The southern African country has been recording an increase in Covid-19 cases in the past two months amid fears that a new variant of the coronavirus recently discovered in South Africa will worsen the outbreak after thousands of Zimbabweans flocked back home for the Christmas holiday.
Authorities at the Beitbridge border post, the biggest port of entry between Zimbabwe and South Africa, had to suspend Covid-19 screening processes on Christmas Eve as the congestion was turning deadly.
At least 15 people died on the South African side of the Beitbridge border in lengthy queues that were slowed down by coronavirus screening, which had to be suspended as travellers spent days waiting to be cleared.
South Africa, which has an estimated 1.5 million Zimbabwean economic refugees, is suffering a second wave of Covid-19 infections that authorities say are being driven by a new variant of the coronavirus.
Zimbabwe’s ad hoc inter-ministerial taskforce on Covid-19 has been holding emergency meetings this week to deal with the new threat and discuss a raft of measures, including deferring the start of the new school term are on the cards.
Schools were scheduled to re-open on January 4, but the government now says an analysis of new Covid-19 cases to determine if the new variant is already in the country will inform its decisions on the new term.
Amon Murwira, the deputy chairperson of the ad hoc inter-ministerial taskforce on Covid-19, said the government was worried about the surge in infections and the threat posed by new and more contagious variants of the disease.
“We discussed the issue of schools reopening and we are now waiting to be furnished with details on the practicality of opening schools next week,” Professor Murwira said.
“Our scientists are taking samples on those who have tested positive to the types of variants that we have in the country so as to proffer recommendations on how best we can respond.”
Of the 177 new Covid-19 cases recorded on December 29 in Zimbabwe, 32 were returnees from South Africa and one from Mozambique.
Zimbabwe also has a significant number of citizens returning from the United Kingdom where a Covid-19 variant was discovered in recent weeks.
The country now has 13,325 recorded Covid-19 cases, 359 death and 11,067 recoveries, with infections rising steadily following the partial re-opening of the economy that intensified in September.
However, it is the rising number of citizens returning from Covid-19 hotspots such as South Africa and the United Kingdom that is giving Zimbabwean authorities sleepless nights.
There are also concerns that some of the returnees from South Africa are using fake Covid-19 clearance certificates at ports of entry.
“We are scanning the QR-Code (Quick Response Code) to identify the fake certificates,” Prof Murwira said.
“That is fraud and it is a punishable offence at law and those found on the wrong side will face the wrath of the law.
“We need to be responsible to save others as well as get help if we need it so a negative status should be a negative status, not a fake one.”
The government said it was setting up police checkpoints along highways leading to ports of entry to track people using fake Covid-19 clearance certificates.
Zimbabweans arriving at ports of entry without valid Covid-19 clearance certificates will be quarantined for a fortnight while foreign nationals will be deported.
Solwayo Ngwenya, a health expert, warned that the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic would be more devastating.
“The second wave is blistering fast as predicted,” Prof Ngwenya said. “It is deadlier than the first wave.”
He warned in a series of tweets that Zimbabweans will soon count the costs for letting their guard down during the festive season.
“The festive season needs careful consideration,” Prof Ngwenya warned. “The population should not behave in a bad way to put their safety and lives in precarious danger.”
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (Ocha) said there was need for Zimbabwe to monitor illegal migration, which has contributed to the spike in Covid-19 cases.
“With the number of Covid-19 local transmission increasing there is a need for reinforced surveillance, contact tracing and community hygiene practices and health promotion, especially in border communities, that are more exposed to border jumpers or cross border traders using informal channels,” Ocha said in its latest situation report.
Health experts fear that that if the Covid-19 outbreak gets out of control Zimbabwe’s health system, already weakened by chronic underfunding and a severe brain drain, will not cope.
Almost a year after the first Covid-19 case was reported in Zimbabwe, most parts of the country still do not have health facilities that can handle patients suffering from the disease.