BY MELODY CHIKONO
ZIMBABWE could slide into a third Covid-19 wave due to complacency and failure to observe standard safety regulations after the relaxation of lockdown rules, experts have warned as the re-opening of schools and borders, funeral vigils and public transport pose an acute risk.
Strict Covid-19 restrictions were eased by government last month as numbers of infections and deaths tumbled but a survey by the Zimbabwe Independent shows that complacency has set in.
In January, a deadly second wave of the respiratory infectious disease brought the country to a grinding halt as deaths and infections skyrocketed, overwhelming the country’s dilapidated healthcare systems. The virus claimed three cabinet ministers and over 1 500 others while more than 35 000 were infected.
Covid-19 was first reported in March 2020 and a national lockdown was decreed in the same month by President Emmerson Mnangagwa who declared the pandemic a national disaster.
Despite relaxation of the second wave lockdown measures, a deadly new variant has been detected threatening a third wave with government warning of another lockdown should the situation worsen.
A recent investigation by the Zimbabwe Independent in collaboration with a non-profit organisation helping the media to probe corruption, Information for Development Trust (IDT), showed that police blocks and supermarkets were generally failing to adhere to Covid-19 regulations stipulated by the government and the World Health organisation.
A follow-up survey at some checkpoints in the capital revealed that some police and army details manning roadblocks were still ignoring Covid-19 sanitary measures.
They ignored the stipulated one-metre social distancing, handled drivers licences without sanitisation, peeped into cars, let motorists carrying crowded passengers pass and had their face masks pulled down to beneath the nose.
There were a few roadblocks at Mupedzanhamo, Mbudzi Roundabout and along High Glen where police officers were seen handling drivers licences without gloves or sanitising. Others were chatting with passengers and drivers without social distancing.
But there was a slight improvement at other roadblocks, which have scaled down since the lockdown measures were relaxed in February.
Some officers now move around with sanitisers and scrutinise motorists’ documents without touching them.
It seems the easing of lockdown measures has led to a lax approach in supermarkets as there is no social distancing and proper wearing of masks.
This tendency was common at shops in southwestern suburbs.
The shop staff still did not monitor shoppers to ensure that they adhered to the social distancing and mask wearing rules.
Although Confederation of Zimbabwe Retailers (CZR) president, Denford Mutashu said retailers and wholesalers were enforcing the proper wearing of masks and social distancing, the situation at OK Mbare and other low-income suburbs was different.
A visit to the shops showed that staff casually shook hands while masks were dropped to below the nose in most cases.
“Customers are advised to take these precautions and inside infomercials seriously to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Ultimately it’s up to every individual to stay safe and protected. Some shops have put notices on WHO guidelines. CZR has also come up with Covid-19 protocols to be rolled out in a few days,” he said, but did not give details of the planned strategy.
At Bon Marche Chisipite in Harare, WHO guidelines were followed, with frequent disinfecting of trolleys and all shoppers being sanitised at entry points.
A visit to churches showed that some congregations were above the stipulated 50 people.
Funeral gatherings also exceeded 30 mourners as required by the law, with the majority of the people moving around without masks, shaking hands and sharing blankets at night.
At a recent funeral in rural Shurugwi in the Midlands province, over 200 people who gathered had no masks. They huddled in small rooms and shook hands freely, as part of their tradition to pay condolences.
Mourners ate and drank from the same plates and cups and tended to cram into cars and buses to and from the funeral wake.
In Gweru, at least five schools sanitised students at the main gates and forced them to wear their masks, and that was pretty the same at some Harare schools.
But, inside the school premises, learners—particularly at the primary level—took off the masks and mingled freely.
Schools have just opened, at a time government is also deliberating on re-opening borders, which were blamed for driving the spike in the local Covid-19 caseload during the Christmas period that forced the second lockdown last January.
Citizens Health Watch executive director, Fungisai Dube urged a long term strategy to ensure sensitivity to the risks posed by Covid-19.
“We need to work on long term systems that ensure that strategic focus will nurture a culture of washing hands, social distancing and masking up,” she said.
Dube added: “We can’t continue to be in and out of lockdowns. What’s more important is to engage citizens to make them understand the repercussions of not adhering to regulations”.
Katswe Sisterhood executive director Talent Jumo said informal traders were flouting Covid-19 regulations to make a living and suggested several measures to reduce Covid-19 vulnerability.
“We need social protection mechanisms. We also need to strengthen domestic violence response services (and) we have to put in place measures to ensure access to sexual reproductive health services.
“Ramping up information dissemination by engaging local partners is key as well as free testing at borders where sexruption is rife,” she said.
The Mpilo acting chief executive officer, Solwayo Ngwenya said it was not advisable for government to open borders as that would expose Zimbabweans to new Covid-19 variants that were more deadly.
“I am sure there is need to balance economic activity and contain the spread of coronavirus. I would advise caution because the second wave erupted because of reopening of schools and borders. So we will be going back again to that scenario but this time the variants are deadly. We will pay a heavy price,” he said.
“Funeral vigils and processions are some of the major super spreaders because when people are aggrieved, they don’t follow regulations. That’s where we are going to have a lot of new infections.”
Community Working Group on Health executive director Itai Rusike warned that poor adherence to regulations might lead to a third wave.
“If we do not address this situation, we may also find ourselves going into another lockdown. We need to exercise extreme caution as the country considers opening land borders.
“We hope that adequate measures will be put in place, especially to ensure that those coming in and going out of the country have the required Covid -19 testing certificates,” he said.
With borders about to re-open, Rusike said there was need for relevant departments to curb the use of undesignated exit points and control public transport.
“The public transport systems, especially Zupco buses, generally have poor enforcement of social distancing. They are overloaded due to shortages of transport. We see open trucks coming in to fill the gap left by commuter omnibuses. These are also are overloading passengers,” he said.
Health expert Johannes Marisa said ignorance, negligence, complacency and defiance could drive a new Covid-19 wave.
“It’s better for us to remain vigilant and avoid complacency. The moment we defy orders, we are putting ourselves in danger,” he said.
“Government may want to open borders for economic reasons but we can be hit by new infections if public health measures are not observed.”
WHO country director Alex Gasasira said Zimbabwe was monitoring the circulation of the virus through genetic sequencing analysis but recommended the promotion of comprehensive compliance to measures and vaccination.
“A number of variants have demonstrated that they are more easily transmissible and spread much faster. The good news is that the preventative measures that have been used over the last year including physical distancing, limiting travel and social mingling, hand hygiene, masking, infection and prevention control work very well to reduce transmission of Covid -19. Everyone should observe guidelines.” he said.