This contribution introduces the pandemic situation in Africa as seen from a student situated in Zimbabwe. This piece serves as the preface to the Diary Project from Zimbabwe, written in alternation by Constance Myambo, an undergraduate student at the University of Zimbabwe (UZ) and Nomathemba Sibanda, a research fellow at the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) and members of the grassroots organization Ear for Africa. Click here to view the first entry by Myambo covering 23 March – 08 April.
With 1.2 million confirmed cases worldwide and 67,594 deaths worldwide at the time of this writing, it had become clear that COVID-19 is nothing like common flu as it was first dismissed by others. It is a pandemic of unprecedented proportions, and, in fact, one can equate it to the “black death” of 14th century, for while in the 21st century because although controls have been put in place in most parts of the globe—the end does not seem to be in sight. The initial pneumonia-like cases were noted in Wuhan, China at end of December 2019 and within the last 120 days of the writing of this essay, the disease now known as Coronavirus Disease of 2019 (COVID-19) has spread to almost every part of the globe. Africa has not been spared, and to date, 6,616 cases have been confirmed with 243 individuals having succumbed to the disease. Initially, most cases confirmed in Africa were imported cases; however, in early April countries such as South Africa have begun to report local transmission. Zimbabwe as of the 7th of April 2020, has managed to test 362 cases—of the eleven who tested positive, two have succumbed to the disease.
The Zimbabwean health system has been faced with multiple challenges—some of which came to the fore when high-profile Patient 2 lost his life to COVID-19. Family members of the diseased decried the state of the health facility that Patient 2 was referred to. The death of Patient 2, a 29-year old male who was of affluent enough means to supply his own ventilator and did so, shook the nation: social media was awash with his story, his travel history and his fate. Suddenly, what looked like merely “news about other countries” suddenly became a local reality. One could quickly see the shift in narratives from the myths and jokes circulating in social media—that COVD-19 affected only countries that experience winter, and spared those in humid and hot climates, as well as misconceptions about people of color not being affected—suddenly turned into fear. A fear that COVID-19 could be affecting more people than we were caring to even test. For the first time, people began to query Patient 2’s contacts. How could it be that Patient 2 who visited 10 places including a nightclub and bank could only have 15 contacts traced. Questions about the health system began to surface—questions asking about the health infrastructure. How could one bring their own ventilator and fail to find an adapter? Moreover, when the adapter was brought to the health facility, how could they have failed to find a socket to plug it into?
This chain of events coupled with a steep rise in cases in our neighboring South Africa probably explains the current public health measures that have been put in place. To date, we are on Day 9 of a 21-day lockdown (the Zimbabwean lockdown began on Monday the 30th of March 2020). Flights out of the country and all unnecessary travel has been banned. Only essential services including grocery shops have been given permission to open. Several edicts concerning fresh produce markets have been tabled. Initially fresh produce markets opened, then two days into the lockdown, local authorities instructed them to close; recent communication from the head of state has stated unequivocally that these markets need to re-open as they are a critical component of the supply chain.
On day 9 of the lockdown – these are the main concerns arising:
1. Most of the population lives from hand to mouth. They depend on their daily earnings to feed their households, and whilst the need to stay indoors and distance oneself from others is acknowledged, some members of society can be seen in the streets trying to secure part time work.
2. Basic food queues: For some members of society, there is now a difficult choice between starvation and the odds of contracting COVID-19. Some people were seen recently in mealie-meal queue with very little space between individuals, all striving to get 10kg bags of maize-meal at RTGS70 (USD2.80) instead of paying RTGS240 (USD9.60) for the super-refined alternative available in shops.
3. Lockdown with a three-day head start meant that the days leading to lockdown were like no other: long queues, skyrocking prices of products—doubling and some tripling. A head of cabbage which ordinarily would have cost RTGS20 (USD0.80) surged to RTGS50 (USD2.00) and bread from RTGS19 (USD0.76) to RTGS30.00 (USD1.20). Given the crowded nature of public contact on days leading up to the lockdown, one wonders how many other individuals could have been infected during the process. Only the next 14 days will tell.
4. Actually, stating that the picture concerning the number of cases that would emerge in fourteen days was actually overly optimistic, given that test kits that existed were condemned, and the initial lack of personal protective equipment resulted in patients being turned away from facilities. So, the actual number of cases remains up in the air. Given the state of the economy and the low proportion of people on medical aid (medical insurance), it should not come as a surprise that most people with symptoms are self-medicating in their homes.
5. Information has trickled down to rural areas as well. In some communities, photos circulating on Whatsapp show empty walkways and deserted communal places. However, in a few areas, the need for water was drawing people out to community boreholes where social distancing recommendations are not adhered to.
6. A stricter curfew has been instituted in Bulawayo, and all individuals have been instructed to leave the city or go indoors by 15:00 hrs so that disinfection could take place. On Day 9 the first set of police trucks spraying disinfectant were seen driving down the city main roads.
Nomathemba Sibanda is a research fellow at National University of Science and Technology. She is currently in the process of applying to Ph.D. programs in public health and environmental science. She is based in Bulawayo, 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.