news in depth:BY JOHN CASSIM/ITAI MUZONDO
A senior government official has admitted that its national Covid-19 response is poorly coordinated, amid growing fears that quarantine centres are already spreading the new coronavirus into communities as winter sets in.
By Friday, the Health ministry announced that Zimbabwe’s positive coronavirus tally had jumped to 265 people from a mere 56 about two weeks ago, and almost all the new cases were recorded at quarantine centres holding returnees mainly from South Africa, but also Botswana, Namibia and Mozambique.
Protests broke out at the Harare Polytechnic College, one of the quarantine centres, last Wednesday and spilled into Thursday when authorities failed to release inmates, who had already exceeded the World Health Organisation-stipulated 21-day holding period and their test results were taking too long to come.
College employees responsible for feeding the inmates fled the premises when they learnt subsequently that 14 returnees from South Africa had tested positive, leaving some of those being held at the polytechnic to prepare supper for at least 100 people.
But, when an ambulance came, it took those that were preparing the food, instead of the 14 identified new cases, resulting in the protests by the inmates that forced Home Affairs minister Kazembe Kazembe to rush to the college in the company of the police commissioner-general Godwin Matanga, and truckloads of police details and soldiers.
In a follow-up investigation, The Standard, working in partnership with Information for Development Trust, a non-profit media organisation promoting good governance, established that the inmates were not getting personal protection equipment (PPE) too.
The Health and Child Care ministry’s public relations manager, Donald Mujiri, admitted that there was a crisis at Harare Polytechnic and other quarantine centres.
Mujiri blamed the chaos that erupted at the college on poor coordination in the college workforce, but, according to him, the national command centre tasked with managing the Covid-19 pandemic also lacked a standard operating procedure (SOP).
“There is no proper SOP for operations of the command centre.
“However, through the command centre for Covid-19, the SOPs are being developed,” said Mujiri in his WhatsApp response to questions sent to him.
The national taskforce was set up three months ago when President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared Covid-19 a national disaster.
Agnes Mahomva, who was appointed Health Ministry permanent secretary in 2019 and coordinated the national response team from March, was recently “elevated” to chief coordinator of the inter-ministerial taskforce under unclear circumstances.
There has been speculation that she was kicked upwards because she resisted giving Covid-19-related supply tenders to politically-connected, but undeserving briefcase companies.
Mnangagwa’s son, Collins, has been linked to a shady contract for the supply of PPEs inflated to close to US$1 million, but he has strongly denied business connections with Drax International, which is locally run by his friend, Delish Nguwaya, an alleged serial conman.
Mahomva directed all questions to the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, Simon Masanga, who further referred queries to Clifford Matorera, the chief director in the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare.
But Matorera, who is directing the quarantine centres throughout the country, contradicted Mujiri’s statements as he insisted that the Harare Polytechnic was receiving adequate masks and other PPEs.
“We cannot offer hotel facilities,” he said. “For those who are able to pay, we put them in hotels and they pay for themselves.
“This is taxpayers’ money and we have to be accountable, so we are providing basics at the quarantine centres.”
Mujiri seemed to deflect blame for delayed test results on the Harare City Council, which is running Wilkins Hospital in Harare where Covid-19 tests are being managed.
“The challenge is not with (our) laboratory,” he said. “Results are sent to Wilkins (where) they are not segregated (as per) the quarantine centres where they are coming from.
“It’s, therefore, taking doctors a long time to unbundle the results.
“We have since requested samples to be batched according to where they are coming from.”
Mujiri also admitted that PPEs were in short supply at the quarantine centres.
“That’s true, and government is making efforts that these PPEs are available in all risk areas.”
Christopher Chonzi, head of health services at the Harare municipality, could not be reached for a comment.
Investigations established that returnees at Harare Polytechnic and other centres generally received two old blankets, one soap tablet, a tissue roll to share with two other people, a shared tube of toothpaste, a 50ml bottle of body lotion and a plastic water bucket.
Only one disposable face mask is given per person upon admission, while sanitisers are not available at the centres.
According to Matorera, the country has so far received approximately 3 200 returnees, who are housed at various institutions countrywide.
The inmates are scared that cross-infection is widespread in the quarantine centres.
“We are fearing for the worst. “We do not have anything here and the government’s communication channel is very bad.
“We don’t know what is happening and fear we might all test positive at the end of our 21-day quarantine period,” a returnee at the Harare Polytechnic said.
Said another returnee: “I wish they could give us basic stuff like sanitisers and masks.
“Between the testing and the time the results are released, there is a high possibility that we could be cross-infecting each other.”
The inmates complained that the heavy involvement of the police and military at Harare Polytechnic was unsettling them.
Those who have overstayed at the centre were more vocal and had already packed their bags by the time Kazembe visited on Thursday.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) is worried about the communal use of toilets, dirty utensils, the absence of sanitisers and masks, lack of test kits and poor access to medical care at the centres.
“ZADHR strongly suspects that the recent spike in cases in quarantine centres is a result of the poor living conditions in those centres,” read a statement by the human rights body last week.
Last week, ZADHR lodged a High Court application seeking to improve living conditions at the quarantine centres, which the court granted.
In Gweru, starving inmates are regularly breaching security, sneaking in and out to look for food, one of them, middle-aged Ollet Magonza, who returned from South Africa and is housed at Mkoba Teachers’ College, testified.
The inmates, Magonza said, regularly jumped over the college’s two-
metre perimeter wall to buy better food at nearby shops using their own money, mostly foreign currency and, when it is hard for them to get out, they ask police details on duty to help.
In nearby Mkoba 7, they freely mix and mingle and change their forex among the illegal foreign currency traders, who are now getting back onto the streets in big numbers.
Investigations established that some of the inmates had left the centres for good due to the risks prevalent in the centres, but also because some feared being arrested for outstanding crimes.
The government says more than 100 inmates have fled the centres in recent weeks and disappeared into the communities, sparking fear that they could be spreading the virus in the suburbs, which have not been subjected to testing.
In Gweru, 18 returnees are reported to have fled the centres, three of whom — Steven Zhou, Simbarashe Maphosa and Kudakwashe Shoko — are alleged to have pending criminal cases.
“We had to find our own way to avoid starvation. Some fled as they have criminal records, but the majority goes in and out to supplement the poor meals we are getting,” said Magonza, who has since been discharged from Mkoba Teachers’ College.
On May 29, he said, inmates rioted over the meagre and erratic food supplies as well as overcrowding.
“Exposure to Covid-19 is high,” Magonza said. “We shared rooms with strangers whose history we didn’t know.
“Water supplies are unreliable and that has affected disinfection.”
Gweru Polytechnic College, the other quarantine centre in the Midlands capital, has not been spared the unfavourable living conditions and inmates were worried that results were being mixed up.
“We were tested in batches A to C. When the results came, one would find his or her results in batch A while he or she was tested in batch C.
“Two slices of bread for breakfast, unsavoury relish for lunch and a small morsel of sadza is what we got.
“We gave money to police officers to buy us supplementary food, but they sometimes converted our money to their own use,” said Themba Marauka, who was recently discharged and was heading home to Mberengwa.
Midlands police spokesperson Joel Goko refused to comment and referred questions to Provincial Affairs minister Larry Mavhima.
Mavhima, who chairs the Midlands province Covid-19 taskforce, summarily dismissed claims of poor conditions at the quarantine centres.
“Claims of terrible living conditions are rubbish,” Mavhima said.
“Government has made sure that all necessities are provided at quarantine centres.
“That’s why, as the Midlands province, we have experienced minimal infections inside quarantine centres.”
He said they were clearing the two colleges for the return of students and blamed improper association between the police and inmates.
“Statistics that we have don’t translate into overcrowding,” said Mavhima, whose team is also overseeing more than 100 other inmates at Kwekwe and Dadaya.
He also dismissed the concerns by ZADHR, claiming that the association did not have evidence to back its claims of deplorable conditions at quarantine centres.
“People are free to sue, but this case by the doctors lacked evidence,” Mavhima added.
“They need to get on the ground to see things from an informed point of view.”
The Gweru Residents and Ratepayers Association, however, is worried that the coronavirus could be spilling into the communities.
“Residents are scared about the level to which they could have been exposed to Covid-19 by those that are fleeing the quarantine centres or mingling with them,” the association’s director Cornillia Selipiwe said.
“Communities must take responsibility and report the escapees.”
According to the International Organisation for Immigration, 54 000 migrants entered Zimbabwe from Zambia, Malawi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Botswana, Mozambique and South Africa, “adding pressure to existing social services and vulnerabilities.”