Rumbidzayi Zinyuke and Mukudzei Chingwere
Covid-19 has been in Zimbabwe for a year now. On March 20 last year, Zimbabwe recorded its first Covid-19 case when a 39-year-old man from Victoria Falls was infected on a visit to Britain and a few days after his return fell sick, contacted his doctor and became case number one.
He, by acting responsibly, did not infect anyone else and recovered, becoming recovery number one.
But suddenly the disease that had been killing people across the world had come closer to home.
A few days later, Zororo Makamba became the first person to succumb to Covid-19.
Since then, over 1 500 more people have died and the number of Covid-19 cases has reached a cumulative 36 611, although more than 33 000 have fully recovered and around 1 000 are still recovering.
As a country, a lot has been learnt and been achieved, but there is still more to be done.
Government has made concerted efforts to put in place mechanisms to respond to the pandemic, most of which have paid off. Zimbabwe’s statistics, adjusted for population, remain considerably lower than most other African countries.
Deputy Minister of Health and Child Care Dr John Mangwiro said the decision by President Mnangagwa and the health authorities to impose a lockdown very early in the pandemic, on March 30 last year, had been crucial in minimising the rate of infection and saved many lives. That lockdown is still in force, although the level has been adjusted several times.
“It’s now a year since we recorded our first case. At that time, everyone was worried what this new disease which had ravaged China and Europe was going to do to us. President Mnangagwa made a wise decision to introduce a massive lockdown which really was the key to the success to what happened following the first case.
“This disease spreads very fast so the lockdown was good in that it was total. There was no movement and this helped to keep the disease at bay and we went on with few cases and deaths,” he said.
An ad hoc inter-ministerial taskforce on Covid-19 appointed by the President to coordinate the country’s Covid-19 response had done a tremendous job.
As the disease started spreading, borders were closed for everyone except returning residents. The need for protective clothing and adequate health infrastructure became more pronounced.
“As a nation we knew cases were going to increase so we had to go make sure that we had enough personal protective equipment which we were buying from outside the country then. But with the lockdown we realised we could not continue to import the goods as much as we wanted. Government made sure these became locally produced by partnering with the Ministry of Higher and Tertiary Education and universities, colleges and schools started manufacturing PPE,” said Dr Mangwiro.
Almost 98 percent of the country’s PPE requirement is now manufactured locally.
Dr Mangwiro said Government had also upgraded all hospitals to improve health care for all citizens across the country.
“There was an undertaking to make sure that all central, provincial and district hospitals were improved to be ready to cater for the worst case scenario where patients needed ventilation.
“At Parirenyatwa, half the hospital beds were allocated to the intensive care unit and high dependency unit. And these hospitals needed negative pressure so that we could protect our health care workers in those red zones,” he added.
Negative pressure means that air infected with virus particles simply cannot ooze out of the Covid wards.
Besides the infrastructure, Government has improved the health sector human resources. More nurses, more doctors and more training. Health personnel who had to learn the ropes on how to care for Covid-19 patients have acquired the requisite knowledge and this has improved even the country’s health disaster preparedness.
“Our doctors, with assistance from their colleagues abroad started learning about the disease and moved in to manage cases, and now every province and district is admitting patients. What we learnt is that in a pandemic, everyone has to be mobilised and this helped us to make sure that we improve our response and it worked very well.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us to be self-sufficient and this has really improved and sharpened our thinking in terms of our approach to the future in terms of health,” he said.
With robust health systems in place, Dr Mangwiro said disaster response, even in future was now set from the ministry right down to the village health centres.
The system has helped to ensure that other health services are not disrupted by Covid-19.
Zimbabwe became one of the first countries in Africa to roll out vaccines, a development that saw the Government getting a pat on the back from the World Health Organisation (WHO) for its handling of the pandemic.
Experts have said the national vaccination programme launched last month is the best step in the fight against the pandemic, giving as it does the hope that eventually the country can be free of the disease.
Last week, President Mnangagwa urged citizens to take up the Covid-19 vaccine, which he described as the best way out of restrictions that have seen people across the world being confined to their homes to avoid the spread of the pandemic.
“We have lost many of our loved ones. Those who have survived are still coming to terms with the trauma. Our way of life has changed as we adjust to the new normal.
“These vaccines help minimise the risk of infection and are being administered all over Zimbabwe free of charge. You and I need to defeat the disease. So, get vaccinated now. This is our stand against Covid-19. Together, we will conquer. Get vaccinated now!”
Zimbabwe’s ports of entry remain high risk and authorities at Beitbridge border post believe there is still some work to do before it can be safe to reopen the border to more than cargo.
Beitbridge district medical officer, Dr Lenos Samhere said more people need to be vaccinated before Zimbabwe can safely reopen the port of entry to passenger traffic.
“Taking from what happened in December when the border was opened, we recorded a spike in cases, so this is most likely to happen when the border is open.
“Our staff has done exceptionally well though ideally we will need more. The workload in December was huge and some of our staff did not take days off,” said Dr Samhere.
“Our staff here (at the quarantine centres) has been vigilant as well. I will tell you that fewer staff in the red zones, with Covid-19 patients, had tested positive compared to those at the general wards.”
Environmental health technician at Beitbridge border post Mr Zamani Sibanda said they needed a critical eye to look at the port and save the country from letting infected people go to communities.
However, he noted that the process was quite hectic.
“Now we are only dealing with drivers of commercial cargo. In December the situation was hectic and we could not rest. It was terrible and I think it is not yet safe to reopen the border,” said Mr Sibanda.
Moving inland, Zimbabweans still have a role to play to avoid another spike in cases.
Masvingo Provincial Medical Director Dr Amadeus Shamhu said there was a problem with people not adhering to Covid-19 containment measures.
“In some cases you will see people not wearing facemasks or not properly wearing them. It is important for people to understand that Covid-19 is still with us,” he said.
Traditional leaders have also weighed in to support the initiatives to fight the pandemic. They said education would play an important role in bringing communities into the fight.
Chief Deli, born Usher Mabhena from Matebeleland North said people were ignorant about the virus when it first hit communities.
“Initially we knew nothing about this virus, but after training and awareness from health authorities, we now know a lot more. I think the best way out of this is to accept the vaccines.”
Midlands Province Medical Director Dr Reginald Mhene said vaccines were the best way out and stressed that education on the importance of immunisation was critical.