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.
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?
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 US$1. As a result the price of everything (imported and paid for in US$) 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.
Until next time, thanks for reading this Letter From Zimbabwe, now in its 20th year, and my books about life in Zimbabwe, a country in waiting, love cathy 13 March 2020. Copyright © Cathy Buckle. http://cathybuckle.co.zw/
For information on my books about Zimbabwe go to www.lulu.com/spotlight/