Progress against virus brings complacency in parts of Africa

FARAI MUTSAKA
·4-min read

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — With Zimbabwe’s coronavirus infections on the decline, schools are reopening, along with churches, bars, restaurants, airports and tourist attractions. Strict lockdowns designed to curb the disease are being replaced by a return to relatively normal life.

The threat has eased so much that many people see no need to be cautious. With his face mask stuffed into his pocket, Omega Chibanda said he’s not worried about COVID-19.

“We used to fear coronavirus, not anymore," the 16-year-old said in the crowded Chitungwiza town on the outskirts of the capital, Harare. "That’s why I'm not even wearing a mask.”

As the global death toll from COVID-19 approaches 1 million, Zimbabwe and several other African countries have not experienced the widespread surges and many deaths that were predicted. That has invited complacency.

“It’s all relaxed now,” Chibanda said.

Earlier this month, Zimbabwe went a week without recording any deaths from coronavirus, and new infections and deaths have declined, as in South Africa and Kenya.

Africa’s surge has been leveling off, with its 1.4 million confirmed cases increasing relatively slowly. Antibody testing is expected to show many more infections, but most cases are asymptomatic. Just over 35,000 deaths have been confirmed on the continent of 1.3 billion people.

But the improving figures and the start of the searing heat of the Southern Hemisphere's summer could undermine efforts to beat back the virus even further, said community health worker Rosemary Rambire.

She leaves home early in the morning and returns in the evening after going door to door calling “the gospel is here” and gathering families for quick awareness sessions.

“Our job is now harder to do because people are no longer afraid," Rambire said. “Some even tell us that it has not killed anyone they know. Most of them say the sun kills COVID-19 so they have no reason to worry.”

Some think they are immune once they eat garlic, ginger and onions, she said.

In her 14 years on the job and through multiple disease outbreaks, COVID-19 has been the most difficult to get people to take preventive measures, she said.

“It’s different from before, when we did campaigns on cholera (and) HIV. We could tell that people were afraid. They tried to follow preventive measures," she said. “With COVID-19, they are not afraid.”

Many people look at the infection and death figures in Zimbabwe, compare them with other countries "and conclude that it only affects other countries and not Zimbabwe,” Rambire added.

In Chitungwiza, a sprawling working-class center on the southern edge of Harare, people no longer wear masks at markets, funerals or other public events. Masks are now the exception in many of Harare's poor residential areas.

“We have lost both the initial COVID-19 fear factor and the motivation to comply with national guidelines,” said Aaron Sundsmo, of the charitable organization Mercy Corps. The group has now enlisted local soccer, music and film celebrities to renew awareness.

The government will “not hesitate to do something really strict” to curb any creeping complacency, said Dr. Agnes Mahomva, the chief COVID-19 response coordinator in Zimbabwe.

"The dire projections that ‘Africa, you are going to be toast,’ perhaps actually helped us. We tightened up,” she said.

Continued vigilance should accompany Africa's apparent success story, said Mervyn Joullie, deputy regional director for Africa at Mercy Corps, which operates in 16 of Africa’s 54 countries.

Limited testing in many African countries makes it difficult to assess “the reality of COVID-19 situation,” Joullie said.

In West Africa's Sahel region, for example, positive cases of COVID-19 have declined over the past several weeks amid low testing capacity, which could suggest "a significant presence of undetected cases,” Joullie said.

Health experts point to Africa’s youthful population as a factor in why COVID-19 has not taken a larger toll, along with swift lockdowns and the later arrival of the virus.

Many African countries have eased the lockdowns and curfews in recent weeks to boost economies battered by the virus outbreak and, in some cases, ease local political pressure.

Balancing concerns about unemployment, security and access to food, as well as the complacency and the need to keep infections low could be Africa’s next big challenge, experts said.

“We are at a crossroads as we relax some of the restrictions," said Dr. Mahomva, Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 response coordinator. "It’s not over until it’s over.”

But for Chibanda, the teenager in Chitungwiza, there is no such dilemma.

“Coronavirus is not an issue anymore here,” he said, pointing to people walking on the street without masks. “Just look around.”

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