Society Reporter

These are extraordinary times!

Tomorrow, Zimbabwe joins more than 70 million fellow Africans that are hunkered down in Rwanda and South Africa in an unprecedented move to try and combat the spread of the coronavirus (Covid-19).

On Friday, President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a 21-day total lockdown after Government was advised by a recently constituted Inter-Ministerial Taskforce on Covid-19 that the country faced “continued potential grave threats” from the pandemic.

More than a third of the world’s population — about three billion people — are either under partial or total lockdown.

Rwanda, which has more than 12 million people, was the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa to declare a total lockdown on March 22 after it had recorded 17 cases, while South Africa, with a burgeoning population of more than 56,7 million, started its 21-day lockdown on Friday.

By the end of last week, Zimbabwe had confirmed seven cases, of which four were imported from the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Dubai.

The remaining three were local infections.

Although the country had doubled down on stringent measures to try to contain the disease on Monday — a day it recorded its first death to coronavirus — the authorities took the tough decision to shut down after it emerged moral suasion for social distancing and personal hygiene was largely being unheeded.

Whatever it takes

Harare City Council director of health services Dr Prosper Chonzi said mass quarantine was a giant step towards avoiding a possible catastrophe.

“We cannot continue to allow people to move around as they were doing or having situations in which people were still gathering in large numbers. Mass quarantine is the best possible solution in fighting this disease,” said Dr Chonzi.

“The lockdown will be done in an orderly, calculated manner. We have many ways of making sure that health services delivery will not be compromised.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) believes authorities have to do whatever it takes to combat what could probably be the biggest existential threat in modern times.

The global body’s country director, Dr Alex Gasasira, told The Sunday Mail Society that people have to stay at home to be safe.

“We do recommend that people stay at home, practise social distancing and do what is needed to curb the virus,” said Dr Gasasira.

What it means

For the next 21 days only essential businesses will remain open.

Shops selling food, water and sanitary wear will remain open, but under strict supervision from health officials.

All public gatherings are banned, except for funerals, where the number of mourners is not supposed to exceed 50.

However, critical movement of goods and the operation of key utilities like power and water will continue as usual.

Also motorists seeking to refuel will not be allowed to leave their vehicles.

Essential movement related to seeking health services or to purchase food, medicines and other essential supplies will be exempted from the lockdown.

Public transport, excluding Zupco and Public Service Commission buses, has also been suspended.

Security services will police the new measures.

Lurking

Although the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases is considered to be relatively low, there are fears the disease could be stealthily spreading in different communities across the country.

President Mnangagwa indicated on Friday that declaring a total lockdown was an effort to try to stay “well ahead of likely danger”.

“While the numbers (of cases) are both low . . . this need not induce complacency in us. Covid-19 is now upon us and, if experience elsewhere is anything to go by, can spread in leaps and bounds in so short a time.

“We are worried that even as the numbers remain low, there is possibility of wider community spread and transmissions,” said the President.

It is also feared that the advent of winter in two months’ time might create “conditions ideal

for more infections”.

Last week, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus similarly sounded the alarm on how governments around the world were likely to be blind-sided by a sudden and unexpected increase in infections.

He gave the example of how coronavirus cases have been exploding across the world.

“The first 100 000 cases took 67 days. The second 100 000 took 11 days, the third 100 000 took just four days and the fourth 100 000 just two days,” he said.

The new coronavirus’ ability to incubate in the body for 14 days while spreading to other people has proved to be very disturbing for health experts.

Most worryingly, asymptomatic patients — those who do not show symptoms — can continue to unknowingly spread it to

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unsuspecting victims within the 14-day period.

Spreading through stealth means health authorities cannot possibly successfully trace all the infected victims in time.

Experts believe it is this so-called “stealth transmission” that has driven the rapid spread of the outbreak, infecting communities that remain unaware.

And this is why the world is presently experiencing an exponential increase in new cases, some of which would have been festering for more than two weeks.

In fact, an analysis done by South African-based Wits University showed that once 100 people become locally infected, one million people could contract Covid-19 within the next 40 days.

In Italy – the country which has experienced the most fatalities in the world – the disease was first confirmed on January 31 this year when two Chinese tourists in Rome tested positive for the virus.

One week later, an Italian man repatriated back to Italy from the city of Wuhan, China, was hospitalised and confirmed as the third case in Italy.

A cluster of cases was later detected, starting with 16 confirmed cases in Lombardy on February 21, and 60 additional cases and first deaths on February 22.

The number of deaths due to the virus in the European country were approaching 10 000 by the end of last week.

There were worries that the same tragedy could potentially affect the country if people continued to flout restrictions on movement and social distancing guidelines that were recently announced by Government.

Commuters were still flooding bus termini for transport while disregarding social distancing.

It was also the same disturbing pattern in downtown Harare, including in popular markets such as Mbare.

Bars and some informal retail outlets also continued to draw crowds.

Collateral Damage

But shutting down for at least 21 days would naturally come with its own collateral damage, especially for an economy that is presently buffeted by sanctions, drought and foreign currency shortages.

It is largely feared that some companies once closed would not open their doors to the public again.

However, the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI), a grouping of the country’s major businesses, said the lockdown was about short-term pain for long-term gain.

“A total shutdown will have a huge impact on businesses and their viability,” said CZI president Henry Ruzvidzo.

“A complete lockdown might mean a quick return to normal conditions, whereas the alternative might mean a prolonged period of problems as has been experienced in Europe.

“Recovery for all businesses and for the economy at large will require resources and the goodwill of citizens and the international community,” he said.

Government announced last week that it would galvanise local industry and colleges to produce locally.

Hope

As the death toll continues to rise globally, most countries are increasingly adopting the same measures used by China to contain the virus.

Over the last five days, Chinese health authorities have reported only one new locally transmitted case of Covid-19 – a patient in Guangdong province infected by someone travelling from abroad.

In Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak and the country’s worst-hit area, officials last week reported a fifth day without new cases.

The figures represent a marked drop from just a month ago when recording a daily increase of fewer than 2 000 new infections was a milestone.

Chinese authorities have since begun easing Wuhan’s two-month lockdown, while cities across the country are following orders to “fully restore” production and resume normal life.