By Parkie Mbozi
Eight days ago, precisely on 18 March 2020, the inevitable hit the country: Zambia reported a twin case of the Coronavirus (code-named COVID-19) “pandemic”. On the same day a combined team of ministers, from what are considered most critical and relevant ministries to the pandemic, held a hastily assembled press conference to announce a range of measures to curb the spread of the virus.
Since then a number of people, myself included, have been trying to get their head around the science and logical of some of the measures. There are also concerns about our leaders not demonstrating best practice on ‘social distance’ during one of the press conferences which was beamed live on TV. Before we get into the details of the individual measures, let’s take a quick recap of where the pandemic stands as of today, 23 March 2020.
As of today, the WHO reports 337,500 cases of COVID-19 and around 14,500 deaths globally. The disease has now spread to 160 countries and is now present in all but one continents (Antarctica). Around 97,000+ have recovered from the disease. Science tells us that some individuals contract and recover on their own without showing signs of the disease (asymptomatic). Therefore, the reported recoveries comprise only individuals who had been taken ill. The difference in figures between the infected and deaths represents the individuals who are still bed ridden (about 240,000).
Here in Africa, the number of countries who have recorded the COVID-19 pandemic has risen to 41 from 30 five days. Uganda was the latest country to report a case, a foreign national who had traveled to Europe, a perfect fit for the pattern in Africa. South Africa leads the pack in sub-Saharan (black) Africa with 402 cases but (on a positive note), no deaths. On a worrying note, the cases of local or ‘community’ infections have been on the rise. These comprise individuals without a record of foreign travel.
Only 11 countries are virus free as of today 23 March: Burundi, South Sudan, Malawi, Comoros, Lesotho and Botswana. Others are: Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Libya. Zimbabwe just announced the death of one of their own (a Makamba) who had traveled to the USA.
For those who think this disease is for a certain race or races or class of people (as I have repeatedly heard), think again. No place is fortified. No one is immune. Just as examples, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in self quarantine after a doctor who had just attended to her tested positive; the President of Botwana Mokqweetsi Masisi is also in self quarantine after traveling to Namibia for that country’s independence celebrations; Senator Rand Paul of the USA tested positive yesterday; former President of Real Madrid (for soccer enthusiasts) just died of COVID-19; (black) actor Idris Elba and (just announced) one of Nelson Mandela’s grandsons) both tested positive; former Italian soccer legend Paulo Maldini, former MU player Fellouini and Chelsea (black) player Hudson-Odoi have all tested positive and being treated for the virus. The list goes on.,,,,
The global community is unanimously convinced that our best bet is prevention; not allowing the disease into our communities. On that score allow me to proceed to the concerns of some Zambian citizens, myself included, about some of the measures so far announced by our government. They relate to policy gaps and inconsistencies with science. I will briefly analyse the measures and practices against the international guidelines and best practices.
Social distance: the WHO recommends a distance between individuals (‘social distance’) of one to two metres, minimum of arms’ length. This is not coming out strongly and precisely from the measures announced, for instance, in churches where the emphasis seems to be only on the duration of fellowship. To make matters worse, the leaders have not consistently demonstrated ‘social distance’ during their press conferences. For instance, during the press conference I watched on 18 March the ministers were literally sitting shoulder-to-shoulder, especially as they went to the single available mic one by one. The mic was sandwiched between Dora Siliya and Godfridah Sumaili. Is it a case of “do what I say not what I do”? Surely leaders ought to demonstrate best practices if they want to be believed.
Church hours: on the same day Health Minister Chitalu Chilfya announced that churches should meet for not more than one hour. The logical of the directive is that one hour is not long enough for exchange of the virus. This is against the science, which postulates that the virus can be passed on or acquired within seconds. There is also ambiguity as to size of the crowd that is permissible. In some countries the permissible crowd sizes have been reducing from 100 to 10 and now to two people (e.g. UK, USA, Italy, etc). What is the Zambian position on crowd sizes?
Bar hours: this is perhaps the most confusing of the measures. On 18 March Dr Chilufya announced that bars would be open only for two hours. Later Charles Banda, the local government minister, issued a contradictory instruction and instead said bars would be closing two hours earlier than normal. This implies that it doesn’t matter for how they would be open provided they closed two hours earlier than normal (e.g. 02:00 instead of 04:00; 20:00 instead of 22:00 and so forth). So, this infers that whereas government is concerned about church meeting lasting more than one hour, it is not concerned about bars and bottle stores that would be open from 11:00 (normal time) until about 20:00 instead of 22:00, whatever the case. Not to mention lack of strict guidelines on ‘social distance’ in these ‘watering holes’. As matter of fact churches have taken it upon themselves to introduce their own measures, such as virtual or online services.
Mandatory quarantine: we keep hearing the term mandatory quarantine, yet it is not clear who should undergo this and what it entails. Many countries are now placing people arriving from high peak countries under mandatory quarantine, which is not yet the case here. We still seem to be satisfied with self-isolation. It is also not clear what safety measures obtain for arrivals through road and rail transport.
Testing: first, policy on who should request a test is not clear. Second, science says that in most individuals the symptoms of COVID-19 manifest only after 14 – 21 days. Yet visitors arriving in Zambia are allowed to proceed home instantly after temperature checks at airports. How do we reconcile the science with the practice, especially given that almost every country is now a suspect? Take for instance, while I have been drafting this article South Africa has seen an increase in cases from 274 to 410?
Hand Sanitisers: shop owners have been ordered to place hand sanitisers at the entrances and shoppers wash their hands but only when going in. The logic of the practice is that individuals will leave their infections by the doorway, yet the science says they can pick the virus even from objects and cash notes whilst inside. There is need to clarify whether sanitization at shops apply to both when entering and when leaving the shop.
Market cleaning: while this is a good idea, it is not clear how this relates to the new disease other than cholera for which the nation already dedicated the last Saturday of every month to general cleaning. Or is clearing heaps of garbage synonymous with sanitization of public places as we are seeing in other parts of the world? Similarly, whereas the earlier announcement sounded like a ‘lockdown’ of markets to pave way for cleaning up, Dr Banda later clarified that markets would be open even during the cleaning exercise. This clarification came rather late and some shops remained closed on Saturday 21 March. Let’s be clear what we want: general cleaning or sanitization or both.
Face masks: although government has not announced a particular policy around wearing face masks, it is clear that there are misconceptions about the purpose they serve. It is easy to tell that those wearing them are doing so to protect themselves, yet science says you wear them if you are infected in order to avoid infecting others. What is the logical, for instance, of a person wearing a face mask while driving alone? Government will have to educate the masses.
I will end with a quote from anonymous based in Italy on the consequences of the business-as-usual trajectory. “The big mistake was that at the start of the first hit, people continued to lead their lives. As usual they took to the streets for work, entertainment and feeling like a vacation period. Gathering with friends and banquets abounds”….”About 200 people die here every day, not because medicine in Milan is not good (it is one of the best in the world), but rather because there are no places for everyone!”
We have to decide what we want as a country. What has been proposed thus far is a perfect fit for half measures.
The author is a media and communication researcher and scholar with the University of Zambia. He is reachable on pmbozi5ATyahooDOTcom. The facts and figures in this article were sourced from online and international media sources.