How will Zim halt Covid-19? No water. No soap. No tissues. No doctors. #CathyBuckle

Governments around the world are advising people to wash their hands with soapy water as often as possible, and thoroughly for at least 20 seconds, and preferably follow this up with alcohol gel, as a way to curb the spread of the coronavirus that first broke out in China in December. In Zimbabwe, most people no longer have access to a regular supply of water. There’s also not much soap available, along with the many shortages of basic household items. Tissues are unaffordable, with hyperinflation pushing the price of nine rolls of toilet paper to the equivalent of a monthly home rental. This is the grim reality outlined by author Cathy Buckle, who has documented Zimbabwe’s struggles with land grabs, corruption and economic decay over two decades. Although Zimbabwe is not in the news for having cases of coronavirus, the World Health Organisation has acknowledged its healthcare workers are “dangerously ill-equipped” to care for Covid-19 patients by including the country on its list of donations for personal protective equipment for medical personnel. Buckle says alarm bells are ringing. – Jackie Cameron

By Cathy Buckle*

In the bright light of the moon a pair of owls call to each other across the neighbourhood: Hoo hoo, Whoo hoo. It’s not quite 4.00am but already their dominance of the darkness is being disturbed as Zimbabwe wakes to try and get a head start on the next sixteen hour power cut. Outside the sky is clear, the stars bright and for a moment you linger, eyes closed, letting the balmy pre dawn air of our beautiful but broken Zimbabwe wash over you. Within quarter of an hour the electricity has gone and within an hour the buckets are being readied for the daily water collecting.

Cathy Buckle

Every day we look at the spreading red stain on world maps of the Covid-19 coronavirus and we see nothing marking Zimbabwe. Every day we wonder what is more frightening: not seeing any cases being recorded or wondering why we aren’t seeing any cases. Even more frightening is how we will cope when Coronavirus gets to Zimbabwe.

So far only one message from the Ministry of Health and Child Care has circulated on mobile phone networks which is the main source of information and communication for 90% of Zimbabweans with no electricity for radio and TV and unaffordable newspapers. The message came on the 3rd of March and read: “Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing preferably with a tissue. Dispose it right away and wash your hands to prevent the spread of the virus.” (sic) The message from the Ministry of Health didn’t even name the Coronavirus; didn’t specify signs and symptoms, didn’t tell you what to do if you think you’ve got the virus; didn’t tell you how or where or even if you could get tested.

Neither the Ministry of Health nor the government of Zimbabwe have addressed the huge crisis we are facing already in just something as simple as washing our hands. We have no water in our taps five days a week; some places have no water in their taps ever. Around wells and boreholes with hand pumps, every day in every town scores of people come with buckets; hundreds throughout the course of a day. Everyone’s hands are touching the same pump handle to get water from the wells and boreholes. How then, government of Zimbabwe, do we stop the spread of Coronavirus?

Also read: Look north SA: After 20 years of devastation due to land seizures, Zim gives land back

The next crisis is soap. In the past week the rate of exchange between the US dollar and Zimbabwe dollar has increased from 25 to 40 and it is still rising. Today you need Z$40 to buy $1. As a result the price of everything (imported and paid for in $) has increased by 50%. Last week a 200ml bottle of liquid Dettol soap was Z$54; today it is Z$95. A 375g bar of Dettol soap is $30. A 9 pack of toilet rolls is anything from Z$80 to Z$200. An average monthly income for most people is around Z$300 a month; enough for one pack of toilet rolls and two bottles of Dettol soap but no food, rent, transport or anything else. How then, government of Zimbabwe do we wash our hands or sneeze into tissues?

In government buildings and public toilets there is usually no water and there is always no soap. At roadside vendors’ stalls where fruit and vegetables are sold individually there is no water for vendors or customers to wash hands. In buses, minibuses and pirate taxis people are crammed in and there is no way to prevent being contaminated and no other means of travelling. Our hospitals are in a shocking state, without basic equipment or medication and countless numbers of medical staff incapacitated and unable to afford to go to work.  How then government of Zimbabwe do we treat people who contract Coronavirus?

A few suspected cases of the virus in Zimbabwe have made it into the press and each has been shrouded in mammoth bungling: premature release of a woman from isolation and then her re-admittance a few days later, a man running away from isolation, going into the community and then headlines saying there was a ‘manhunt’ to find him, a woman dying on the way to hospital, medical staff running away because they had no protective gear. We are told that all of these cases have been negative for Coronavirus but alarm bells are banging.

At election time our government leaders plaster our towns with pictures of themselves but now, when the country needs them most, there are no signs and posters, no flyers under our doors, no clean running water in our taps and soap and toilet paper that we can’t afford to buy. Perhaps we’ll see our government leaders in Zimbabwe’s hospitals for this first time in forty years because like us, if they get Coronavirus they won’t be able to fly off to China or India or South Arica for treatment. Like us they will have to pray that the hospitals have staff, gloves, medicines, respirators, oxygen, water and electricity to run the life saving machines.

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