BY MOSES MATENGA
Two positive Covid-19 cases have been recorded at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison, adding to unofficial reports of a coronavirus death at the same place and a third case at the correctional services department’s downtown Harare building.
The two are a prisons officer and an ex-soldier, who is the husband of another member working for the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services, who resides in the Chikurubi camp, according to a source.
“There are two confirmed Covid-19 cases so far.
“One is a female prison officer and the other one is a retired army officer, who is the husband of a female (prison) officer,” the source said.
“There is panic among neighbours, who have made contact with them.
“It is suspected that there could be more cases among officers as we share transport and other things.”
The female officer who tested positive is believed to be working at the headquarters in the city centre and reportedly interacts regularly with camp residents.
“The situation is tense in the camp, but I am not sure what the situation is inside the prison walls,” said the source.
Harare City Council workers were called in to spray the ground close to the infected persons’ houses, but neighbours complained that they had not been advised on how to avoid infection.
The reports have caused panic among prison officers and their families at the sprawling Chikurubi complex just outside the capital, with fears rising that Covid-19 is spreading to Zimbabwe’s poorly resourced jails.
Prison officers said the source of infection remained unknown.
In a snap investigation supported by Information for Development Trust, a non-profit media organisation promoting access to information on governance, The Standard learnt that the ZPCS offices located along Mbuya Nehanda Street were on Thursday evacuated after a secretary reportedly tested positive too.
Said an insider: “The Mbuya Nehanda offices were evacuated on Thursday after the secretary to one of the senior officers tested positive.
“The building was subsequently fumigated.”
Justice ministry secretary Virginia Mabhiza confirmed the two positive cases, but hastened to add the situation was “under control”.
She could not confirm the reported death as she was yet to get her daily briefing.
“The situation is under control,” Mabhiza said.
“Wherever we have a suspected case or confirmed case of Covid-19, we are isolating.
“We have our isolation facilities, which we created way before the crisis.”
Mabhiza seemed to hint that inmates were also at risk of the coronavirus spread.
“The prison is just a sample of the community, so we are bound to also encounter problems of Covid-19 among the inmates, some of whom are coming straight from their respective communities and some of whom have been in prison for quite some time,” she added.
“But it is a situation we are very much on top of.”
Under 15 tests were conducted on both inmates and prison officers at Chikurubi last week, according to Mabhiza, and there are fears that more positive cases could emerge.
“I cannot confirm the [actual figures of people, who tested positive] right now because these were tests that were conducted in the course of this week and whose results we expect to get either by end of day or tomorrow (today),” Mabhiza said.
Insiders blamed the low rate of testing on the unavailability of testing kits at Chikurubi and other prison complexes.
As part of its investigation, The Standard established through several officers and those residing at Chikurubi that those, who tested positive remained in their places of residence, albeit under constant monitoring, sparking concerns that they could infect family members and other residents.
Inside sources said names of those affected had not been made public yet the positive cases could have come into contact with other people, who would need to be tested and monitored.
Prison officials, The Standard learnt, have since imposed strict vetting procedures on visitors to Chikurubi and numbers of outsiders getting in have been drastically reduced in response to the Covid-19 scare.
Prisoners are not getting masks and sanitisers, it was also established, and they are also exposed to severe cold this winter in the absence of adequate bedding and proper clothing, exposing them to the virus that has already affected more than 1 400 Zimbabweans and led to 25 deaths by yesterday.
Some of the prisoners already have underlying conditions that make them vulnerable to Covid-19, among them TB, HIV and other diseases.
Zimbabwe Association for Crime Prevention and Rehabilitation of the Offender (Zacro) CEO Edson Chiota urged government to speedily address the vulnerabilities faced by prisoners.
“Currently, the situation in the prisons is that there is no protection in terms of masks.
“It is also difficult to observe social distancing because of the high numbers of prisoners,” Chiota said.
“We have heard that Beitbridge and Plumtree (prison complexes) were affected.
“The challenge is that there are some prisons where there is no testing and so on and the only thing they do is to fumigate them now and then, but to what extent, no one is sure of.”
The national lockdown that was decreed in March has made it difficult for organisations like Zacro to monitor conditions in prisons due to restrictions on travel and gatherings, he said.
There was no testing or monitoring of new inmates, some of whom would have committed petty crimes, said Chiota, and this put other prisoners at risk of infection.
Police detention points could also be contributing to the spread of the virus, he added.
“If you go to a police station, there are no tests or sanitisers,” Chiota said.
“The holding cells house numerous people, including those coming from high-risk source countries like South Africa.
“So, when the suspects go to remand prison, no one knows their status.”
Rita Nyamupinga of the Female Prisoners Support Trust said the situation in prisons was dire in the wake of Covid-19, adding that her organisation was also following up on the suspected death at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison.
“I was made to understand that there is a woman who passed on yesterday at the Chikurubi prison hospital,” Nyamupinga said.
“I am trying to establish if that is true and whether she is a staffer or an inmate and where she has been residing all along.”
She said while government decongested prisons when Covid-19 first surfaced in Zimbabwe, little was being done to hedge prisoners against the spread of the disease.
“We are still in lockdown and it is difficult to get information on who has tested positive except for the three prison officers in Beitbridge and Whawha, I think,” Nyamupinga added.
“Are our police safe, and are our arresting officers safe?
“What measures are being put in place to monitor suspects who might have violated Covid-19 regulations?
“How safe are our police cells?” queried Nyamupinga, who also expressed concern that courtrooms tended to be overcrowded.
“There is no social distancing in the courts,” she said.
“Your temperature is tested, yes, but not Covid-19 itself.
“If bail is denied and I am remanded in custody, am I not a danger to those in prison?
“Are they (the prisoners) really safe if people can go in there?
“We have heard about problems of shortages of foodstuffs in prisons and prisoners usually depend on outside help.
“We can only wonder how they are faring at the moment,” she added.
Police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said police were on high alert and doing all they could to ensure the safety of arrested suspects.
“We have a full-fledged medical directorate that deals with suspects who come to police stations and are brought into custody, to have their temperatures checked and then sanitised,” Nyathi said.
“No suspect is allowed into cells as long as they show signs of Covid-19.”