Spring

11 10 2020

Normally I find going out to Mazowe to get import permits a bit of a chore but not this time. I guess I was just too pleased to get out of Harare and it’s farcical Covid lock-down. I took my time on the 20 minute drive to watch the countryside go by.

It’s desperately dry at this time of year despite being spring. The musasa tree (Brachystegia speciformis) colours were finished, they are spectacular for just a few weeks, and there was little evidence of the fire devastation normally found across the sub-region at this time of year. The image shown below indicates that other countries are ablaze as usual (that’s Zimbabwe in the middle of the image).

Sizeable fires in the sub-region (CSIR AFIS website)

The image comes off the AFIS website and is worth a look as it covers most of the world and offers fire prediction services.

The Plant Protection Research Institute in the Mazowe valley was quiet and had all the usual Covid screening processes in place. The trees in the car-park were in full bloom and were in a frenzy of bird activity.

Schotia brachypetala flowers. Everything loves them!

A member of staff helpfully identified the tree as a member of the Schotia genus (I found out later it was brachypetala species) which is indigenous so I stopped to have a look at the birds. There were at least 3 species of sunbird (nectar feeders) including the scarlet chested sunbird, the amethyst sunbird and the miombo double-collared sunbird and several other species I couldn’t identify. They were having a great old time with not a small bit of squabbling. The flowers were thick with bees and other nectar feeding insects too – not surprising as very little else around was in flower.

Having handed in my application for cotton seed importation from Israel (for a colleague who has business interests in the crop) I set about collecting a few seeds scattered around on the pavement. The gate guard soon came over to see what I was doing and offered to help. Curiously, the trees were in full bloom and producing seed from the previous season at the same time. The seeds have a fleshy aril (not shown) which is attractive to birds and the flowers are also eaten by monkeys. We live in a garden that has space for a few more trees so hopefully I’ll be around to see the tree seed grow out and form attractive flowering trees – apparently they grow quite quickly.

Schotia brachypetala trees in bloom

The gate guard waved a cheery goodbye with her covid mask around her chin. The indifferent police at the roadblock on the edge of Harare were similarly nonchalant – masks in various states of misalignment – along with most Zimbabweans who have shown scant regard for social distancing and frequently don’t wear masks at all. As of writing this Covid-19 has brushed us only lightly and has all but disappeared from the local news. As of 7th October there were officially 229 Covid-19 deaths. Given the disastrous state of the country’s medical health system this is almost certainly a low figure.

Earlier this week I drove past St Anne’s Hospital which was converted at not inconsiderable expense to a Covid-19 specialty hospital. There were all of 4 cars in the car park in the doctors only area and none in the visitors’ area. I’ve heard, unreliably, that there have been all of 7 cases that have gone through the hospital.

I covered possible reasons why the covid-19 impact might not be heavy in Where’s the Covid-19? post. Which aspect, if any, of this prediction might be true I’m not prepared to speculate but in the light of the lack of cases even the government has decided to relax travel restrictions.

It’s not officially over but…

Goodness knows the tourist industry needs all the help it can get but for many businesses it will be too late and I suspect only the most adventurous foreign tourists will travel in the absence of a proven vaccine.

The Zimbabwean economy still faces many challenges independent of a virus pandemic. It is almost entirely self-inflicted. The central bank and the Finance Minister are still trying to manipulate the laws of economics (and by extension mathematics) by controlling the exchange rate of the local dollar with the US dollar. Officially it’s around 81 of the local to 1 US$. Few if anyone is actually using that. It’s possible in theory to buy the hard currency on a government-controlled fortnightly auction (the rate is fixed) but actually getting the greenbacks is a challenge. The company my bookkeeper works for successfully bid for a tranche of US dollars but so far nothing has materialised.

It is perfectly legal to trade in US dollars or Zimbabwean dollars. The foreign ones are well circulated to the extent that they wouldn’t be acceptable in a first world country. However I’m occasionally surprised by the appearance of brand new, sequentially numbered notes.

The real stuff and new to boot!

Small denominations are, not surprisingly, difficult to find to the extent that businesses may ask one to pay the smaller amounts in local currency as they don’t have change.

The jacaranda trees that are ubiquitous in Harare are in full flower right now. They are showy, the bees love them and they care not a whit for Zimbabwe’s economy.

Jacaranda mimosifolia in full bloom

While I do have a preference for indigenous trees I don’t mind the jacaranda. It’s useful to the bees producing a mild, pale honey and is fantastic wood to work with if a bit dull. The flowers don’t do well in the rains and the roads become a carpet of mauve flowers that pop under the car wheels.

There’s rain around at the moment. It’s a bit early for the real season which starts mid November (usually) but it’s still welcome even if the early storms tend to be violent often with hail. So far it’s done a fair job of missing us.

The season ahead is looking promising.

https://iri.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/figure1.png
ENSO – el Niño Southern Oscillation (Columbia University)

If the la Niña forecast comes to be, as is indicated above, we stand a good chance of better than average rainfall over the next 5 months. Goodness knows we need it but it’s never as simple as the charts make out. More than a few times over the past 20 years that I’ve had my nursery business it’s been a disappointment. It doesn’t make that much difference to my business – commercial horticulture in this part of the world is dependent on a good irrigation system for success. Still, we’d like to have a good season to replenish our borehole in the garden. The rain gauge is out on its stand already – here’s hoping.

(el Niño conditions are indicated by warm currents off the coast of the Galapagos Islands (eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean) and commonly cause drought in this part of the world. La Niña conditions are the opposite and indicate wetter than usual conditions – see What is el Niño?)





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.

 





A state of health

16 03 2020

Lots of hardware holding my neck together

This is my neck. It doesn’t look pretty but with this amount of hardware holding it together it’s pretty strong. Quite how it got to be such a mess is a long and convoluted saga but it’s worth telling if only to warn just how badly wrong surgery can go.

In 1977, just before I was to start my compulsory military service, I went on holiday to South Africa with my sister and friend of hers and the friend’s brother. We met up in Pietermaritzburg where my sister was at university and made our way to the east coast of South Africa to a small town called Uvongo. We found the campsite and quickly pitched camp. I made my way to the beach whilst the others went shopping.

The surf on the South African coast can be big as there are no reefs offshore so it helps to be surf-wise. The tide was out and the body-surfers were making their way out to the bigger waves, diving under the breaking waves and surfacing once they’d passed.

A wave broke and tumbled towards me, I dived as stylishly as I could straight into the sand. My head hit the sand, swiveled to the left and bent backwards and I became a quadriplegic. Coughing seawater I somehow got my head back to the surface and legs and arms started to move again. I staggered a few steps then stumbled back to the shore.

That afternoon I went to see a local doctor. He was in an old cottage in a quiet part of the town and was totally bored. I explained what had happened.

“Squeeze my hands” he told me.

I did.

“Here’s a prescription for some pills that should ease the discomfort in your right shoulder”.

“So I’ve pinched some nerves in my neck?” I asked.

“Yes, something like that” came the reply.

And that was it.

20 years later and whiplashes to the neck in a military parachuting jump, a car accident and a mountain bike accident, I was in trouble. I’d had crippling migraines since leaving university. Now I had electrical like nerve pain in my shoulders to boot. It was time to see a neurosurgeon.

The same surgeon who’d fixed my spine after gunshot injury sustained during military service way back in 1979 put the MRI film of my neck up onto the light box. He’d done a good job then so I had a lot of faith in him.

“That’s giving you headaches” he said, pointing to a very distinct constriction in the spinal cord channel. Even to my untrained eye it didn’t look good.

I mentioned that on a recent trip to Cape Town a local neurosurgeon had fitted me in for a quick consult. He’d said that on the strength of the X-rays that I probably needed surgery although a MRI would be necessary to confirm it (I didn’t have the time for a MRI).

“Why didn’t you get it done in Cape Town?” the Zimbabwean surgeon asked.

“He only fitted me in as a favour” I replied.

I only realised years later that the Zimbabwean didn’t want to do the surgery. By the time the surgery was done some months later I’d discovered the surgeon was 74, certainly not in his prime but he assured me that it was routine. When I walked out of the hospital after 6 days I was convinced the problem was fixed.

After 3 months I had a final consult and all the adverse symptoms were gone.

“Thank goodness” the surgeon said with relief, “I don’t need to see you again”.

We discussed other things for a short while and I went on my way. No follow-up X-ray was mentioned.

By the end of 2009 I was dropping things and my left shoulder had become very weak. I was advised to go to Johannesburg in South Africa. I duly sent a stack of MRIs to the recommended surgeon and the reply was; “You need surgery!”.

Early 2010 found me in Milpark Hospital in central Jo’burg.

“These MRIs are terrible” the surgeon commented. “Do you mind if we do them again?”.

I was not surprised. The machine in Harare was old and the collar for the neck MRI was broken. A plan had to be made Zimbabwe style and the results were indistinct. So I agreed. Fortunately it was covered by my medical insurance.

The next day I was being prepped for sugery when the surgeon came past.

“Those MRIs, it’s a good thing we redid them”

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because it’s worse than I thought – it means we are doing the right thing!” came the response.

After 5 hours of surgery I woke up in agony. It went from bad to worse after that.

On the 4th night I woke up in the early hours and couldn’t get my right arm off the bed. My left arm was slightly better and I could just reach the handle on the chain over my bed. The nursing staff were puzzled and insisted it could not be swelling on the operation site as that only happened up to the third night. The surgeon was concerned and redid all the MRIs. He told me that he didn’t see anything he wasn’t expecting to see though the report that got back to the referring doctor in Zimbabwe clearly stated there was swelling, and pressure on the spinal cord, at the operation site. Evidently my body hadn’t read the text books.

The pain eventually subsided but I never got the full function back to my right arm and hand and now have had to become left-handed (with limited success). Weakness to my left shoulder resulted in surgery to it to decompress a pinched ligament but that was not wholly successful and I’ve had to give up swimming as a result.

In early 2014 I was in trouble yet again – falling over my own feet and eventually had to admit I needed two walking sticks instead of the one I’d used for the past 35 years. My GP referred me to Dr. V. He put the images up on the light box and could hardly contain his excitement (beware of surgeons who sense a challenge – they love challenges).

New MRIs were ordered and the news, once again, was bad.

“You need to make a decision soon. This degeneration is moving quickly” Dr. V. cautioned. Unfortunately I’d already booked to go to a bucket list event; a World Horticultural Congress in Brisbane Australia. By the time I got back I was in further trouble so hurried up and booked the surgery.

“This is to stop the rot” Dr. V. said from behind his surgical mask as I was wheeled into the operating theatre. “Anything else you get back will be a bonus”. The procedure went well with no complications and the rot was stopped but there were no bonuses. Dr. V. had been as good as his word.

Recently I went back to Dr. V. for a checkup on the neck and to asses a potential problem with my lower back which is starting to show signs of degradation below the original war injury that I sustained in the Rhodesian military in 1979 (this is accounted in https://gonexc.com/reflections-on-the-first-half-abridged-and-mostly-expurgated/). It was well treated by the standards of the day but now if you look at the X-ray on the left it’s possible to see where one disc has collapsed below the L4 vertebra and I felt that my gait and balance had suffered as a result. Dr. V. wasn’t so sure and sent me off to see a neurologist for nerve function testing.

My lower back. Look for the collapsed disc between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae from the bottom.

I got chatting to the technician who did the actual tests and discovered that he’d tested my hands back in 2009 in the big government run Parirenyatwa hospital. I was curious to know if it was still running as it had closed in 2019 when all the junior doctors had gone on strike over pay so low that they could not afford to feed themselves and get to work. When the government had stone-walled the doctors the senior doctors had also gone on strike in support and they were fired too. A wealthy entrepreneur had offered to pay the junior doctors a useful wage but they replied that even if they could get to work there was nothing in the hospitals to work with – no bandages, syringes, gloves, medication etc.

“The junior doctors were reinstated – well those that hadn’t emigrated were – but the senior doctors weren’t and now there is no-one to run the departments” said the technician. So the hospital remains dysfunctional. Which applies to many hospitals around the country.

Fortunately for me I can afford the local private healthcare system which is adequate for most things. For the more technical I have an offshore policy that I have used in South Africa. The vast majority of Zimbabweans have no health cover at all and no way to pay for any.

I have been out of Zimbabwe for 10 days now, staying in the USA where my sister is very ill. In that time the unofficial exchange rate for the Zimbabwe dollar to the US dollar has plunged from 30:1 to 40:1. Nobody except the banks and government use the official rate (called the interbank rate) at 18:1. It is illegal to use anything but the interbank rate but even a fuel station chain, part owned by the government, is now openly charging US dollars for fuel. Just before I left Zimbabwe I was in a big hardware store in the industrial sites of Harare buying electrical cable for a borehole pump. The customer next to me asked if he could pay for a car battery in US dollars. The till operator nodded and printed out the relevant invoice. At the end of the counter the man operating the in-store bureau de change was asleep. The electronic notice board for the exchange rates on offer indicated the official interbank rates. Nobody was interested as the store was offering the black market rate. Yet the central Reserve Bank and the finance minister continue to trumpet that the economy is on course to de-dollarize i.e. go back to the Zimbabwe dollar.

I read somewhere that the death toll from the economic impact of the current COVID-19 coronavirus is likely to be higher than the direct death toll from the virus itself. Given the disastrous state of the government health system this is difficult to imagine. Large swaths of the population are malnourished and undernourished. Many are immune compromised with HIV and its effects. Should the virus get to Zimbabwe in any substantial force the impact is going to be massive because those most at risk are the old, infirm, malnourished and immune compromised. It won’t be pretty.