Andile Tshuma and Nqobile Tshili, Chronicle Reporters 

HEALTH authorities in Bulawayo are overwhelmed and counting losses from Covid-19 false alarms emanating from fake distress calls and social media messages.

So far, no positive Covid-19 case has been recorded in Zimbabwe but Government has stepped up measures to decisively mitigate its impact.

Public gatherings of more than 100 people have been banned and this year’s Independence Day celebrations and the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair (ZITF) both scheduled for next month in Bulawayo were postponed.

To scale up the country’s preparedness President Mnangagwa on Thursday launched the Covid-19 National Preparedness and Response Plan and announced the closure of learning institutions on Tuesday.

The Bulawayo City Council Health Services Department has since urged members of the public to desist from making false distress calls or sharing and creating false messages that alarm the pubic on Covid-19 as this wastes the time of health staff and other resources. 

During a visit by members of the parliamentary committee on health and child care to Mpilo Central Hospital, United Bulawayo Hospitals (UBH) and Thongrove Infections Diseases Hospitals on Thursday, health personnel at the medical institutions told MPs that people raising false alarms either call the hospitals directly or the Bulawayo City Council tollfree numbers.

They said sometimes calls are made to the port health desk at Joshua Mqabuko Nkomo International Airport and the Beitbridge Border Post.

Some people allegedly call the airport’s port health desk and falsely claim that someone who used that port of entry is now sick while distress calls made to Beitbridge Border Post also have a negative bearing as Thorngrove Infectious Diseases Hospital caters for the entire southern region. There have also been a number of fake social media messages about Covid-19 cases at Mpilo Central and UBH over the past days, with some voice notes on WhatsApp circulating purporting that some positive cases had been confirmed.

 The messages have since been dismissed by health authorities in the city.

Bulawayo City Council acting director of the Health Services Department Mr Charles Malaba said council was already operating under a tight budget and false alarms were eroding the few available resources that were available.

 “Already resources are limited. We all know the situation in the country, so when there are these false alarms, we have personnel who are already working under pressure rushing across town. 

“They will suffer from exhaustion and burn out from nothing. Our ambulances for the rapid response team run out of fuel, and imagine burning fuel for false alarms. That is another resource that has been wasted because of irresponsible individuals. It is wiser for people to keep quiet if they do not know or to seek the audience of the relevant people,” said Mr Malaba.

He also bemoaned the abuse of social media platform by people who are spreading fake messages on social media about Covid-19 in the city. 

Mr Malaba described their actions as reckless and irresponsible.

“We are facing a potential crisis, but you find that some people amongst us have the time and audacity to spread falsehoods, such fake messages do not end as jokes. They are unfair as they may arrive at some ears as truth. Not everyone has the gift of separating fact from hoaxes,” said Mr Malaba. 

United Bulawayo Hospitals Chief Executive officer MS Nonhlanhla Ndlovu shared the sentiments.

She said it was unfortunate that people find amusement in making the public panic through false alarms.

Ms Ndlovu said the hospital has called the Rapid Response Team from Thorngrove Infectious Diseases Hospital due to false alarms.

“We have had cases of false alarms and rumours started that there are confirmed cases at the hospital and that really creates fear and mistrust as people will start thinking that the hospital is hiding something. 

“We have on numerous times called the Rapid Response Team from Thorngrove to the hospital only to find that it is just false alarms. They may end up irritated and fatigued as a result of actions of insensitive members of the public,” she said. 

During a Press briefing yesterday, BCC Health Services Department deputy director and coordinator in charge of Covid-19 rapid response preparedness, Dr Khulamuzi Nyathi said council was concerned over false information on the pandemic. 

He said recently council received a message that there was a person who had coronavirus symptoms and after making a follow up on the case they did not find the said individual. 

 “We dispatched a rapid response team. We went to all the areas that were said in the message. When we failed to get the person, we went to the source following up on everyone who had forwarded the message. At the end we hit a brick wall. But in the process, we were spending airtime, we are spending fuel just because someone is sending message that they did not verify. At the end of the day we would be using some of the resources that could have been channelled towards more probably cases,” he said.

Yesterday the Secretary for Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services Mr Nick Mangwana said some people had been arrested in Kenya, South Africa, the United States and Mizoram in India for spreading false coronavirus messages.

“Many have taken action, we will also act,” he tweeted.