By Maynard Manyowa
Zimbabwe is still waiting for its first confirmed case of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV2) commonly known as COVID-19 or much simply Coronavirus.
Its neighbour, biggest trade partner and lifeline South Africa closed a number of its borders, restricted foreign travel, removed visas on arrival and non-resident travelers from high risk countries.
But it may have been too late. The virus had already landed on its shores and local transmission imminent. That materialised and South Africa recorded 31 new cases within a 24 hour period. In the same period, China recorded just 13 new cases.
What may be encouraging for South Africa is that, there have been no recorded deaths as yet. But questions still remain on Zimbabwe, South Africa’s dependent small brother, and how it could or would deal with the virus.
1. Zimbabwe’s poor record
Zimbabwe’s public health system barely exists. At least three times in the last 13 years the country has battled to contain Cholera outbreaks, leading to the deaths of people in their thousands.
Cholera is a deadly disease, but most countries deal with it with relative ease. Medicine is availed quickly, centers are established at speed, and the sources of the outbreak are sealed off and action taken.
As with cholera, the disease found itself in South Africa and other neighbours. It was eliminated with ease. Understandably, Zimbabweans are anxious.
Coronavirus is extremely contagious and doubles in new infections at alarming rates. In Europe it has brought countries with sophisticated infrastructure like Italy, France and Germany to their proverbial knees. Zimbabwe’s poor record when it comes to handling any kind of health crisis does not inspire confidence.
2. The virus will hit the shore, at some point
South Africa is Zimbabwe’s biggest formal and informal trade partner. Travel between the two countries is the highest of any two nations in the entire regional bloc.
According to information from South Africa’s Home Affairs department, at least 60,000 people cross the Beitbridge border post from Zimbabwe into South Africa a week.
The figure tips 100,000 in peak periods and this excludes those that illegally sneak into the country using expired passports, or no official documents at all.
During its peak, South African airways had at the least 4 flights a day to Harare, 2 to Bulawayo and 1 to Victoria Falls. Fastjet, another airline had 4 flights a day to Harare, while Comair, which operates British Airways in South Africa had a single flight, together with local carrier Air Zimbabwe.
Zimbabweans import nearly everything from South Africa. From toothpicks to motor vehicles. Critical food supplies are often cheaper and easier to buy from the country.
The country itself imports electricity and even currency from South Africa.
As the virus threatens to get out of control in South Africa, there can be no doubt that it will arrive in Zimbabwe at some point or another.
3. Zimbabwe’s politicians still wish ill of each other
Zimbabwe’s government has a troubled relationship with the truth. As such, every claim that there has been no confirmed case of coronavirus is met with skepticism.
Within the political circles, that skepticism has since grown into outright hopes of catastrophe.
It is a fact that coronavirus can cause incredible carnage in Zimbabwe and the government could struggle and fail to deal with the crisis, in the same vein they have failed to deal with a health crisis (they needed a generous bail out from a billionaire to end a nearly year long health workers strike) or the economy. They can do this with or without anyone’s help.
But as they have repeatedly stated that they are waiting for their first confirmed case, the response from several key opposition politics has moved from skepticism to a form of desperation, a wish, a desire that the virus hits and catastrophe follows, as it will show just how incompetent the current leaders of the country are.
Understandably, politics is about exploiting and amplifying your rival’s weaknesses. In most cases, it is the norm of opposition politicians to show just how ‘useless’ their rivals are.
Except in this case, nobody is immune to coronavirus, and the virus will kill relatives of all politicians, those in power and those outside of it.
That mere risk ought to have encouraged some form of solidarity, but, even as death looms, the virus is showing that Zimbabwe’s politicians still wish absolute ill for each other.
4. What happens next?
Zimbabweans will just have to wait. Changing lifestyles is not easy. Many people rely on public transport in the country. People have to travel to South Africa to purchase critical goods which they cannot buy in the country. At some point, the country will record its first infection.
What happens next may yet be unknown, but for a people and a country that have learnt to survive cholera, typhoid, and electoral violence, hope remains. For a people that have learnt to prosper, in some places, despite their government, there is a chance that, even this too will pass.
• Maynard Manyowa is an investigative journalist and documentary filmmaker based in England, United Kingdom. He is the Roving Editor for Khuluma Afrika – a center for investigative journalism in Zimbabwe.