By Moses Charedzera
Coronavirus is now a reality in Zimbabwe with confirmed cases standing at 9 and one death by the 5th of April 2020. The figures are slowly picking up and the dreaded steep climb may not be far off if available interventions are not explored. While the streets in the CBD of major cities are empty in compliance with a government proclaimed lockdown, a whole lot of people are moving around in the townships, disregarding social distancing and going about as if its business as usual.
There is a class of stubborn Zimbabweans who are not motivated to change behaviour until they start seeing the rows of hundreds of coffins paraded in the worst hit countries in their own neighbourhoods.
The messaging on coronavirus has not been helped either by the mainstream media , which has been submerged and overwhelmed by social media disseminating pseudo-scientific theories of the latitudinalisation of the disease with attendant claims that COVID-19 does not like heat, so tropical areas like the bulk of Africa which have high temperatures are safe from the pandemic. While the progression of the disease in Africa is comparably slower, it is important to note at this stage no scientific study has been undertaken to back up such claims.
Herbs such as garlic and ginger as well as fruits like lemon and orange have come to the fore in fighting the disease. This is explained in terms of a failure by mainstream science to provide an effective cure for the disease.
Medical science which had hitherto captured public trust and confidence that lay beholden to its methods, gadgets and remedies, has failed and people are looking elsewhere for a solution.
The big problem in coronavirus is the sheer numbers that health authorities have to deal with as the disease is highly infectious, thus the unchecked progression of COVID-19 follows an exponential growth on a steeply rising curve that is bound to overwhelm health facilities.
Once a country is on this trajectory, demand for hospital beds, ventilators, drugs, sanitisers, PPE, testing and associated services will shoot up and for countries with limited resources like Zimbabwe, this would impose an enormous strain on the health delivery system, resulting in probably more fatalities than seen in the worst hit countries such as Italy, Spain, France and the US.
While the statistics have been so far encouraging, there is no reason for Zimbabwe to sit on her laurels and use just hope to wish away the spread of the disease.
South Korea offers a solution on how to minimise the impact of coronavirus and the Koreans have done it through a rigorous regimen of testing.
The Asian country has, it may appear, miraculously escaped the steep rise in COVID-19 cases that has seen countries like Italy, Spain, France and the United States bear the brunt of the ravaging disease.
Understanding this approach requires an understanding of the progression of the disease and the expected responses to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Let me take you back in time. Some may remember the cholera outbreak of 2008 which killed over 4000 people in Zimbabwe with the majority of deaths occurring in urban centres. I have not forgotten the visuals of overspill tents erected in places like Glen View to accommodate the cholera patients.
Now with the highly infectious coronavirus the sheer numbers in a full-blown outbreak are staggering. While the death rate is low in coronavirus, generally under 4 percent, the problem is a numbers issue.
Due to a rapidly climbing infection rate,hospitals would be overwhelmed and lack of access to medical service may lead to a spike in fatalities.
In America this has led to the rhetoric of President Donald Trump sounding like that of a leader from a third world country. Trump has accused hospital officials of hoarding and stealing coronavirus supplies while some state governors have countered by saying the equipment for fighting the virus which the President said was available is not there.
At a time when medical scientists are baffled about the disease ( WHO originally said the COVID is not an airborne disease but has since changed this position while some US researchers are positing that the disease is indeed airborne and can be spread by being in the same room with a contaminated person who is not coughing or sneezing) , testing and testing has been the scientifically validated method of mapping the spread, and much more fundamentally, identifying the infected and tracing the contacts they had in order to treat and isolate , thus stemming further spread of the virus.
This is why it is worrying that Zimbabwe has had a very sluggish approach to testing. We have so far tested under 400 cases. By 3 April, the National Microbiology Reference Laboratory had tested 329 cases only according to a Ministry of Health and Child Care update, compared to over 47 000 tests done by South Africa by the same date.
Let’s take the case of South Korea. After experiencing one of the world’s largest initial outbreaks the country has managed to significantly reduce daily new cases without imposing draconian nationwide lockdown measures.
In comparison to Italy, South Korea’s interventions have been nothing short of dramatic. Statistics show that on March 1, Italy had only 1,701 cases and 41 deaths, in comparison to South Korea which had 3,736 cases and 21 deaths, but three weeks later, on March 22, confirmed cases in Italy reached 59,138, with 5,476 deaths, while South Korea’s total caseload had merely doubled to 8,897, with 104 deaths.
While South Korea has managed to flatten its curve, now recording fatalities of under 10 people, Italy is still recording several hundred deaths daily.
The success of South Korea’s approach has been attributed to an early thrust towards mass testing, robust contact tracing, and compulsory quarantine for anyone who has had close contact with an infected person.
In the early stages ,the Zororo Makamba case exposed the lax approach to isolation at a time where there was no pressure of growing cases. He somehow evaded detection at Port Health when coming from the US and went on to ignore advise to self-isolate.
We are at the critical stage between containing and failing to contain coronavirus and if we are to take a leaf from a championship winning soccer team, it is better to put fate in our hands than to have fate put us in its hands, and rigorous testing and contact tracing is the way forward. This is line with a recent pronouncement by WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus who said: “We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test.”