BY DESMOND CHINGARANDE/MOSES MATENGA
ZIMBABWE’s human rights lawyers and doctors have threatened to take legal action to force government to expeditiously disseminate information relating to suspected cases of coronavirus in the country amid speculative reports that a 47-year-old Chinese woman who died on her way to Wilkins Hospital in Harare on Friday had succumbed to the killer disease.
The Chinese woman had exhibited symptoms related to the deadly Covid-19 on Friday, but government in a brief statement dismissed the report, saying tests carried out on her indicated that she was negative.
Covid-19 has so far killed over 3 600 people globally, while more than 108 000 have been infected.
On March 4, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) wrote to Health minister Obadiah Moyo demanding him to give regular updates about the disease.
“Given the extensive human and air traffic between Zimbabwe and our neighbours, China and other countries, where the virus has been detected, we are of the considered view that Zimbabwe is under considerable threat,” human rights lawyer Godfrey Mupanga wrote.
Three cases of Covid-19 have been detected in South Africa, where millions of Zimbabweans are based as economic refugees.
“It cannot be denied by any right-thinking person that in recent times, our public health services have seriously deteriorated. Recently, there has been information in the media suggesting that a case of the coronavirus has been seen at Wilkins Hospital in Harare. That information does not seem to have been publicly confirmed or refuted by the responsible authority, which is your ministry,” ZLHR said.
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“In view of the obvious exposure of the country to the virus and the seriously compromised public health services, we are surprised that even the home page of the ministry’s website has nothing whatsoever on the coronavirus. We are both appalled and very concerned at the appearance of indifference to the real threat of this deadly virus.”
Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights spokesperson Norman Matara said government should appoint a competent health professional to act as spokesperson on the matter, instead of leaving such to propagandists.
“At the moment, we have no information suggesting that those who passed away after having been investigated for possible coronavirus succumbed to Covid-19. However, we urge the health authorities to err on the side of caution, trace their contacts and investigate if they are not infected,” Matara said.
“We advise the ministry to appoint a competent health professional to act as the spokesperson on this matter,” he said, adding that the spokesperson should be competent enough to dispel rumours, allay fears and provide accurate medical facts on the disease.
Former Health minister Henry Madzorera said the manner government was handling the matter was disturbing and exhibiting lack of seriousness.
“If the government does not tell us the whole truth and we actually have cases of positive tests of coronavirus in the country that they have not told us as a population, then we are in big trouble,” he said.
“We are worried about the measures we are taking in terms of quarantining people (and) who need to be quarantined. People who are coming from areas with coronavirus, or who have passed through there, they need to be properly quarantined. You can’t just say a person must quarantine himself or herself voluntarily. I had people from China at my house and I said, but you are supposed to be in quarantine, what are you doing here? It is something I encountered first-hand that there is no quarantine going on in people’s houses. People are coming from China and are visiting their friends and relatives everywhere.
“I am not happy with our preparedness. We have a government that tells us lies. We know the doctors were on a go-slow and we know that some of the young doctors are leaving the country. Our health delivery system in terms of human resource is very thin on the ground. Healthcare workers are demotivated and we don’t have the correct protective equipment in the correct places, so if we have a case, it is going to be a disaster.”
Information permanent secretary Ndavaningi Mangwana was not picking calls, but was active on micro-blogging site Twitter where he vehemently rubbished all claims that the country was in danger of Covid-19.
“The person presented with shortness of breath. There are many complications associated with that condition such as asthma, COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] among others.
Shortness of breath is a symptom that’s not just coming now because there is coronavirus. It’s been there for time immemorial,” he said, attracting a public backlash from people who felt government was being “reckless” in its handling of the epidemic.
Meanwhile, an emergency meeting of all Sadc health ministers will be convened today in Tanzania to discuss and agree on relevant actions to harmonise and co-ordinate regional preparedness, readiness and response to the coronavirus outbreak.