Zimbabwe: Let's Keep Momentum, Consolidate Covid-19 Gains

24 November 2020

Zimbabwe has been incredibly fortunate to have managed to contain Covid-19 so successfully with 269 deaths from 9 220 confirmed infections, but the death toll is inching up as our guard goes down and the dramatic spike in infections in Europe and the Americas shows the price we could pay for complacency.

So if we want to avoid the sort of lockdown that many countries are reimposing, if we want to keep our infection rate low, and if we want to keep our death toll very low, we have to keep on doing the irritating and boring preventative measures that we know have worked.

And we have proof that they work.

The Government was sufficiently concerned that we might have been missing deaths from Covid-19, having these put down to other illnesses and other causes, that it asked the Ministry of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage to check our death rates.

That ministry has the records, death certificates from the Registrar-General and burial orders from the police. You cannot just be buried in Zimbabwe, someone has to check that there is nothing criminal about any death.

And the startling result was that our death rate dropped by a quarter this year. In the first eight months 33 818 people died, compared to the 45 256 in the same eight months of last year.

A chunk of those 11 438 fewer deaths came from the sharp reduction in road accidents.

The lockdown, curfew, severe control of inter-city travel and even the closing of pubs keeping late night drunks off the road all helped.

But the bulk of those lives saved, say around 10 000, came from the other Covid-19 preventative measures: masking, social distancing, temperature scanning and hand washing. What worked for Covid-19 worked for a lot of other things.

So far fewer people got "ordinary" flu, with by the look of it even the common cold relegated to oblivion this year. People who were just slightly ill were told to stay at home, regardless of what they were "slightly ill" from.

And all that cleaning and handwashing must have meant that diarrhoeal diseases were kept at bay.

We do not have to get dramatic and talk about no typhoid or cholera; what happened that all the "minor" diarrhoeal diseases did not kill anyone, or killed a lot fewer.

Even people contracting other "ordinary" diseases such as malaria started seeking medical advice sooner, although this year has been a bad year for malaria.

In fact that 25 percent drop in deaths strongly suggest we need to figure out ways of keeping the huge gains in public health permanent once Covid-19 has retreated into the history books, and start enforcing our traffic laws better so that we scrape fewer bodies off the roads.

We beat back the first wave of infection that could so easily have devastated our country with prompt action from a Government that listened very hard to its own health experts and was willing to assume the World Health Organisation (WHO) was passing on accurate information and first class advice.

So, when we still had little more than a handful of infections, we went into a strict lockdown.

We were ordered to wear masks when we were out in public. Shops, offices and factories had to compel everyone wanting to walk through the door to wear a mask, have their temperature scanned and sanitise their hands.

A major publicity campaign made sure that just about everyone knew what caused Covid-19, and what we, as individuals, could do about it. And we found we could a lot, each and every one of us, at no cost or the trivial cost of a homemade mask.

And because almost all of us complied with the health rules, reluctantly at times for most, those special Covid-19 wards we set up remained largely empty.

But as Europe has shown over the last month, we cannot assume we are safe if we let our guard down. Zimbabwe managed to ease its lockdown a lot to get the economy moving again, as did most of Europe.

But we kept the rules on masking, washing, distancing and scanning in place, plus the ban on pubs and other elements of public drinking, which in retrospect seems exceptionally smart.

Europeans grew slacker. Masking rules were relaxed, pubs were opened, and most countries never had anyone at the door squirting a few drops of sanitiser on palms as you walked through.

Even in Germany, where a surprisingly high percentage of pedestrians will walk to a traffic light and wait for a green light before crossing a busy street, had growing slackness, although its peaks have not been so bad in the second wave as most of its neighbours.

In the United States there was, admittedly, the interference of party politics into public health measures which largely explains why the US death toll is now well over 250 000, about a fifth of the world total.

But when you look at the infection rates and the vote distribution in the recent election, the pattern is clear. The more measures observed the lower the infection rate.

What is now troublesome in Zimbabwe is that most of us are not as fanatical as we were even two months ago. Enforcement by police is a lot slacker. Large shops are still holding the line, but smaller shops are drifting.

Public transport was protected by Zupco conductors insisting on masks and sanitising hands.

You can even find conductors now with their mask round their neck, and the resurgence of the pirate kombis and pirate taxis, whose crews seem to have never heard of masks, is an extra worry.

A handful of vaccines are moving to the conclusion of their trials, but it is going to be some time before even the hardest hit countries, with the infrastructure required to keep vaccines at exceptionally low temperatures, will get supplies.

And Zimbabwe, with its ultra-low infection rates, is likely to be near the end of the queue for mass vaccination, although our medical workers could probably be vaccinated sooner with our share of world supplies.

So, for all sorts of reasons, we need to keep up our guard. We need to enforce our rules as we carefully roll back the remaining major constraints of our lockdown.

And even as we do that, we need to think carefully how we retain what we have won from Covid-19: more local manufacture, better public health, better equipped hospitals, a general national unity on important things, lower accident rates, and even something approaching organised public transport through a Zupco monopoly.

But the biggest gain is that we have discovered that Zimbabwe is not a basket case.

We have found that if we work together, if we individually and collectively decide to do something to make our lives better, if we accept expert advice, and if the Government can draw all this into a single consensus programme, then we can win. And if we win against Covid-19 we can win against a lot of other thing as well.

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