CORONA  – IS POVERTY A VIRUS?
During the coming weeks, or more likely months, who knows, while we anxiously wait for the corona pandemic to blow away with the wind, as silently and unknown as it blew into our unfenced and nicely manicured garden to begin with, I will share with you some impressions and reflections from the countries i feel particularly attached to: Denmark, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Nepal and Bhutan. To make it easy to read, every new article will include all of the previous articles. Enjoy!
SUNDAY 29 MARCH 2020
corona  – IS POVERTY also A VIRUS?
Before flying straight back to Copenhagen from Gaborone in Botswana on Monday 16 March, I spent the weekend communicating to friends in Zimbabwe about my decision not to come to visit them as planned, considering the speed with which the corona virus was now spreading, and how borders were likely to close all over. It was a sad, but necessary, exercise. I had looked forward to meeting all of them again. They were kind enough to tell me that I was doing the right thing. I needed to go home! My family needed me back home! Maybe Zimbabwe would not even allow me to enter when I arrived at the airport! They were not sure if the health system would be able to cope!
Well, this is not entirely true. Most of them pointed out that the health system in Zimbabwe would NOT be able to take care of me in the manner my own country would. Nor take care of others for that matter. Like almost everything else in this beautiful and resource-rich country, things had been spiraling downwards in what could best be characterized as some grotesque form of suicidal dance. Before the November 2017 military-led toppling of President Mugabe, resulting in former Vice-President Mnangagwa assuming the role as President, the deteriorating social conditions could be explained by Mugabe’s rule since Independence in 1980. Following the elections in June 2018, officially resulting in a hair-splittingly narrow victory to Mnangagwa, he has to assume responsibility. After all, he campaigned on a platform of CHANGE, undoing the fall into the abyss that was the combined result of the unfair practices of the Mugabe era. Today many Zimbabweans are poorer than they were in 1980, and certainly poorer than in 1990. Also, health services are in worse shape than in the past.
A few days after my communication to friends in Zimbabwe, I received a message from one of them, describing the health situation in one of the rural districts that I used to work with back in the 90s. For reasons I am sure you will understand, I will not mention the name of the district, nor the source of the information. The following is my summary of the information I received:
Today there is only 1 [one] doctor in the district, covering 300.000 people [my estimate]. There used to be 4 [four] doctors. There are 2 [two] clinics officers. The district has 22 health facilities and 2 hospitals. They face perennial cases of malaria, so malaria is one of the worst enemies in the district. Last year, the district had the highest numbers of maternal mortality, mainly due to inaccessibility of health facilities and also religious beliefs. It also had the highest number of human anthrax cases last year. This is mainly due to animal vaccination issues and also resistance in some communities. Those are the big 3 problems when it comes to diseases.
Staff shortages are serious. There were a lot of nurse transfers last year. The dental unit closed because the technician resigned. The 3 doctors given to the district last year refused to go to the district. Currently there is no local fueling station, so sometimes there is not enough fuel to go around the clinics and even transport patients. Water shortage is serious. The hospital is relying mainly on one bush pump in the hospital (sharing with community) and also an electricity powered borehole in the nutritional garden. The hospital has no solar system to save as backup – it receives power over night mostly, but sometimes it operates for days without. There are two generators, but fuel remains a challenge.
All of this is the work of the poverty virus having ruled the district with determination for decades, supported by the equally determined individuals responsible for the mismanagement of the human and natural resources that do exist. It should therefore not come as a surprise that the communication from the district ends like this:
Regarding the Corona: The hospital has just held a stakeholder sensitisation meeting. The physio department was identified as an isolation ward. But there are no resources at all to manage the cases if they come.
A few days later, another friend alerted me to another illustration of why it could be difficult for Zimbabwe to manage an attack by Corona with the same aggressive approach that we have seen in countries like Italy and Spain. In a disturbing development, Zimbabwean doctors and nurses went on strike on Wednesday in the middle of the pandemic. The doctors and nurses both cited the lack of protective clothing to protect them from the dangers of the coronavirus as their reason for downing tools. The Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association [ZHDA] wrote to the government advising them that they do not have the necessary tools to allow them to work on the frontlines fighting the deadly coronavirus. This is the full letter from the ZHDA to the Clinical Director Chief Executive Officers at Harare Central Hospital:
Dear Sir, pursuant to the meeting we had on Monday 23 March 2020, in which we communicated to you our genuine grievances and expressed our fears concerning this deadly pandemic which has not spared healthcare workers as well. We expected an urgent response in writing from your office which has not come up until now. We have expressed to you the issue of PPE which is still not yet available. The way in which the Hospital is to be functioning still remains vague. Whilst you continue to run around putting things in place, we would like to make it clear in no uncertain terms that our members will not be able to continue carrying out their duties with immediate effect. Any inconvenience caused regarding this position we have taken is sincerely regrettable, but it was necessitated by a communication breakdown between the top management and frontline doctors. Given the urgency of the matter and the need for social distancing, a hardcopy version of the same letter will be hand-delivered when the conditions are permissive. Dr Tawanda Zvakada, ZHDA President.
I know that my Zimbabwean friends would have liked to tell me that I should not worry about coming to Zimbabwe, because I would be safe in case I fell ill. I also know that they will find the strength to manage yet another crisis if it arrives at their doorstep. They have done so on innumerable occasions, like when the combination of poverty, drought and mismanagement sends two-three-four or five million Zimbabweans to survive at the mercy of food aid. Which is what is in fact the case right now. Close to all of the 300.000 people in the district I have told you about depend on food aid right now. How do we expect them to handle the Corona pandemic when it hits them?
THURSDAY 26 MARCH 2020
corona  – blaming the chinese
A few weeks ago, while I was in Botswana, the South Africa media “Daily Maverick”, which daily provides me with most of my information on developments in Africa, featured the cartoon I am using for this corona posting. It is certainly not a nice way of characterizing the President of the United States, and no comparison of him with the virus makes the life-threatening nature of the corona virus go away. Still, in his own unorthodox and shameful way, I also consider him a threat to humanity as I have been brought up to understand it, just like the virus is. I therefore felt that the cartoon was an appropriate way of illustrating the following message.
Some days ago, when watching CNN to get an idea of developments in the US, in particular developments in New York City, where my daughter and her family unfortunately happens to live right now, I heard President Trump blame the Chinese government for the virus now charging forcefully and purposefully forward, as if it [the virus that is] has made up its mind that the United States under Trump’s leadership should be made to pay a prize as high as possible. He repeatedly called it the CHINESE virus, or the WUHAN virus, deliberately pronouncing the words CHINESE and WUHAN very slowly, almost as if he was tasting each word carefully before they left his mouth, keeping them between his lips for as long as he could, before spitting them out into the world, where they would confuse or anger people depending on their inclination. And reminding us, once again, that this President will do anything he can, anywhere and at any time, to ensure that he is not to blame for anything. The others are. Always. Today his target is the CHINESE. Tomorrow it could just as well be the SHITHOLE AFRICANS. Trump himself is, after all, the most stable genius we have on this planet. I just finished reading the book with precisely that title, and apart from being hilarious in the Trump-like way, it is scary. It is really difficult to believe it is true.
Well, this takes me back to my beloved Botswana, today and 15 years ago. Back then, when I worked for the UN, one issue I had to discuss, officially as well as informally, was the rising number of Chinese coming to work and [it turned out] live more permanently in this vast country with a relatively small population. This was part of trade and investment agreements between the two countries, and it was no different from what took place in other African countries. China had been very active in Africa all the way back in the 60s and 70s, with large-scale and very visible infrastructure projects, rail stations, soccer stadiums, and the like. Now China was back with purpose and muscle, and with more people than in the earlier stages. Very much appreciated by those governments caring little about human rights or rights of any kind. But in many countries the Chinese were also seen as being cautious about interacting and integrating with the locals, and they were from time to time considered as a threat to local businesses, not least those in the informal sector. In Botswana there were several skirmishes of a violent nature.
Today, the Chinese are still there, and more dominant than ever according to friends I talked to. Not much had changed in the perception of the locals, who accepted they were there to stay, but did nothing to get in touch with them. However, they do understand the role China is playing for the economy of Botswana, and the government considers China to be a trusted and skillful partner. When President Masisi held a major press conference last week to present the strategy to combat the corona, he was asked which countries had come to the help of Botswana. His answer was quick and clear: “Our friends from China.” Had the same question been asked 15 years ago, when Botswana confronted the HIV/AIDS pandemic, with people literally dying as flies, I am sure the answer had been: “Our friends from United States.” President Bush and Bill Gates visited Botswana to express their willingness to help wage war on the virus.
Leaving Botswana this time around was easy, considering the few passengers on the flight from Gaborone to Johannesburg. A week earlier it had been different. The flight from Johannesburg had been almost full, and it included a large group of, yes, you are right, CHINESE, most likely residents of Botswana for the majority. Since most airplanes flying this route are small, the plane is parked far away from the departure building, and you are put on a bus to reach the plane. The bus was reasonably full, with two thirds being black and one third Chinese, and then the two odd whites of course. Blacks in one end, and Chinese in the other end. There was no conversation taking place, only the eyes secretly eying the others. I was wondering if the blacks knew more than I did, because instinctively my sense was that it would be very unlikely if any of the Chinese came from Wuhan, so why worry. Later, I learned that news media in Botswana printed maps of Africa showing which cities in China were the predominant links into African countries. Although Botswana is green on the map you can see below the text, the anxiety in the bus could be felt physically, almost like the heat is felt during the peak of summer.
SUNDAY 15 MARCH 2020
corona  – under african stars
Our game ranger on the Sunday evening drive has stopped her open seated Land Rover close to the only real tree to be seen for miles. The sun is now set just behind the top of the tree, but half an hour later it has disappeared in a sea of yellow and red and shades of both. The ranger has left the vehicle to see if she can find tracks of a cheetah that has been spotted in the area hours earlier. No tracks! But she is determined to show us something memorable on our last game drive, before we return to Denmark. We explain that just driving through the bush under the star-spotted sky is plenty memorable for us. The silence is devastating, and the smell of dust in our noses and the occasional scent of animals passing by is comforting in a strange way. We tell her that we feel at home, here, under the stars. What more can one wish for, when the world is falling apart?
We had been scrambling frantically for the last couple of days, since Jeppe Kofod, the young Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was now being seriously tested for the first time in the job he had been holding for a little more than six months, on Friday 13 March in a press conference announced the new reality to his fellow citizens:
“If you consider travelling abroad, don’t. If you are already abroad, find a way to get home as quickly as possible.”
It seemed like Friday 6 March, just a week ago and the day we had left Copenhagen on a tour to Botswana [both of us] and Zimbabwe [only me], was years ago. Botswana was our home for three years in 2003-2005, and we had not met the people on our list of visits for 15 years. We had been looking forward to these meetings, wondering what turns and twists their lives had taken, how their children were doing, and through them get a sense of how the country was faring. Zimbabwe was an even older friend than Botswana, since we lived there in the early 90s, but we had visited more recently, and this time it was only me going, to visit a few places I needed to see, touch and smell to be able to finish my book project. We had followed the corona experience of China, and we had read about Danes being infected in ski resorts in Northern Italy. So yes, we knew of course that the virus was out there, somewhere and somehow. We never seriously considered cancelling the trip. We also did not have the sense that this was what the Danish authorities would want us to do. But at the end of the week, we knew that our world had changed as well.
During the first days in Botswana, we greeted friends as we had always done, energetically hugging, holding hands, laughing face to face at stories about the good old days. Mid-week the news about what might in the worst-case scenario also happen in Botswana started running through the streets of Gaborone, as quickly as the virus did elsewhere in the world. Hugging was replaced by elbow touching and feet kicking. When we arrived at the game lodge on the other side of the border, in South Africa, on Saturday 14 March, we had our temperature taken at the border and were met with a precautionary distance by the hosts at the lodge. All guests were careful.
Theoretically, we might have been able to change our tickets or buy new ones right after we had heard from the Minister of Foreign Affairs on Friday 13. However [as we would learn the hard way], with South African Airlines on the brink of bankruptcy, cancelling several departures from Gaborone every day, it was difficult to figure out how to get connected with international flights out of Johannesburg. It did not help that we were unable to get through to any relevant office, probably because we were not the only ones scrambling to get tickets changed. The SAA office practice of opening later and closing earlier than announced was not helpful either.
At the end of Friday evening we gave up on having my ticket changed – from leaving for Harare and stay in Zimbabwe all of March, to returning to Denmark with Anne right away. We bought a new ticket, the last one on offer on the same flight. Considering how the world was now behaving, we felt it would be nice and safe to travel home together. Then we would have to deal with the bureaucratic challenges of getting a refund later, safely cooped up in our apartment.
An hour after our stop at the tree to look for the cheetah, our ranger stopped the Land Rover and cut the engine, then turning around to whisper that we were now number two in the row of cars waiting to observe a group of three lions, two males and one female. And she added: “Don’t speak too loudly! No sudden movements! Do not stand up in the vehicle! This may be a ‘civilized’ game park, but the animals are wild.” A little later she started the car and drove into the lions ‘den’, parking very close to the biggest male, who was in the process of devouring a large impala. He clearly had a look of contentment on his face. A short distance away, the female was resting peacefully on her side, looking tired from the hunt, but she finally rose and stretched her slim body before lying down again. The other male followed the eating feast of the older male with measured interest, not too much, but enough to indicate his right to a piece of the kill. Suddenly he rose and roared, showing his teeth, and in what seemed like no more than a fraction of a second, he had secured the hind legs of the impala and started his own feast close by.
Little did we know that night what our country would look like, when we returned 48 hours later. But we were grateful that our aborted trip to our beloved Africa, and Southern Africa in particular, had ended like this. With yet another strangely calming understanding of the basics of life.