BY VANESSA GONYE/PRECIOUS CHIDA/REX MPHISA
HEALTH groups in the country sounded alarm bells yesterday after neighbouring South Africa confirmed its first case of coronavirus (COVID-19), in KwaZulu-Natal and called for tighter controls at the country’s poorly resourced borders as government urged Zimbabweans to cut unnecessary travel outside the country.
The news alarmed locals as South Africa is Zimbabwe’s largest trading partner and thousands cross the border between the two countries every day.
“We have a very weakened healthcare system; we lack basic equipment and we (will be) taking samples to South Africa,” the secretary for Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights Norman Matara told NewsDay yesterday.
“We don’t have enough resources at the quarantining centre. We don’t have (equipment for a computerised tomography (CT) scan, recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) for diagnostic. We only have two in the public health sector, at Chitungwiza and Parirenyatwa. We don’t even have adequate ventilator for continuous supply of oxygen. We need to step up our game in terms of surveillance.”
Health minister Obadiah Moyo said Zimbabwe will follow WHO guidelines. “As such, all travellers and visitors into the country, including those from countries with confirmed COVID-19 cases, will be screened at ports of entry into Zimbabwe. However, travellers with signs and symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 (cough, fever, shortness of breath, etc, etc) will be referred immediately to designated isolation centres for further clinical examinations and assistance.,” he said in a statement late last night.
He said the government will not impose additional requirements on travellers, visitors and airlines outside WHO guidelines but Information deputy minister Energy Mutodi told NewsDay: “We are urging citizens to cancel all international travel, especially to countries currently affected by the virus. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has already announced a travel ban for all government officials outside Africa and we are encouraging private companies and ordinary Zimbabweans to follow suite.”
Critics argue that the country was ill-prepared for an outbreak of this magnitude.
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The long stretch of the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa is notoriously porous, and last year, authorities reported over 16 000 arrests of border jumping and speculated that the number has a fraction of the actual cases.
COVID-19 is thought to have originated from a wildlife market in Wuhan, China in December last year and has been confirmed in over 80 countries across the globe.
It has also infected over 90,000 people and killed more than 3 200, mostly in China.
“The National Institute for Communicable Diseases confirmed that a suspected case of COVID-19 has tested positive,” South Africa’s Health ministry said yesterday.
“The patient is a 38-year-old male who travelled to Italy with his wife. They were part of a group of 10 people and they arrived back in South Africa on March 1, 2020.”
The South African case brings to 27 the number of coronavirus cases reported in Africa. Algeria is worst-affected, with 17 cases, 16 of them in one family. Other African countries with confirmed cases are Egypt (two cases), Senegal (four cases), Morocco (1), Tunisia (1) and Nigeria (1).
Almost all African governments have publicly put in place strict screening at points of entry especially airports, but Zimbabwe’s lack of preparedness was exposed last week when a keen-eyed traveller posted a picture of an unmanned coronavirus screening desk at Beitbridge Border Post on social media, which went viral.
Sources told NewsDay that Beitbridge district medical officer Lenos Samhere, Beitbridge Hospital administrator Bongani Geza and senior medical staff were summoned to Harare over the gaffe at the country’s busiest entry point.
“Please God help Zimbabwe by ensuring that no case is detected here. We have thieves for a government that have run everything down; no clean water, no functioning healthy delivery, no money in banks except tissues, no electricity, etc. Please God spare us the worst punishment which this virus can inflict on us,” tweeted one user, Clyford.
Another Twitter user posted: “It is only a matter of time before it comes to Zimbabwe. The government claims it is prepared and yet its citizens don’t even know the symptoms. We have no basic medication, let alone masks.”
Health pressure group, Community Working Group on Health executive director, Itai Rusike said Zimbabwe should be wary about the confirmed case of the coronavirus in South Africa considering the high numbers of its nationals crossing over to South Africa.
“The porous borders will be our biggest challenge and threat as a lot of goods and human traffic is smuggled through those poorly managed borders and that makes it very difficult to provide any screening services and surveillance,” Rusike said, adding that there was need for aggressive health education to combat the disease.