HomeOpinion & AnalysisWhy Covid-19 is spreading fast in Zimbabwe’s rural areas

Why Covid-19 is spreading fast in Zimbabwe’s rural areas

BY IAN SCOONES

The increase in Covid-19 cases in Zimbabwe has been significant in the past few weeks since our last blog.

This has been matched by an increase in recorded deaths.

The government has responded with a new “level 4” lockdown, imposing a curfew, restricting business hours, limiting inter-city transport, requiring movement exemption permits, closing schools and educational institutions and banning all gatherings, except funerals where numbers are again restricted.

The national level data show an increasingly dangerous situation, but why now and how has it affected the rural areas?

As we have reported in the past, the incidence has been extremely low in most of our study sites, but this has changed somewhat recently, although few deaths have been recorded. Why this change?

Informants across our study sites point to a number of factors.

First, it is winter and this is the cold and flu season when respiratory infections spread as people are more frequently inside and interacting in close proximity.

Second, it has been a marketing season when people have been travelling about, gathering at market places, interacting with itinerant buyers and going to auction floors in the tobacco areas. Indeed, it has been in the tobacco areas that the greatest spikes in infections have been noted, and people have speculated that buyers travelling from hotspots — such as Karoi — have brought new infections into areas.

Third, it has been the relaxation in measures, including the day-to-day practices of hygiene that have occurred. Certainly over the last months people had gone back to a (nearly) normal life, and abandoned wearing masks and had attended large gatherings of weddings, funerals and church services. These are now banned, but some churches are dismissive of the regulations and argue that the power of prayer in large gatherings should be recognised as a way of combating the disease, and many are still continuing.

Fourth, early foci for infections have been educational institutions, including Bondolfi Teachers’ College, Morgenster and Great Zimbabwe University. Here students and staff have been infected and later isolated, but in places where there is residential accommodation such as teachers’ colleges and boarding schools, the virus can spread, and those moving to such establishments — as day pupils, as service providers or sometimes as church goers  — can in turn spread the infection to their communities.

Fifth, the ease of movement from South Africa through illegal crossings improves in the dry season as the Limpopo has little water and the danger from crocodiles and hippos recedes. This is the period for mass movements, as people go and shop in South Africa and bring back goods. At the Chikwalakwala crossing people move daily in their thousands, even with cars and trucks crossing the sandy river bed. This has a focus for significant importation of disease, as South Africa’s surge is in full swing, increasing earlier than Zimbabwe’s.

Sixth, the increase in dry season trade is linked to major markets in the south of the country. These bring people together over wide areas. These Bacossi markets are preferred to going to town as you can buy everything from iron sheets for roofing to a chicken for a meal, and everything else in between. Much comes from South Africa, but local produce is also sold and exchanged. Such large markets are also a focus for social events and much interactions. In the midst of a pandemic, they are clearly foci for infection, and have now been closed.

All these factors have combined in the last couple of months to fuel the pandemic in Zimbabwe, extending it to the rural areas.

Why do death rates remain low, at least for now?

Yet despite this, the number of deaths in our study sites remain low. This remains an anomaly as vaccination rates and existing immunity from earlier infections rates are low.

When we discussed this, the team pointed to the difference between mortalities of those coming from South Africa (and indeed of South Africans and Zimbabweans), pointing to different lifestyles, unhealthy diets of processed foods, co-morbidity factors (including being overweight, having diabetes and so on). Poverty, they argued, has kept us healthy!

In our study areas, burials have been occurring in cases where bodies have been returned home from South Africa.

Cemeteries in Bulawayo, for example, are reported to be under pressure.

This may yet change, but there are some interesting hypotheses about what both results in infection and causes death.

Many informants across our sites point to local remedies as important in managing infection.

While more people are getting the disease, its effects though far from pleasant are being addressed by local remedies.

Moses Mutoko from Wondedzo Extension in Masvingo district explained:

“In June my whole family was infected by an unknown ‘flu. It was persistent and heavy.

“We treated ourselves by steaming of a mix of zumbani (a local herb), eucalyptus leaves and lemon, covering ourselves with a blanket for 15 minutes and sweating hard.

“We would also drink the mixture morning and night. We would also gargle several times a day with coarse salt and warm water and drink large amounts of water when we wake up and before we go to sleep to clean the body.

“We all recovered and are fine now. I have shared this prescription with the community, and everyone has taken it up. We hope it will save people from the disease.”

People across our sites urge the government to take local treatments seriously and invest in research as well as promoting seemingly efficacious ones.

Vaccine views

The surge in infections across the country has put the vaccine programme in the spotlight.

Earlier reluctance among some has turned to an increasing eagerness to be vaccinated.

Currently approximately 6% of the population have had a first dose, but rates have slowed of late due to supply problems.

The vaccines being offered remain only the Chinese, Russian and Indian vaccines with an offer via the African Union of Johnson and Johnson vaccines being rejected on the grounds that the infrastructure for delivery was not up to scratch.

Many speculated that this was just politics being played out, with the Zimbabwe government snubbing the West.

With the Chinese offering a further  two million of their Sinovac shots, Zimbabwe may be able to play politics, but it seems a risky strategy right now.

This is especially so as delivery is patchy, and the logistics not always streamlined with shortages reported across our sites.

Nevertheless, the government’s overall Covid-19 approach has met with approval, both from other countries in Africa, and from the Zimbabwean population according to the Afrobarometer survey.

For a time Zimbabwe had been seen as a potential vaccine tourism destination, with private clinics offering shots for US$70 or more, and South African travel agencies offering pricey vaccination travel packages.

However, with current shortages, this has all stopped for now.

Meanwhile, companies such as Tongaat Hullett who run the huge sugar estates are offering shots to workers, as there has been a local peak in infections on the estates, with worker compounds closed down and put into quarantine.

Again, this is linked to the season and the greater movement of people associated with cane cutting.

  • This is a truncated version of Ian Scoones’s blog that  first appeared on Zimbabweland

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