threat of accidents, crime, poor roads and bad weather. But what about COVID-19?
It’s just another risk they take in their stride, say drivers. But they deliberately take precautionary measures to prevent contracting the virus, for their sake, that of the people they encounter and, most importantly, their loved ones back home.
Considering that truck drivers move around a lot, and further and wider than most people, they are undoubtedly at greater risk of the coronavirus simply because they cannot isolate themselves like everyone else. Working from home is certainly not an option for them, as it is for many other people.
The top three drivers in the 2019 Hollard Highway Heroes, the annual campaign run by Hollard Trucking, are arguably South Africa’s best truckers right now. They were asked how their jobs and lives have changed since the COVID-19 lockdown was imposed in late March 2020.
Work dried up completely at the start of the lockdown and for six weeks he sat at home, says 2019 Highway Hero Maartin Langeveld. “For the first two weeks it was heavenly that I was at home,” he says, adding that he then began to chafe being stationary for so long.
As the lockdown restrictions began to ease and work picked up again, Langeveld was happy to get back on the road – and the lack of traffic at first was “wonderful”, he says. But it was also stressful.
Langeveld, a diabetic, was initially concerned that he was at higher risk of contracting COVID-19, a fear shared by his wife. But the stringent safety rules wherever he went put him at ease – and “my wife drove with me twice to see how it is”.
Langeveld says he strictly observes social distancing and sanitising protocols, and stays in his truck as much as possible to avoid unnecessary contact with people. His advice to other truck drivers: “Stay focused. Stop often. And sanitise often … This is not a thing you can see, but you will feel it. That’s how you can protect your family.”
For Themba Vilakazi, the 2015 Highway Hero and a three-time top 10 finisher, including winning the Flat Decks category in 2019, not much has changed except for the onerous safety procedures wherever he stops.
“Nothing has changed – except that when you’re at the customer, you sanitise a lot and do a lot of paperwork,” Vilakazi states. “And your mask must stay on at all times.”
The same goes when he stops at a truck stop or service station; it’s on with the mask, sanitising hands, social distancing. Of course, he is safest when he’s on his own, in his sanctuary: his truck’s cab.
“It’s only in the truck, when I’m alone, that I can take my mask off,” he says.
But he’s never complacent, stating bluntly that “the COVID-19 is dangerous”. And so far, so good – neither he nor his family have been directly affected by the virus yet, for which he is grateful.
Steven Mbongiseni Ndlovu, who won the Tankers category in the 2019 Hollard Highway Heroes, says things were hard at first during the lockdown, as work – and therefore earnings – dwindled. But since then his workload has picked up again.
Out on the road, his biggest worry is “people taking things for granted” and not observing safe practices. As a result, he stays in his truck as much as he can – and he only engages with receivers at his delivery points, in order to minimise his risk.
He’s also keeping away as much as possible from his family in Pietermaritzburg, preferring to stay in a room in Durban when he’s off, in order to protect them from the risk of infection.
He says truck drivers must remain vigilant at all times, as the virus is still prevalent: “This disease is not finished at all. We have to continue sanitising and wearing a mask.”
“At the best of times, truck driving is synonymous with risk – and so much of it, inconsiderate road users or terrible weather, are beyond a driver’s control,” says Wayne Rautenbach, head of Hollard Trucking.
“But with COVID-19, drivers can at least take action to keep themselves safe to an extent – as much as the rest of us. I’m very glad to hear that they’re being careful and staying safe, and also that depots and yards are taking COVID-19 precautions seriously.
“In the context of the pandemic, let’s all keep truck drivers in our thoughts this Transport Month and encourage safe practices in the transport industry. We need our drivers fit and healthy, and working, if we are to get our economy off its knees again.
“More than ever before, they’re our highway heroes – every one of them,” says Rautenbach.