HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Lewtin Moleni and her two children live with two other families in Chitungwiza, a dense dormitory town outside Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. They have no running water and share a bathroom.
When the coronavirus pandemic struck, social distancing and hand-washing sounded like quaint ideas.
Zimbabwe instituted a national lockdown in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Authorities limited movement and nonessential businesses while recommending people space themselves apart and maintain proper hygiene. But for many Zimbabweans who live in crowded urban housing that lacks running water, these potentially lifesaving measures are nearly impossible.
Two decades of economic crisis and political strife, including a coup in 2017 and runaway inflation, have left Zimbabwe’s government struggling to provide residents with basic services. The country faces an estimated shortage of 1.4 million housing units. Nowhere has that been as acute as in Zimbabwe’s major cities, where thousands have migrated in search of job opportunities. This has strained services, and multiple families live in houses built for single families.
Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, Bulawayo, alone has a public housing backlog of more than 100,000 families.
As of Aug. 14, the country has 4,990 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, and 128 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center. It shares a border with South Africa, which has the continent’s highest number of coronavirus cases.
Khathazile Mthethwa lives in Luveve, a high-density area in Bulawayo. The mother of three shares a three-bedroom house with two other families. She and her children live in a cramped room that fits a double bed, a small stove and a few cupboards. There is just enough space left for a mattress on the floor, which two of her children share. Mthethwa’s youngest sleeps with her.
“To cut down on transport costs, it is easier for me to live near my workplace, even if it means sharing with other tenants,” says Mthethwa, who moved from Gokwe, a rural area about 160 miles (259 kilometers) away, to find employment in a supermarket.
Mthethwa says the only way to maintain social distance is for her family to stay in their room and avoid the seven other people who live in the house. But they still must share common areas such as the kitchen and bathroom, which were designed to accommodate a single family.
Officials recognize the threat. Edwin Sibanda, director of health services for the Bulawayo City Council, says the extent of overcrowding and the risk it poses for the spread of the coronavirus could have “epidemic potential.”
If a person in a shared house tests positive for COVID-19, self-isolation would be extremely difficult, he says. “Overcrowding in housing is one of the major factors in the transmission of diseases with acute respiratory infections, such as is believed to be [the case with] COVID-19.”
Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care did not respond to requests for comment about overcrowding in housing and the government’s efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
The country’s water shortage only makes the situation more dire. In large cities like Harare and Bulawayo, water is scarce because of a lack of chemicals to treat the water and funds to repair infrastructure. Many Zimbabweans living in cities have only intermittent running water or must line up every day at communal pumps.
Authorities in Zimbabwe’s major cities are trying to ensure water during the lockdown with several new measures.
In Harare and Bulawayo, local governments are drilling boreholes to provide more water for sanitation. Michael Chideme, spokesperson for the Harare City Council, says officials are repairing water pumps and installing 5,000-liter (1,320-gallon) and 10,000-liter (2,641-gallon) water tanks “at key points in all suburbs.”
The Zimbabwean government has promised 110 million Zimbabwean dollars ($1.3 million) to Harare’s municipal coronavirus response task force so it can buy water treatments, Chideme says.
“Our major issue is the shortage of water treatment chemicals,” he says. “If those are availed, we are confident that we will be able to meet the water demand.”
Sanitation may be one of the only ways families in close contact can protect themselves against the disease. If someone in a shared house becomes infected, other residents should allow the sick person to use the toilet first, says Dr. Khulamuzi Nyathi, the Bulawayo City Council’s assistant director of health services. The area should then be cleaned and sanitized before other residents use it.
Families in tight quarters do the best they can.
As the oldest of his siblings, Tawanda Runde, 20, has the job of cleaning the bathroom his family shares with two other families in a house in Luveve. He used to complete this task every morning and after someone used the bathtub. Now, he scrubs down the bathroom every two hours with a mixture of denatured alcohol and detergent to ensure it’s disinfected.
“We have always tried to be hygienic, considering that my family shares the house with two other families,” he says. “Considering COVID-19, we need to increase the levels of hygiene.”