Vulnerable populations left behind as Corona virus advances

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By Nkosana Dlamini/Nokuthaba Dlamini

(Harare-Victoria Falls) Mbare Musika, Zimbabwe’s biggest people’s market in the capital where you can get anything from needles to live goats is still bustling even as Covid-19 is baring its fangs.

The novel Corona virus originated in China and has been spreading very fast throughout the world.

With no vaccine on offer, more than 20,000 people have already been killed by the virus in just a couple of months as the number of recorded cases has already sped past 500,000.

Italy is well past 9,000 deaths, trailed by Spain which recently recorded more than 700 deaths in 24 hours only and China, ironically, is recording less fatalities despite being the source.

And some figures seem to suggest now USA has more confirmed Corona infections than any other country.

The African continent and southern Africa have not been spared. South Africa tops the list with 1,170 cases by Friday, according to BBC. The virus has already claimed two lives there.

No longer safe

Zimbabwe seemed safe until recently. As the statistics were jumping up quickly south of the Limpopo, Zimbabwe had no recorded cases up to last week when three instances were confirmed and one of them Zororo, the son of business tycoon and politician, James Makamba, was taken by Corona this week as the figure rose to five.

At Mbare Musika, almost every trader or client you approach readily talks about Zororo, but the carefree hustle and bustle is still alive.

Vegetable vendors still come very early in the morning to sell their produce and downstream traders as well as ordinary buyers jostle, push and shove to buy the horticultural products for sale throughout Harare.

Mbare Musika Market

Dirty bond notes and US dollars exchange hands fast and the hundreds of traders move up and down in a swell.  You can find one or two “enterprising” traders wearing masks meant to protect them from the airborne Corona virus, but that culture has not yet caught on with the majority.

The teeming hundreds at the market eat fruits with unwashed hands, hug each other freely and have no readily available toilets.

Fanuel Mupambwa, 40, drives his rickety potato-loaded truck from Murewa to Mbare every day.  He is aware of the danger posed by Covid-19 but admits the need for economic survival makes it impossible to stay at home.

“While it could be easy to ban other gatherings, Mbare Musika is difficult to control. So many people survive on it and it’s where you get things cheap,” says Mupambwa.

Chipped in another trader: “It is a choice between dying of the Corona virus and dying of hunger. We are just taking our chances in the hope that we do not get the virus.”

In the resort town of Victoria Falls, the crowds are far much smaller than in Mbare, but they are there anyway.

Mengezi Vundla from Old Chinotimba is a tomato and green vegetables vendor. Poverty drags her to the crowded market every day and, like fellow traders, she does not bother about face masks or sanitisers nor hand-washing.

“We have been coming here since the outbreak because this is the only source of life I have known for over a decade,” she said.

She braves travelling in crowded public transport to buy produce for resell while her husband sells charcoal and firewood.

But businesses in Victoria Falls—hotels, tourism companies, curio shops and night spots—have responded to the call for shutdowns and residents from upmarket areas are largely self-isolating now.

This in contrast with the beer-halls and shebeens in the populous Chinotimba area which are still enjoying busy patronage.

Curio market

Lip service

The Zimbabwean government recently came up with a cocktail of measures to manage the Covid-19 crisis.

Highlights of the measures include: exercise social distancing, use sanitisers and masks, limit gatherings to a maximum of 50 people (revised downward from 100), avoid unnecessary travel and shut down schools.

As an afterthought, the government encouraged employers to get their staff working from home.

But the measures that the government has announced are not specific to the needs of an array of vulnerable populations—such as the Mbare traders.

Instead, it identifies high risk populations as people moving across borders, those working at points of entry, health care providers, and persons with underlying medical conditions, their families and immediate contacts.

Social distancing is impossible at the market, just as it is the case at the overcrowded residential areas close to Mbare Musika and public transport.

The government is too queasy to close the markets as the Zimbabwean economy is highly informalised.

A stone’s throw away from the market, at the Matapi and Matererini flats, up to five families, with an average of four members each, are crammed up in single rooms.

Because of those sheer numbers that include children of varying ages, they take turns to sleep because they cannot be accommodated all at once.

There is hardly any running water and scores of people queue up at the few communal boreholes while toilets are mostly out of service, sewage overflows and residents cook in the open.

Mbare flats

There is a similar situation in Victoria Falls, as is the case with all the other urban areas.

Rentals are high—ranging from US$75 per room—so the poor live in squalid conditions in areas that are popularly known as “Baghdads” where commercial sex is also rife and cross-border truck drivers are now the most reliable clients., working in collaboration with Information for Development Trust, observed that, while residents of Mbare are generally aware of the Corona virus, no-one has bothered to deploy sanitisers, masks and other preventative tools to the area, let alone screening.


Mbare is also home to Zimbabwe’s largest long-distance bus terminus.

“Buses from Beitbridge, which is close to South Africa, come and rank here. The same with travellers from other border areas such as Mutare and Nyamapanda. The virus can be transmitted from one border to any other place inside the country,” said Godwin, a bus driver.

Bus crews are warming up to the idea of sanitising their passengers, though.

Rural areas remain largely forgotten, observed. People from rural areas who were interviewed consider Covid-19 “a town disease”.

A grandmother, Gogo Mangezi from rural Buhera in Manicaland, said in a telephone interview: “Corona must stay there in Harare. It’s you, urban people, who are at risk and you must keep it there.”

Her member of parliament, Joseph Chinotimba, wants government to take drastic measures and ban urbanites from travelling to rural areas so as to minimise transmission of the virus.

Chinotimba says the outbreak in rural areas would be devastating.

“Clinics here are very far from the villages. We cannot even talk of isolation centres because if towns are struggling to set them up, what more here in rural areas,” he said.

Anti-Covid awareness campaigns are minimal in rural areas, said Chinotimba so, “As MPs, we have asked village heads to help spread the word about the Corona virus.”

MP Joseph Chinotimba

Rural dwellers still use hand greetings, gather freely, bathe the deceased and attend funerals in large numbers.

Mandla Mthunzi, a grocery shop entrepreneur in rural Filabusi says people in his area still congregate outside government’s maximum of 50 to bury relatives. Some are bodies from relatives who would have died in South Africa or in the cities, exposing the rest to the dangers of contracting coronavirus.

Information ministry secretary, Nick Mangwana said on Thursday that government had not adopted policies to manage Zimbabweans being repatriated for burial from abroad.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa at one time omitted shutting down schools as neighbouring countries like South Africa were taking that measure to protect children from the virus.

But schools were closed earlier after a re-think. Most of them enrol large numbers of children—in some cases more than 1000 students—and, during the 2008 cholera outbreak, there were cases of children being fatally affected.

A teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity urged the government to keep schools closed till the virus was suppressed, adding that struggling parents lacked the capacity to buy face masks and gloves or donate sanitisers for children to use against Covid-19.

The Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe said the majority of its constituency had no running water.

Sex workers

Many women have taken to commercial sex as a source of income but, it was observed during interviews in Harare’s Avenues area where they parade for clients from morning, they are not daunted by the prospect of catching Covid-19 and still do not see the value of using preventative measures.

“It doesn’t mean that we don’t know about Corona. As sex workers, we have always been exposed to deadly diseases such as HIV, so there is nothing new. We need to survive, that’s why we still go out to look for clients,” said 32-year old Sheila.

For those with regular clients, contact tracing is a challenge in that the clients will not be willing to submit themselves for Covid-19 testing for fear of embarrassment. The risk of reinfection is high as the same client returns.

Women’s Academy for Leadership and Political Excellence (WALPE) director Sithabile Dewa, urged government to “swiftly put in place solid response mechanisms to address female needs”.

“How do we maintain our distance when the majority of Zimbabweans, women and girls included, stay in overcrowded environments. Women are burdened by domestic and unpaid care work and these don’t stop because there is Covid-19,” she said.

“Women are still expected to fetch water at communal boreholes, queue for money at the bank, mealie-meal, cooking oil and other basic commodities thus further exposing them to the pandemic,” added Dewa.

Besides, the director opined, women are the first line carers for the sick yet they do not have protective materials to use and often suffer gender-based violence.

Jails, again

Many feel that not enough is being done to protect prisoners.

Zimbabwe’s correctional services demanded recently that government expedites its amnesty on up to 6,000 inmates to minimise the spread of coronavirus inside prison walls.

Zimbabwe has 22,000 inmates against a carrying capacity of 17.000.

National Public Relations Officer at the Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services, Superintendent Khanyezi Meya, said the virus was easier spread within confined areas hence the need to speedily decongest the country’s overcrowded jails.

“Prisons are confined institutions. Communicable diseases such as Covid-19 have greater chances of spreading in these places and could pose serious health and logistical challenges, should cases of the virus get recorded,” he said.

Zimbabwe’s prisons are constrained for resources and matters of hygiene and running water have been a perennial challenge.

Prisons have no hand sanitisers for inmates.

However, the correctional services department is now limiting visits to just one relative per day.

Hear not, see not

Masimba Kuchera, a visually impaired social activist, says people like him and those with hearing impairment are at risk of Covid-19.

The visually impaired touch lots of surfaces and there are no facilities to ensure that the hard of hearing get anti-coronavirus messages, said Kuchera.

It is difficult for the visually handicapped to practise social distancing as they rely on other people to move around.

Their financial vulnerabilities also deny them easier access to face masks and sanitisers, while a significant number has taken to the streets as beggars. Face masks sell for between US$1 and US$5 in local outlets.

Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association treasurer Norman Matara says there are gaps in the government’s response that must be addressed.

“Health workers in the districts and provincial hospitals have not been trained on management protocols.

“They too have no personal protective equipment to protect themselves if they are to attend to a suspected case. The isolation centres are still very few.