Coronavirus impending disaster for Zimbabwe

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HENRY DIYA – ON March 11, the World Health Organisation formally declared Covid-19 a pandemic, noting that in the past two weeks, the number of cases outside China had increased 13-fold, and the number of affected countries has tripled.

Fast forward to March 20, 2020, the Covid-19 Worldometer showed there were now more than 246 000 cases in 181 countries and 10 000 people have lost their lives, inclusive of the 33 African states that have been affected.

Thousands more are fighting for their lives in hospitals but over 88 000 people have recovered and been discharged.

World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus went on to indicate that in the days and weeks ahead, we expect to see the number of cases, the number of deaths, and the number of affected countries climb even higher.

Fortunately, the delayed arrival of Covid-19 in Zimbabwe is a huge temporary escape although it is as certain as the sun rising tomorrow that the pandemic is almost here.

In neighbouring South Africa, 150 cases have tested positive, and Namibia recorded its third case on Friday, a 61-year-old German national who arrived in the country from Amsterdam via Zimbabwe during the same week.
Affected African states have almost doubled inside this week, a rate that clearly threatens the remaining 17 states on the continent, Zimbabwe included.

WHO has also urged the African continent to brace for the worst in the fight against the marauding coronavirus pandemic. When that inevitably happens, this will prove catastrophic for Zimbabwe and chances are Covid-19 will have a devastating long-lasting effect on the country compared to any other due to a host of factors highlighted below.

Poor health care system and ill-preparedness

Although a 55-year-old individual from Hubei province in China may have been the first person to have contracted Covid-19, that case dated back to November 17, 2019, according to the South Morning China Post, more than a month earlier than doctors noted cases in Wuhan at the end of December 2019, giving countries like Zimbabwe ample time to prepare for the assault.

However, Zimbabwe’s health care system is still in limbo, yet to recover from the recent prolonged strike by workers and sadly, some doctors were dismissed while others left for greener pastures, leaving behind poorly staffed hospitals and clinics.

The debilitating nature of the coronavirus will surely require heavily affected patients to seek intensive care facilities and reports that we have a few poorly equipped facilities only available at Harare and Bulawayo referral hospitals do not inspire confidence.

Even patients developing minor symptoms are likely to succumb due to the fact that nearly all hospitals and clinics have inadequate medical supplies. And while sub-Saharan Africa has built up its public health infrastructure and has experience in containing diseases like Ebola, most African states in the mould of Zimbabwe lack access to the ICU-level care that is keeping many European patients alive.

It is well known that limited access to testing could allow the disease to spread undetected, yet due to Zimbabwe’s collapsed health care system, the country has established only one Covid-19 test centre at Sally Mugabe Central Hospital (formerly Harare Central Hospital), with Wilkins Hospital being the main quarantine centre in a country with a population exceeding 15 million people.

Recently, Health minister Obadiah Moyo said government was working on establishing four more testing laboratories in Mutare, Kadoma, Masvingo and Gweru. The wisdom of delaying setting up facilities in Bulawayo and Beitbridge — seemingly ‘hotspots’ given their proximity to South Africa — is questionable. One also wonders why only five out of 10 provinces have been selected, and residents of the other provinces should be very worried.

Porous borders

Numerous reported cases of border jumpers intercepted along the Limpopo River trying to cross into South Africa to seek greener pastures will certainly make it impossible to keep the coronavirus from entering the country.
Although South Africa has already started installing a 40km security fence along its border with Zimbabwe, it is still to be tested if it will succeed in keeping targeted border jumpers at bay.

Social vibrant society

Recently, most African states have announced a raft of restrictive policy responses and recommendations that sound similar to those rolled out in Europe, but there are limitations to their application and effectiveness in Africa.
With Zimbabwe joining the world in announcing measures to restrict social gatherings and limiting gatherings to not more than 100 people — not seeing the urgency to close schools and colleges until next Tuesday, and no specific action announced to curtail activity at churches, bars, clubs and flea markets — the measures are ineffective.
Zimbabwe has high rates of poverty and self-employment. Leaving home every day is often an economic necessity, hence life is likely to continue as normal for most people.

Initially, the government of Zimbabwe had said schools were to remain open until the last day of the term, a lackadaisical approach in dealing with a pandemic given the vulnerability of primary school pupils to respiratory infections due to their age and crowded numbers in poorly ventilated classrooms.

Thanks to pressure and a formal request to government for schools to close immediately by the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, government reconsidered its earlier stance.

Added to these social formal and informal groups is the threat of queues that has become a lifestyle in Zimbabwe. The scarcity of most basic products, cash and other necessities has driven Zimbabweans into a queuing lifestyle at banks, supermarkets, fuel service stations and bus termini. After queuing for affordable government subsidised Zupco buses, the vehicles are loaded beyond their regulated capacity.

Political parties and activists agitating for mass action in protest against the rising cost of living also need to be responsible and consider shelving these demonstrations until the wrath of Covid-19 is sufficiently contained.

Protective face masks and sundries

Images and stories abound from countries battling this pandemic of supermarket shelves being emptied of sanitary products like hand sanitisers, toilet paper and toilet cleaners There is also a serious shortage of face masks and protective gloves. These are products not easily affordable to the majority of Zimbabweans, hence the exposure risk remains very high.

Even the government has failed to provide these pre-requisites to its health care staff due to prohibitive costs and to the majority of the population lacking food on their tables, protective masks, hand sanitisers and toilet paper will remain the nice-to-have luxuries, which the government cannot also afford to give out for free.

Poor sanitation and hygiene

Hand washing is encouraged as a defensive tool in combating the spread of communicable diseases. Specific to preventing the spread of the coronavirus people are encouraged to wash their hands with clean water and soap for at least 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based solution if hands are not visibly dirt.

My stomach churns just considering most of the suburbs in Zimbabwe have no running water, a situation that likely resulted in the outbreak of a simple primitive epidemic, cholera, that recently ravaged Zimbabwe, killing about 55 people.

There is no clean water readily available at most public places across the country and the state of public toilets is a total mess, providing fertile ground for the rapid spread of any kind of communicable epidemic, including Covid-19.
Even where water is sometimes available from the tap, its cleanliness is suspect and there is always a probability of the water getting contaminated along the way given the lack of resources to procure purification chemicals by the responsible authorities.

Underperforming economy

High rates of HIV, TB and the prevalence of other diseases in Zimbabwe are worrying, though, given the increased risk for those with existing health conditions. UNAids 2018 statistics on HIV/Aids prevalence for adults aged between 15-49 in Zimbabwe is 13 percent. Nearly five million Zimbabweans in their youthful and active ages have migrated to the diaspora in search of greener pastures, leaving behind mostly old people.

Safety nets such as pension schemes have been wiped out by the high rate of inflation, rendering pensioners unable to buy medicine or sufficient food for their frail bodies. The high cost of drugs and a collapsed healthcare system have also left many people walking around with compromised immune systems and unable to get medical attention.
Zimbabwe is largely a society of sick people compared to their counterparts in the region that have access to better sanitation and advanced health care facilities.

Illegal cash trading

Some of the countries ravaged by the coronavirus have noted the physical circulation of coins and bank notes as one of the ways aiding the spread of Covid-19.
Thus, the proliferation of people trading in hard cash as a form of employment and the rising use of card transactions make Zimbabwe a high risk zone.

Whilst some people will boast of using plastic swipe cards when transacting or using mobile money platforms; these have not been exempted. Credit cards aren’t necessarily any more sanitary: microorganisms are able to transfer to credit cards in similar ways and point-of-sale terminals are used by multiple people, revealed a 2017 New York City study, further arguing that China is already a cashless society despite the outbreak, with nearly 50 per cent of China’s population using mobile payments in the second quarter of 2019.

So, in addition to washing hands after touching money, other forms of protection include using antibacterial or baby wipes to clean phones and credit cards, and carrying your own pen to sign receipts is strongly encouraged.

Winter is approaching

There is evidence to suggest the coronavirus does particularly well in certain climates. Some of the worst hit areas around the world, from Wuhan, where the virus was first detected, to Iran, Italy and South Korea, are on more or less the same latitude, with similar cold temperatures and relative humidity.

“This is a respiratory virus and they always give us trouble during cold weather, for obvious reasons,” Nelson Michael, a leading US military medical researcher, said of the novel coronavirus recently.
Winter is fast approaching and what will be the case of Zimbabwe’s state of preparedness in the next 30-40 days. I have often heard some Zimbabweans and senior politicians boasting that Zimbabwe is too hot for coronavirus, and if true, how far is the winter?

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