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Poor living conditions place high density suburbs at risk of Covid-19

SONIA Ngwenya, 39, wakes up early in the morning to her usual 5.30am alarm that alerts her of her dawn duty of queuing at the community borehole to fetch water for the day.

The mother of four, who rents a room in Makokoba suburb together with three other families, wakes her children and they head to the borehole some few kilometres from their house.

“We have to get there early before the borehole is crowded. You know there is Covid-19 and we have to socially distance to avoid contracting the virus,” the mother cautions her children as they rush to the water source.

Just a stone’s throw from the borehole, they hear the usual noise as residents are already fighting and scrambling for the precious liquid.

Ngwenya joins a long winding queue where people throw caution to the wind and push and shove each other without observing social distancing rules.

Her mask falls to the ground and she ignores it as she tries to find a place in the queue. For a moment, she forgets about Covid-19 in her bid to draw water.

There is no sanitiser at the borehole and everyone is intent on fetching water, which has become a scarce commodity in the suburb.

Ever since the inception of the Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020, this has been Ngwenya’s daily routine as Makokoba last had running tap water last year.

Ngwenya’s lifestyle mirrors the struggles that most people in the high density suburbs of Bulawayo and other cities are facing and how they expose themselves to Covid-19 in the quest to secure resources like water.

Ngwenya and her family are also at grave risk as she stays at an overcrowded house.

Four families occupy the four-room house, making it 18 people in one place.

There is no social distancing at their home and life has to go on as the tenants are informal traders who go out to hustle to eke a living.

“Every morning everyone goes out to different places and when they return it is business as usual. We don’t know whom our fellow tenants gets in contact with. We observe lockdown measures here as we are crowded,” said Ngwenya.

While statistics by the ministry of Health and Child Care indicated a decrease in Covid-19 infections in Bulawayo, the situation in the city’s high density suburbs remains a serious cause for concern for residents.

A comparison of Covid-19 statistics released by the ministry of Health and Child Care on January 9, 2021 and February 9, a month later, shows a 47 percent decline in active cases and more significantly a 87 percent decline in new cases.

While this brings hope to the city, high density suburbs still remain vulnerable.

Ngwenya said it’s a nightmare as residents of high density suburbs cannot even contemplate testing for Covid-19 because they cannot afford the prohibitive costs.

“Even if you say you want to get tested since you are at high risk, you cannot afford to do so. I hear they require US$60. Where do l get it when l survive from hand to mouth?” she quizzed.

Ngwenya said failure to get tested might mean that there are cases within the area that have not been accounted for.

“I think the numbers are higher than this because there are people like me who are being exposed daily, but are not getting tested,” she said.

Recently, the Bulawayo City Council (BCC) identified the high density suburbs as Covid-19 hotspots, accounting for a large percentage of cases and deaths.

BCC senior health promotions officer Sitshengisiwe Siziba singled out Emganwini, Nketa, Makokoba, Nkulumane, Pumula and Cowdray Park as the top five suburbs with high numbers of Covid-19 infections.

Siziba also noted that 57 percent of the cases are women who are vulnerable to the virus due to their roles as primary caregivers and domestic workers.

“Women generally are the most active members at domestic level. They come across a lot of people and get exposed compared to their male counterparts,” she said.

Siziba highlighted the prevailing water crisis in the city as one of the contributing factors in the rise of infections in the high density suburbs.

“Bulawayo has been hard hit by the water crisis and this forces people to queue for water while exposing them to uncontrollable crowds at community boreholes. There is no social distancing and l doubt if they sanitise,” she said.

A resident, Babongwe Hadebe, noted that poverty levels and unhygienic conditions contribute to the increase in coronavirus cases.

“Most of us are informal traders and middle to low income earners. We cannot afford staying indoors because we will die of hunger. We just have to go out to raise money for food and other necessities. Sometimes we do things without even thinking of Covid-19,” he said.

Hadebe challenged BCC to address the water crisis in the city, saying it is contributing to fear of more infections in the high density suburbs.

“The water crisis needs to be addressed to avoid crowding at community boreholes,” he said.

“Crowding is the order of the day, especially in these old suburbs where you can find a number of families sharing a four-room house and a toilet.

“There are poor hygienic conditions and once one person catches the virus, then everyone is affected because of the congestion,” he said.

A human rights activist, Nontokozo Tshuma, suggested that mass testing be conducted in the identified hotspots.

“We might run a risk of breeding the virus in communities assuming that people are fine. The level of congestion at community boreholes as well as in their houses is worrisome.

“I wonder how they survive if one of them catches the virus. I think the government should do a mass testing of these people because they cannot afford to pay for the tests,” Tshuma said.

He said the city fathers should deploy its officials to monitor community boreholes.

“Officials from the BCC should monitor these boreholes and make sure a reasonable number of people queue for water at a time. Social distancing should be prioritised as well as sanitisation. It is not even safe to pump that borehole with bare hands where everyone is touching it,” Tshuma said.

As for living conditions, he suggested that the council regulates population per household, especially those that are meant for renting.

“Surely BCC cannot tell stipulate the number of family members to take care of, but there are known flats that are specifically for renting, something must be done to regulate the number of tenants who are given rooms to rent.

“It’s not reasonable or safe for 18 people to live in a four-room flat,” he added.

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