ZIMBABWE is experiencing a major upsurge in Covid-19 infections and deaths, which has sparked fears of an unmanageable public health emergency. The government has, like other administrations globally, reintroduced stricter lockdown measures in an attempt to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But with a crumbling economy, many have found it hard to stay indoors as required by the lockdown and have defied the regulations as they prioritise livelihoods, heightening the risk of infection. In light of these worrying developments, our correspondent Moses Ngwere (MN) interviewed the national coordinator of the Covid-19 response in the President’s Office, Dr Agnes Mahomva (AM), who says the current lockdown can only work if everyone adheres to the rules, which has so far proven elusive. Below are excerpts of the interview:
MN: Firstly, we have seen Covid-19 cases spiralling exponentially since the turn of the year after relative calm.
What would you say went wrong along the way since the country appeared to be managing it well initially?
AM: Cases spiralling after we were on our way to controlling the epidemic was mostly brought about by complacency. Individuals and communities at large simply stopped adhering to critical preventive measure such as wearing of face masks and avoiding gatherings.
MN: Do you think this stricter lockdown will achieve the desired results from your analysis of the situation?
AM: The stricter lockdown can work if individuals and communities adhere to it.
MN: If the country does not achieve the goals, what would be plan B?
AM: If we do not achieve our goals, plan B is to revisit and identify the challenge (the why and how), then put in place measures specific to the why, how and where.
MN: There has been very limited testing in public health institutions. What is being done to improve the situation, given that
testing at private laboratories is very expensive?
AM: Testing has been limited from day one, but has improved greatly. During the first wave, we were conducting on average 400 to 1 000 PCR (lab) tests per day. Now that number has gone up to 3 000 per day. Work, of course, continues to keep improving on this. Antigen tests have also now been adopted for symptomatic cases.
MN: You have previously indicated that Zimbabwe was participating in vaccine development alongside three countries. How far has that process gone and when are were likely to see the initial vaccine rollout?
AM: On vaccines, the country is keenly following the World Health Organisation and GAVI-led vaccine initiatives. The country is working on a national vaccine framework and strategy.
MN: The numbers and information being dished out daily do not really indicate which particular areas are hotspots. For instance, we simply see Harare topping the daily inspection rates but we do not know which specific locations are high-risk zones, which is key information. Please tell us which specific suburbs, say in Harare and Bulawayo, are high-risk zones.
AM: The national figures published every day are a high-level summary aggregated from submitted provincial data. Every province does have clear figures that indicate where the hot spots are.
MN: Are you impressed with how the health sector is responding to the pandemic at this level?
AM: Covid-19 remains a public health emergency. The ministry of Health and Child Care therefore plays a key technical lead in its response.
MN: There have been reports of public health workers striking over shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), yet we have seen numerous donations of the same from all over the world, notably the Jack Ma Foundation and local businesses. How do you account for this paradox?
AM: Indeed, health care workers have complained about PPE. Indeed, the nation has received PPE donations from organisations such as the Jack Ma Foundation and it has all been used up. You need to remember that most of the donated PPE is not reusable.
MN: This ongoing lockdown is affecting the business sector. Have you been on contact with captains of industry to hear their plight?
AM: Indeed, this new lockdown has affected business. Captains of industry are very concerned and discussions are taking place to strengthen our collaboration through the taskforce sub-committee that represents industry, for example, and through other direct communications with specific groups.
Lots more work and collaboration is needed as we battle to balance health and the economy. If there is no health, there is no economy to talk about.
MN: There is a new deadlier coronavirus variant from South Africa which is feared to already be in Zimbabwe. Would you confirm this development and, if so, in which specific areas has it been detected?
AM: The new variant in SA is a big concern to Zimbabwe. It is very possible that it is also here in Zimbabwe. Our scientists are therefore analysing our samples for an answer.
In the meantime, it is important to note that management of the various variants is the same, that is: curb its spread by prevention (Social distancing, avoiding crowds, masking up, etc).
MN: Some countries like South Africa, the United Kingdom and others have already classified Zimbabwe as the newest regional and global epicentre of the pandemic. Is this a true reflection of the situation on the ground?
AM: Yes, some countries have classified Zimbabwe as an epicentre. It is however not clear what criteria they used since many other countries globally and regionally are doing worse than Zimbabwe as evidenced by what the WHO and other global trackers publish on a daily basis.