Hoping for the best in Zimbabwe

I spoke to my friend Nia in Zimbabwe the other day, and she says she is absolutely terrified of the approaching front of the pandemic. She is diabetic, which makes coronavirus particularly dangerous, and she has just been in hospital for three days after getting flu that turned into pneumonia. 

“I was in one of the best hospitals in the country,” she said, “and I’m telling you, there’s no way it can deal with an epidemic.”

She came out of hospital on the Saturday and was back at work, teaching at a nursery school, on the Monday. She lasted a week before terror and a doctor’s order drove her home. 

A substitute teacher took over her class for the following week, and then the school closed for the holidays a week early. It is now holidays and they are setting things up to have online lessons for the next term. It won’t be easy with children of that age, though, because they won’t be sitting nicely in front of the screen reciting their times tables; they will be wielding paper and glue and scissors and indelible markers. They will have to be supervised by their parents – who may well be trying to supervise the studies of other kids simultaneously. It will be mayhem. 

Nia says she is petrified  of catching the virus. Her husband has to keep going to work, because he works in the food trade, which is an essential service, and when he comes home every day he steps out of the car straight into a bucket of disinfectant to disinfect his shoes. He gets undressed in the car and puts his clothes in the wash before entering the house and going straight to have a shower. Meanwhile, Nia takes his lunchbox, his water bottle, his keys, his phone and anything else he is carrying and scrubs them with disinfectant and puts them in direct sunlight for half an hour. Even with all those precautions, they have been keeping a distance. He sleeps in another bedroom and uses another bathroom. 

“But have you seen each other?” I asked. “Or do you just sit in different rooms calling to each other?”

“He’s on the couch with me right now, ” she said. Then she added “but riiight at the other end of it.”

Her mother has moved in with them for the duration of the pandemic, although she’s still going back to her own house once a day to attend to the dog. It’s the same routine with her – disinfect everything and go straight to shower the instant she gets in. 

“I haven’t hugged my mom in a month,” Nia lamented. 

She said that the police have been beating people who break lockdown rules.

This article talks about the over-zealousness with which police in several countries in Africa are enforcing lockdown rules. It says that many African countries had the foresight to introduce lockdowns early to avoid an onslaught on their precarious healthcare systems, but that there should be more recognition on the part of the authorities that it is often impractical – and sometimes impossible – for citizens to comply with the measures to the letter, because of crowded living conditions, lack of support for those who stop working, and a persistent need to go out for food and water.

It says: “The use of excessive force does not bode well. Lockdowns will not work unless they have public support. And that support will be withheld if governments abuse their poorest citizens in the midst of a pandemic.

(Yuval Noah Harari, with his customary insight, noted in this interview how damaging this abuse of power might be. “In normal times,” he says, “maybe you can run a country when only half the population trusts the government – maybe. But in an emergency like this, you need 100% of the people to trust the government and the authorities.”)

Nia had to go to the pharmacy the other day to pick up some medicines, her first time out since the lockdown was imposed, and even though visits to the pharmacy are permitted, she was absolutely paralysed at the prospect of being stopped by the police. 

She reversed out the driveway, then drove back up to the house. She reversed again, then returned again. She just went back and forth for several minutes, unable to bring herself to leave the safety of her home.

“It was as if I had never learnt to drive!” she said. 

She did eventually make it to the pharmacy, fortunately without running into any police. Everyone was made to stand in a queue, two metres apart from each other. Nobody went into the pharmacy; instead, a member of staff came to the door to take their orders. 

“They sprayed my hands with disinfectant as I got to the front of the queue,” she said. “Then they sprayed the medicine before they gave it to me. Before I paid, they sprayed my bank card. Then they gave me the receipt and they sprayed the receipt.” 

I was impressed at how on top of things they seemed to be and wondered whether perhaps Zimbabwe will be able to keep the spread of the virus under control. 

But then she told me about Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital, one of two infectious-diseases clinics in the country and the place that will be the first port of call for many victims of coronavirus. 

“It is a tent,” she said. “It is four poles and a tarpaulin. The power points don’t work, so you can’t hook up the ventilators – but that doesn’t matter because there’s no oxygen for the ventilators anyway.” 

This is Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital:

To be fair, she told me that that Wilkins is being fixed up and that other covid-19 response centres are being prepared.

According to this article the health director of the City of Harare (an institution whose superbly upbeat tagline may be enjoyed in the image below) is arranging for medical staff to be seconded to Wilkins from other hospitals. He reports that the intensive-care unit is being set up and now has five ventilators and the capacity to provide oxygen to 54 people. He also says that capacity is being extended at Harare’s other infectious-diseases hospital. Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has also donated Zimbabwe 20,000 coronavirus test kits, 100,000 masks and 1,000 protective suits and face shields.

However, there are still hurdles. Harare City Council, which runs Wilkins Hospital, requested 6.7 million USD from the government to help deal with the crisis. (There’s an odd currency system in Zimbabwe that tries hard to ignore US dollars but somehow keeps gravitating back to them.) The government has scraped together 100,000 Zimbabwe dollars – equivalent to 276 USD – which, while appreciated, falls somewhat short of 6.7 million and is not going to go very far in tempting back the nurses who are deserting in droves. Fortunately – both for the nurses and for those who may need their expertise – there are greener pastures for them to make for, in the form of other covid-19 response centres that have sprung up around the city and that are paying about 75 USD a day, in actual USD.

I didn’t know that there was still an independent press in Zimbabwe, but the Zimbabwe Independent seems to be as good as its name, publishing some pretty biting articles. The above information comes from one of them, and “What kind of society have we become?” is also worth a read for the boldness with which it lays into the government for its failings in the face of this pandemic.

2 thoughts on “Hoping for the best in Zimbabwe

  1. I suspect Zimbabwe will do as many other poor countries, and will get through the pandemic by having private businesses collaborating to take on the tasks that should be done by the government.

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  2. Sad, very sad. People are struggling wherever they are. In South Africa, the poorer communities are resorting to hijacking and looting supermarket delivery trucks in order to just get food. Most of them cannot earn money right now – especially those with more informal jobs such as “car guard”. Tough times in one way or another for many people.

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