Zimbabwe’s government has designated 11 rural areas across three provinces Covid-19 hotspots this week after a sharp rise in cases. The measures come as the country battles to contain a third wave of coronavirus.
Mashonaland West, Masvingo and Bulawayo provinces have been put into strict localised lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus. The government had already declared hotspots in three other regions, the first in May and two others in early June.
A nationwide lockdown was announced in mid-June, the second this year. But restrictions in the hotspots are tougher than elsewhere in the country, with many businesses having to close at 3pm instead of 6pm.
Since Zimbabwe recorded its first case in March last year, semi-urban and rural areas have been considered safe zones, with most cases concentrated in the cities. But in May a rise in rural cases sparked concerns that local health services would be unable to cope.
This week, recorded cases increased 127% from the previous week, from 544 to 1,239. The country has recorded a total of 43,480 cases and 1,692 deaths, as of 24 June.
Despite a good start to its vaccination programme, Zimbabwe now has a severe shortage of vaccines.
Mashonaland West, home to about 1.5 million people, has been the hardest hit by new infections. The rise is believed to have been caused by little or no social distancing as tobacco and grain farmers travel to and from auction houses to sell produce.
“We were never a priority in the first place, which means they [the government] do not care about us. We are like lambs to the slaughter, coming here is now very scary. I hear cases are rising daily, we are not safe,” said tobacco farmer Cleopa Mushaninga, 50, from Karoi in Mashonaland West.
“My neighbour was admitted [to hospital] last week, and he is nursing a high fever. We do not know, maybe it is this Covid. No one is safe any more,” said Mushaninga.
Bernard Bwerinofa, 36, panicked after his wife tested positive for Covid-19. Luckily, Bwerinofa and his two small children tested negative and his wife is recovering at home.
“I used to think that Covid-19 was foreign, but it has visited us, and we have to be vigilant. I cannot express the fear of losing my wife when she became feverish. The nearby hospital was already full, so we had to take her home. I am glad she is on the mend, but it was a scary moment,” said Bwerinofa.
Most rural Zimbabweans rely on the radio for critical Covid news and advice. Dissemination of information has largely focused on urban areas, through public address systems, flyers and posters, as has the rollout of vaccines. Nearly 1.15m doses have been administered of China’s Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines and the Indian vaccine Covaxin. More than 715,000 people have had one vaccination and 440,000 have had two.
Maud Dhaka, 45, from Chikuti in Marshonaland West, is worried that her small business selling groceries and clothing will suffer during the lockdown.
“Covid or no Covid, I have to survive, and it is not looking good. Our customers are living in fear, and it affects my business, which was already struggling. Opening from 8am to 3pm is not sustainable for small businesses, we need long hours to operate,” said Dhaka.
According to the World Bank, half of Zimbabweans fell into extreme poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The government said it will be monitoring infection rates across the country and reviewing measures to contain the third wave.
It has promised to increase awareness campaigns across the country, focusing on the most affected areas. It said television and radio stations have increased Covid-19 information programming.