By Lydia O’Kane
In the past, Zimbabwe was known as the breadbasket of Africa, exporting wheat, tobacco, and corn to the rest of the world.
But in the last few years the country has been in the grip of an economic crisis, which has included shortages of food and medicines.
At a time when much of the world is facing the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, there is mounting concern that countries like Zimbabwe are ill prepared to deal with a major outbreak.
Verity Johnson is Country Representative for CAFOD, the official aid agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales and a member of the Caritas network.
“The prospect of the pandemic taking off in Zimbabwe is terrifying”, she said. “Zimbabwe’s been in crisis for many years, and it’s been a multifaceted crisis…we already had around 6 million people facing food insecurity; 6 million people who are hungry and do not have enough to eat and all of that is exacerbated by the current crisis.”
Another concern amid this global pandemic is the country’s creaking health system, which is already under severe strain.
The CAFOD Country Representative explained that Zimbabwe already has “a healthcare system which has been rundown; doctors went on strike earlier this year over their working conditions with a lack of basic equipment and a lack of medicines.”
Verity went on to say that “already we were seeing needless deaths from preventable diseases.” She also noted that there aren’t the medicines or the beds to cope with a crisis of this nature.
To add to the complexity of the situation, the country is also seeing a “huge rise in malaria cases” and a drop of in the numbers of people getting vaccinated, she said.
Verity noted that at the moment, the number of infections in the country is low. But she pointed out they don’t actually know what the spread of the virus is. This is due to the fact that testing for the disease has been very low.
There is the concern, she observed, that Zimbabwe “could be right at the beginning of the curve.”
Asked about awareness of the disease and access to information, Verity emphasized, “there have been huge efforts to get information out, whether by government, also by development partners, by the Churches. I think there has been a lot of work in trying to get messages out.”
Zimbabwe has a very large rural population and many people have very limited access to information. She said, at present there is a lot of misinformation, rumour and fear. There is also a large part of the country that has little awareness of the disease and its effects.
One of the huge challenges with regard to a pandemic of this nature, is that around 80 per cent of people in Zimbabwe are not formally employed.
Speaking about this issue, Verity noted that during the lockdown markets have been closed which has had “a huge impact on those livelihoods; people can’t go out and can’t trade, so for those people it’s absolutely desperate.”
Support for communities
Even before the onset of Covid-19, people in Zimbabwe were not getting enough food and were going hungry; now that situation has got even worse.
CAFOD is continuing to provide food to the hardest hit communities and is focusing on providing access to clean water.
The Zimbabwe Representative highlighted that “it’s very hard for people to observe the guidance around Covid prevention, around washing your hands if you don’t have access to water.”