The covid is back – this time it’s for real

7 01 2021

Phil is a big man, in all senses of the word. He farms chickens just up the road from my work and pops in regularly to buy seedlings for his veggie garden. I’ve never seen him in anything but a buoyant mood. He was slightly less so on Tuesday morning as the conversation veered to the current resurgence of the covid-19 in Zimbabwe and the newly enforced lock-down.

Zimbabwean ingenuity (or rule flaunting) at work. Petrol being offloaded at as small local filling station, sans safety procedures. The regular fuel tanker had broken down so they “made a plan” Zimbabwe style. The box in the foreground is an old petrol pump, pumping out of the bowser, stripped of its calibration equipment and metering. This to me epitomises the Zimbabwean attitude to rules.

“My father-in-law is in a bad way with covid” he said. “He’s got a heart condition that needs treating in South Africa but travel is out of the question now. I’ve managed to find 20kg of oxygen that should last 5 days or so but basically he’s waiting to die at home. He is 80” he added with a shrug.

In the first wave of covid Zimbabwe emerged mostly unscathed. The truth was that testing was sparse and deaths from the disease largely unreported but I couldn’t find anyone who knew anyone who’d died from the disease or contracted it. Conversations with my staff about 6 weeks ago yielded a complete blank. People were blasé – masks were badly worn if at all, social distancing was ignored, the curfew disdained. The government followed the South African lead almost to the letter and after three programmes of progressively more relaxed restrictions allowed life to return to near normality. We thought we were out of the woods or at least could see the beginning of the treeline. We were wrong.

Towards the end of December last year the indicators started to creep up. I don’t follow the local news and anyway, as I said earlier, testing is sparse, but reports of clinics and hospitals filling up with covid patients emerged on the social media. We ignored it and had a few guests around on New Year’s Day. We relaxed – the tier lock-down system in the UK that my brother and cousin were having to endure seemed very far away. It was a nice sunny day.

On Sunday afternoon the government Minister of Health (who is a former army general and not noted for his rationality) released a statement saying that as of Tuesday 5th January we were back into a 30 day lock-down. All non-essential businesses were to close and others to stay open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. (agriculture was to continue as usual so my business is unaffected). Monday was a frenzy of shopping to make sure we had enough fertilizer and chemicals to at least last the next 30 days. A borehole switch control box had been hit by a power surge and needed replacing. It was easily replaced but expensive at US$280. Fortunately there was no damage to the motor.

The first day of the lock-down seemed like business as usual. There were just as many vehicles on the road, just as many people not wearing masks at all (or badly), the tyre shop at the local service station was open as was the taco trailer in the forecourt. The hardware supermarket across the road was closed in the morning and open in the afternoon. Soldiers at the local barracks were slashing grass outside with masks around their chins. Zak, my Rhodesian Ridgeback dog, needed to go to the vet around 10 a.m. Traffic was not light and the vet practice was busy. He’d had a bit of a cough and we were worried that his bone cancer had moved to his lungs as it can do. The X-rays were clear and we kept our social distance. Ant, the vet, snapped his mask on and off his mouth several times and said “I struggle to breath through this thing” but left it in place.

Yesterday I read my staff the riot act. Keenly aware that a similar lecture back in April had in time rung hollow, this time around I could say I knew someone (almost true) who was dying of covid, citing Phil’s father-in-law. They were suitably sombre. I emphasized that if anyone got the disease medical help would not be at hand. Government hospitals are under equipped and under staffed and nurses are recruited voluntarily to nurse patients. They are not forming queues. Private hospitals are full and beyond the pocket of the majority of Zimbabweans. Media reports tell of people with good financial resources who cannot find oxygen for any sum of money. This time the threat is real.

Arriving home for lunch yesterday Marianne told me that one of our guests on New Year’s Day had tested positive for the covid virus. A bit of basic maths and internet research (Harvard Medical School website) indicated that she’d likely been infectious on the day. I’d had no contact with her but Marianne had. A phone call to our doctor and we are now on Ivermectin, vitamin C, vitamin D and zinc and are under instruction to self- isolate. Ivermectin use as an anti-viral is controversial but it’s regarded as a very safe medication and our doctor who is self-isolating as a result of one of her domestic staff developing covid is also taking it.

At the moment we are both fine and whilst Marianne works from home I am house-bound and writing a blog post though I have plenty of other projects to fill the time for the next week (the control box for the borehole motor is already fixed). Vaccination is a non- starter, not because I don’t want it (I do) but because Zimbabwe is utterly broke and the corrupt politicians who rule are far more interested in plundering the state coffers than running the country – they no doubt are hoping for a donation of vaccines so that they can continue looting. It looks like the way to herd immunity will be the natural route with lots of casualties along the way.

Phil, the chicken farmer, claims to have had covid. Some 6 months ago he told me that he’d just finished a lock-down as both he and his wife had contracted the virus. It transpired that actually his wife had submitted a test and received a positive result, Phil had declined to spend the US$65 and just assumed that feeling lousy for 4 days was the result of the disease. I’ve never seen him wear a mask since. He claims “I’m cured”. I keep my distance from him.





Where is the covid-19?

14 04 2020

The message is clear

Officially there have been 3 deaths due to the covid-19 (the causative virus is called SARS-COV-2) in Zimbabwe. Nobody really believes that – testing is sketchy at best but the point remains; the deluge has not arrived and nobody really knows why.

South Africa has a much more robust medical service than Zimbabwe and it’s top medics are also puzzled by the lack of a tsunami of covid-19. Their containment policy has been much more rigorously applied than Zimbabwe’s and testing has been widespread. Nobody is prepared to say that this has worked just yet, and planning for widespread infection goes on regardless.

Meanwhile in Zimbabwe we are taking precautions on a number of levels. I don’t do the shopping even when it’s not restricted but Marianne tells me that all the shops she goes to, which is just the food markets and pharmacists, have hand sterilizer for customers and it’s not always optional to use it. At the doctors’ practice I use it’s prominently displayed (picture above) and although its use wasn’t being enforced I’m pretty sure that someone would have called me out if I’d avoided it. It’s a sensible precaution along with the advice to social distance.

Having left the doctor with a script for my asthma control I went to a local pharmacy. On the way I passed by a noisy crowd outside the side entrance of a local supermarket. They were queuing for mealie meal (maize meal), the local staple food. It was a scrum of pushing and shoving – social distancing was the last thing on a hungry person’s mind!

There’s much we don’t know about this virus. The mode of transmission is assumed to be mainly by droplets and aerosols from infected people coughing or sneezing and to a lesser extent contact with contaminated surfaces. We don’t know if it will follow the seasonal pattern of the common ‘flu – there are indications from outbreaks in the southern hemisphere which is now coming out of summer that it won’t be.  This could be bad news for Zimbabwe or good news. We are just going into our winter which is characteristically cool and dry. We tend to be an outdoor economy and work in well-ventilated office spaces as there is no real need for heating or cooling, so virus transmission by aerosols is likely to be low. Indeed a study in the online journal PLoSCurrents indicates that influenza in the tropics is much more sporadic (not seasonal) in nature and the most usual mode of transmission is by contact not aerosols which are sensitive to temperature and humidity. Not good news for Zimbabweans for whom social distancing is an alien concept.

“There really is nothing else that can prevent this virus from spreading in the population outside of public health interventions like social distancing. It’s the lack of immunity in the population that is making people so susceptible.” (Andrew Pekosz, Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at Johns Hopkins University, USA.)

There is of course the possibility that the lock-down has been effective in preventing the covid-19 from really getting going. I don’t think that really is the case. While the roads are relatively quiet they are not as quiet as in South Africa – I have yet to encounter a road block. A friend in the USA who’s daughter is a doctor working in Liberia has commented that they covid-19 hasn’t really taken hold there either. Whatever the cause I see a real issue here if it doesn’t take hold like expected; the general population will become contemptuous of the warnings and let down their already low guard for the next time.

“Public health measures can only succeed if there is a high degree of social solidarity, which requires trust in public health agencies and their leaders.” (Mark A. Rothstein is the Herbert F. Boehl Chair of Law and Medicine and Director of the Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law at the University of Louisville School of Medicine and a Hastings Center Fellow.)

And there will be a next time. It could take the form of another novel virus or a resurgence of the covid-19. The virus that caused the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed around 17 – 50  million people took 3 years to abate, so we should expect the covid-19 to be around for some time and a possible resurgence in the northern hemisphere winter is a real possibility. There’s also a possibility of a resurgence at the end of lock-down – a problem that South Korea may already be experiencing.

The tuberculosis vaccine, BCG, is mandatory for children in Zimbabwe and other African countries. There has been speculation that it could explain apparent anomalies in the spread of the covid-19 as it may confer resistance to other viruses. My friends in the medical profession are sceptical that it will be of much use to my generation as the vaccine is thought to be effective for a maximum of 20 years though that is hugely variable depending on, among other things, geographical location.  Trials are underway though it will be several months before the results emerge.

World UV intensity map

We have plenty of sunshine in Zimbabwe and are heading into the sunniest time of year; winter. It’s long been known that patients exposed to sunshine and fresh air recover quicker. UV light, which is also in abundance here due to our altitude and latitude, is an important sterilant and vitamin D generator which is also important for the immune system.  This all sounds like we should have an easier time of the pandemic, should it arrive, though I think this is far from a certainty. I am not taking chances and as an asthma sufferer I am high risk so will continue to take my medication. And wait.





The spiders are just fine – thanks

1 04 2020

The spiders are thriving – not a great photo though

The spiders are thriving in the nursery. It’s a long time since I’ve seen that many that fat. Well, I should qualify that last statement; the females are that fat, the males are as skinny as usual – probably all that escaping being eaten by the females that keeps them slender.

I am genuinely pleased to see all these spiders. It means there’s plenty for them to eat and that means our policy of using softer chemicals in the nursery is working. There have  been years in the past when the spiders never appeared (they are common golden orb spiders and harmless) which I put down to poor rains and a lack of prey. Curiously our rains have again been poor but the spiders haven’t noticed that, yet. Maybe there’s a lag phase but we’ll have to wait for this time next year to find that one out.

We are also going to have to wait a while to see how the covid-19 virus impacts us as a nation. Officially we are on a 21 day shutdown to reduce the transmission rate. It’s not likely to be that effective. On my way to work I didn’t notice much evidence of reduced activity and no police road blocks enforcing travel restrictions. It’s not a busy route at the best of times but there was still a long queue at the filling station and the usual amount of traffic up the short 4 km road past the rubbish tip which was quiet but still accepting waste removal vehicles. I was traveling legally as we are considered an essential enterprise and I needed to check up on our skeleton staff who are keeping the plants alive whilst there are no customers around.

The government did come up with a comprehensive legal document to enforce the lock-down remarkably quickly – I suspect it was largely copied from the South Africans who are enforcing their own lock-down. There’s nothing wrong with that and we do share the same type of law. Their other responses have been less well thought out.

The Zimbabwe public healthcare system is in a mess (see previous post A state of health ) with 7 known ventilators available to treat a population of some 11 million. So far as we know there’s been one fatality due to covid-19, a high profile local radio/TV presenter from a wealthy family. Relatively young at 30, Zororo Makamba was admitted to the local Wilkins infectious diseases hospital where facilities proved woefully inadequate. By the time the family had sourced their own ventilator from South Africa it was too late. Apparently he had contracted the virus on a recent trip to the USA and also had underlying health issues.

Testing kits are also inadequate. As of writing there have been 165 tests performed which accounts for the low apparent infection rate; just 5 positive so far. Strive Masiyiwa, local media mogul and sometime philanthropist, apparently took out newspaper adverts saying that his company would buy or lease ventilators from people who might have them on hand. Right, let me just go and dust off the one in the garden shed that I bought some years ago and stored for just this scenario.

While the direct health impact is still some time away the financial impact has already hit. Flower exporters have had to dump tonnes of flowers that cannot be exported due to airline shutdowns and are unlikely to be sold even if they could get them to Europe. Local vendors who rely on daily sales of produce have also been shut down. They must already be feeling hungry. We’ve had a large order of avocado trees cancelled, no doubt because the customer, who sells other fresh produce, cannot move the stock they have and cannot pay for the order. The financial cost to the country is going to be staggering. That the economy is already staggering under a burden of government incompetence and corruption will make it all the more difficult to endure.

The governor of a province to the north-west of Harare has taken matters into her own hands and is at least preparing in a way for the virus crisis. She sent out an email to local farmers for any medical supplies that included, among other things, boots, gloves, masks, body bags and quick lime. Why farmers would have body bags I cannot imagine or why they would feel any need to donate anything to a government that has done nothing to make their lives easier astounds me. I know this because a friend who farms in the area has become a de facto information hub and I’m on his emailing list. He’s also had a torrid time trying to stay on his farm and be productive whilst various fat cats try to evict him under the aegis of the previous government’s land reform programme.

While the covid-19 storm gathers the government has take the opportunity to ditch the ill fated Zimbabwe dollar. We can now legally trade in any currency we like (usually US dollars), again. The reason they gave was to mitigate the effect of the covid-19 on the economy. I think it was convenient to ditch the non-performing currency before it’s devaluation became, once again, a world recognised standard. They have stipulated that the exchange rate is fixed at 25 local dollars to the US but nobody is taking much notice of that when the parallel rate is 43:1.

On driving out of the nursery to come home I had to wait for a minibus to pass. It wasn’t supposed to be on the road during the lock-down,  that privilege belongs to the government owned ZUPCO buses which are apparently enforcing stricter hygiene standards.  I’m not sure what these standards are – it certainly won’t include social distancing given the seating arrangement. The seating philosophy on that minibus and others is pack them in, as many as possible. This has meant that I’ve decided to reduce work hours so that the majority of the labour who live within walking distance can avoid this virus highway and walk or cycle. It also means that they don’t get the transport allowance but hopefully we can do a bit to reduce the disease impact on my business.

Will we make it through the coming storm? I think so, we are semi-essential as witnessed by the rush on vegetable seedlings in the days prior to commencement of the lock-down. It is uncharted territory for us. The spiders of course will come and go as spiders do, influenced by the weather and factors other than covid-19. But for the moment they are doing just fine, thanks.