Danger, delays haunt truck drivers facing virus lockdown

Giurgiu, Romania – “We are at risk. We might get sick anytime,” Turcu adds through his improvised face-mask, voicing the fears of many as they try to keep Europe supplied despite barriers and conditions that could raise their chances of catching the coronavirus.

In a scene played out across the continent, tailbacks stretching dozens of kilometres have snarled the Giurgiu crossing up all week as countries take unilateral measures to try and stop the virus from spreading.

Turcu’s trip was to take shampoo bottles to Turkey, and a similar ordeal might well await him at the EU’s Bulgarian-Turkish border.

Krassimir Lalov, deputy head of the Bulgaria’s hauliers’ association, asks: “Where is the ‘green lane’ that Brussels was talking about?”

“If it exists I must be colour-blind,” he remarks sarcastically.

“When drivers are waiting for days in the absence of the most basic hygienic conditions — no toilets, no running water — how can we not fear a coronavirus outbreak,” he asks.

Moreover, when they return home some have “quarantine” stickers plastered on their doorways, in what Lalov feels is a gratuitous act of stigmatisation.

Many roadside restaurants drivers normally rely on have also been closed because of the crisis.

At one point, industry representatives say the Red Cross provided drivers with food at the Bulgaria-Turkey border.

On the other side of the Balkans, Slovenian authorities organise convoys of a few dozen trucks to cross the border with Italy, the European epicentre of the outbreak.

“Sometimes you’re waiting for an hour, at other times it’s 10 hours until a convoy forms,” said Serbian driver Dejan at the Fernetici crossing from Italy.

European countries under lockdown or imposing quarantine or curfew measures

Even if co-ordination has improved and freed up some bottlenecks since the crisis first hit, the job remains stressful and risky.

Hane, a Syrian refugee who arrived in Austria in 2015, is one of the few from his haulage firm to accept continued trips into Italy.

“Out of 55 drivers, only the foreigners are still prepared to go,” he says.

He is paid 120 euros ($132) per trip, and to aid deliveries, Austria has temporarily suspended limits on the number of hours drivers may work.

But the transport sector — like many others — still faces economic fallout from the crisis, notably a sharp drop in activity.

Lalov says that among his colleagues the volume of freight has declined by around 50-60 percent.

Trade with Italy, previously a large proportion of his business, has been hit particularly hard, and “bankruptcies are on the cards,” he says.

“I feel like our job was always important, but was not respected enough,” says Turcu.

“Now it’s vital, so why they don’t do something for us?”

By Ionut Iordachescu with Vessela Sergueva in Sofia and Bojan Kavcic in Ljubljana

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