Over 13,000 Zimbabweans who returned home from South Africa over a three-day period raised fears of an acceleration in the spread of coronavirus in the country.
South Africa has become the epicentre of Covid-19 on the continent, with nearly 1,500 cases and five fatalities recorded by Thursday.
Last week, Pretoria ordered a national three-week lockdown to control the spread of the virus and thousands of Zimbabwean economic refugees returned, with at least 13,500 passing through the Beitbridge main border post in three days.
Faced with a collapsed health infrastructure and an acute shortage of testing kits, the govt is afraid of a spike in infections if the returnees do not adhere to self-quarantine regulations.
“We have seen a sudden large influx of returning residents through our Beitbridge border post,” said Health and Child Care minister Obadiah Moyo, adding, “Initially, we were advised that there was a group of 500 nationals returned by the South African government. We recommend that they be put under self-quarantine at designated venues.”
Dr Moyo said the surge in returnees was putting pressure on border officials who have to carry out proper screening for coronavirus.
He said the 13,500 people had been advised to self-quarantine, but experts said this is impossible in a country where urban centres have no running water and citizens have to queue for the basics, which are always in short supply.
However, experts warned that the number of returning residents was just the tip of the iceberg as thousands could have used illegal crossing points because they had no travel documents.
It would also be difficult to enforce self-quarantine measures among undocumented immigrants.
Zimbabwe began its own 21-day lockdown on March 30, and in two days 182 people had been arrested for straying out of their homes to fetch water or to buy food.
The country’s borders are porous, making it a gateway for illegal immigrants from as far north as Somalia and Ethiopia, as they seek economic refuge in South Africa.
There was panic last week after 16 Ethiopians were found hiding in a Zimbabwean village near the South African border after they failed to cross into the neighbouring country before the lockdown. The group has since been put in quarantine for 21 days.
“The Ethiopians are asymptomatic and have been screened and found not to exhibit any symptoms but they are under self-quarantine,” said Rudo Chikodzore, a senior government medical official handling the case, adding, “Health teams will continue to monitor them in case any one of them develops symptoms during self-quarantine. Social distancing and regular hand washing will be ensured at the site.”
Popular broadcaster Zororo Makamba, early last month became the first known Zimbabwean to die from the coronavirus after he returned from a trip to New York.
Cases of coronavirus have increased to eight, but medical experts say the number of people tested so far is too little to gauge the level of infections.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) said the official statistics of people that have tested positive for the disease could be misleading because of the thousands of people that recently entered the country.
An estimated three million Zimbabweans have found economic refuge in South Africa and most of them are illegal immigrants. There are fears that they could become the source of Covid-19 infections in Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) said it was worried about the way health authorities were handling returning residents in light of the outbreak of Covid-19.
“ZADHR calls upon the government to ensure that all returning residents are provided with state- monitored isolation facilities where they are assessed for 14 days,” the doctors said.
“The current approach by the Ministry of Health and Child Care of encouraging self-isolation for returning residents lacks the necessary monitoring procedures and is a potential avenue for Covid-19 importation into the country.
“The state must be proactive in ensuring Covid-19 cases are identified at the ports of entry compared with picking symptomatic patients in the community,” said the doctors.
ZADHR also complained that, “to date, just under 200 tests have been done despite the over 16,032 returnees from countries with confirmed Covid-19 cases.”
The doctors warned that Zimbabwe was not ready to handle a large scale coronavirus outbreak as its hospitals were dilapidated, poorly equipped and had inadequate medical staff.
A fortnight ago, doctors and nurses went on strike to protest the lack of personal protective equipment and poor remuneration.
They said most isolation and treatment centres across the country were in a bad state, lacked intensive care facilities and were not manned by medical personnel with the required experience to handle Covid-19 cases.
The country’s main coronavirus isolation centre, which was closed recently for renovations was to reopen on Saturday after the Chinese business community stepped in to upgrade it following an outcry over its poor state.
The facility now has about five ventilators and can manage critically ill patients, according to Prosper Chonzi, the director of health in Harare.