This is the first of a series of Diary Project entries from Zimbabwe written by Constance Myambo and Nomathemba Sibanda, undergraduate students at the University of Zimbabwe and members of the grassroots organization Ear for Africa. The first entry, by Myambo, covers 23 March – 08 April and should be read together with “Notes from Africa” by Sibanda, who introduces the pandemic situation in Africa.
23 March 2019
When the news of COVID-19 started to spread in our country, just as it started in Italy, many people thought it was a joke. A lot of myths that were circulating that prevented people from taking the matter seriously.
“It’s for the whites, not Africans.”
“It only thrives in low temperatures, not here in Zim,” Zimbos could remark from their comfortable spaces.
“It only attacks people who have a compromised immunity system’’
News of confirmed positive cases in South Africa started to circulate, and still, people seemed to remain unmoved. On various WhatsApp platforms, messages started to pop in. A man who had travelled from Germany to Namibia via Zimbabwe tested positive for COVID-19 when he arrivedin Namibia. People at that time started to think that the non-availability of testing kits made everyone to believe that coronavirus was not yet in Zimbabwe. The health system by then seemed to be not ready for the pandemic in terms of the resources—no testing kits had been made available to hospitals. It all seemed like a joke until Zororo Makamba tested positive and passed away on the 23rd of March in Harare after returning from New York. Still everyone comforted themselves with the notion that he had had a surgical operation in late 2019 that had something to do with his untimely death. As a broadcaster and a public figure whom people knew, many people remembered Makamba as full of life and energy. With his passing, Zimbabwe recorded its first coronavirus death. The Wilkins Hospital in Harare became set as a center that would respond to coronavirus testing. Many people as a result became worried about how the state would manage to cope in terms of equipment and facilities––more panic.
As a safety measure, through the media people were notified of all the places which Makamba had visited before falling ill. Reality then started to knock sense into many people, and they saw the need to be safer in their own spaces.
24 March 2020
The President declared that all schools should close on this date since these were places which fostered gatherings. Therefore, on this day schools closed, and along with many of my university colleagues we packed our bags and head back home. Heading back home to a rural village gave me the hope of being safe, but deep down I could feel that my village was under threat due to its close proximity to Mozambican villages and South African Limpopo Province—the pandemic could spread faster here. Various transport providers provided buses at their normal prices from the campus.
On the same day, I remember visiting the Cimas Clinic in 4th Street after developing the flu. From afar, as I approached the clinic, I could see a queue at the gate. I joined the queue on arrival and later on a nurse (with her nose and mouth covered in a mask and hands covered in plastic gloves) approached all of us:
“hatisi kurapa flue, munhu wese ane flue ngaadzokere kumba, endai munomwa ma lemon, pano tiri kuda chete vanhu vane zvimwewo zvirwere zvisiri flue, kunyanya vane ma temperatures akakwira, ndovatiri kuendesa kwachiremba kana zvatozonyanya, ku Wilkins kana munhu achiratidza kunge ane ma symptoms e corona”
We are not attending to patients who have flu, those ones should go back home, boil lemons and drink. We are only attending to patients who have other diseases besides flu especially people who have high temperatures, those are the ones whom we are referring to the doctor or to Wilkins if they exhibit more symptoms which are corona related.
I quickly left the queue, bought lemons and ginger from a nearby vendor and went back home. Whilst in the “kombi” (commuter omnibus), everyone was so quiet, all eyes and hands stuck on their phones–WhatsApp. It seemed everyone else felt safer to have a social life online than to talk physically to any stranger.
26 March 2020
“Bakosi na Show swi pfaliwe” – Bakosi and Show are closed
In Chiredzi District, villages in Chiredzi-South buy most of their goods from mobile markets. In a small village called Boli-Mhlanguleni, they call these market “bakosi,” which literally is a word that refers to buying cheap things. This market is usually done during the last Thursday of the month. On this day, the community leadership with help from the Rural District Council, warned all the villagers of the gatherings and they were told that the market was postponed. The Show, as the mobile market is also known as, is usually conducted in different places, Samu, Gezani, Malipati, Chikombedzi. All these markets had to be postponed so as to reduce the spread of the disease.
27 March 2020
Coronavirus was declared a “national disaster” on Friday, March 27th, meaning that state resources had to be channeled toward fighting COVID-19. This was necessary in order to use emergency regulations and to deploy personnel for emergency services. On the same day, the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe declared that all borders had to be closed and only returning Zimbabweans and permit holders would be allowed to enter the country.
A national lockdown was then scheduled to start on the 30th of March, and it would run for 21 days. The intention was to slow the spread of COVID-19: therefore, all activities had to cease, leaving only hospitals and pharmacies open to operate. The following rules were also announced:
- People could only goto shops which are close by, not more than 5km.
- All shops to be closed by 3pm.
- Only ZUPCO (Zimbabwe United Passengers Co.) buses would operate, while observing social distancing in the bus.
- Only essential staff members could go to work in their respective companies.
- Loitering in the streets for no apparent reason would be an offense.
- The army and the police would be in the Central Business District (CBD) with strict measures regarding everyone found loitering, everyone should stay at home.
The Minister of Finance also declared that the state would revert to “dollarization,” meaning American dollars would be used in the nation alongside the local bond notes and coins.
With all these measures now put into place, Zimbabweans have started queuing for basic commodities in the shops. Prior to this declaration, citizens had already started complaining about how mealie-meal was becoming scarce in many shops. Now for these three remaining days, everyone wanted to prepare for the lockdown. It was going to be a difficult period for people engaged in the informal sector who are living very much “hand to mouth.”
Lockdown Day 1 to Day 10 (30 March – 08 April)
During the initial days of the lockdown, vendors found it quite difficult to adhere to the new system. In a small residential location of Mabvuku, pictures started to circulate of how the police had burnt vegetables collected from vendors who had resumed their usual work.
We still had only one death, as well as 11 positive cases in the country as noted in the statistics from the Ministry of Health and Child Care. On April 7th, it was announced that another man had succumbed to the disease in Bulawayo, increasing the death toll to two. Some days later, the number of infections had risen to 14 and 3 dead. This therefore meant that these were local people who contracted infections locally within the country. If three out of 14 succumb to the disease, this would then mean the country’s COVID-19 death rate was 21%. A need for more strict measurements to curb further spread was needed.
It seemed everyone was thinking that the end of the 21 days lockdown was the end of the virus, but to me, that was going to be a dangerous period when people would start meeting in the streets, in town, at work, in the markets, in the buses, in the shops, and elsewhere.
In Chiredzi District, the southern constituency where I come from, a quarantine center had been established at Chikombedzi General Hospital where one would be quarantined while awaiting results for the tests. This to me was a great relief. Due to how the community is far from the local town, there was a need for a local plan that would work, and a quarantine center was the plan.
I then joined Ear for Africa (EFA) as a translator for COVID-19 key messages into Shangaan. EFA is a group of translators who translate COVID-19 messages into all languages to make the information accessible to everyone. I then suggested, along with the key members, that we should also look at other things besides translation, we then thought of reaching out to our communities and getting information on how the pandemic had affected different population groups such as women, girls, children, and men. These messages could then be broadcasted as audio in various languages.
Constance Myambo is a final year social work student at the University of Zimbabwe, and she is a member of Ear For Africa, a grassroots organization. She is based in Chiredzi, Zimbabwe.
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The Teach311 + COVID-19 Collective began in 2011 as a joint project of the Forum for the History of Science in Asia and the Society for the History of Technology Asia Network and is currently expanded in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science(Artifacts, Action, Knowledge) and Nanyang Technological University-Singapore.