CORONA [10] – WILL ZIMBABWE COLLAPSE?

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. 

 

Photo from “Daily News”.

SATURDAY 2 MAY 2020

CORORNA [10] – WILL ZIMBABWE COLLAPSE?

A few days ago, I received a copy of a letter in my inbox, sent on 2 April 2020 from the Minister of Finance and Economic Development of Zimbabwe, Prof. M. Ncube, to the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund. I had not asked the Minister for a copy of his letter. It was sent to me from friends in Zimbabwe. They mentioned that the letter had also been sent to the World Bank and the African Development Bank. They thought it was interesting.

Having read the letter, I understand that it was not necessarily meant as information for the general public in Zimbabwe. But it should have been, in one form or the other, considering the nature of the issues raised in the letter. Why? Because this letter paints a much more honest and truthful picture of the dramatically fragile financial and economic situation of the country. Therefore, the Minister, on behalf of the Mnangagwa Government, rather desperately asks the major international financial institutions for help.

Formally speaking, the government is asking for debt relief and for clearance of arrears to make it possible for authorities to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. The letter mentions that the economy contracted sharply in 2019 [before Covid-19], and with the measures of the lockdown to address the pandemic, the contraction will be much worse in 2020. The contraction could be up to 20 percent. And the Minister then states the following:

“Already, 8.5 million Zimbabweans (half of the population) are food insecure, from Cyclone Idai and successive droughts, health services are inadequate, and poverty levels are rising. These indicators are expected to worsen.”

From Africa Confidential.

The World Bank estimates that additional US$1 billion is needed to pay for health, education, food security and social protection, and of this amount US$ 200 million is needed for pandemic related interventions. Other countries facing challenges are being helped, but the big challenge here and now for Zimbabwe is that arrears on the official external debt are not being paid. In a sense, and this is my own understanding, the mistakes and failures of the past are catching up with the government.

I believe that this is also why the tone of the letter is different that what we have seen in the past. More honest. More truthful. And this is why the proposals for solutions and actions by the government in areas of economic, political and governance reforms presented in the letter are more radical and extensive than normally seen from this government. Let me just mention a few proposals:

  • Adopt a foreign exchange buy and sell regime that is transparent, market driven, and verifiable.
  • Limit the fiscal costs of the financing of agriculture, ensure transparency, and resolve all the related governance issues.
  • Adopt an ambitious governance and anti-corruption strategy, with time framed reforms to address the governance vulnerabilities in several areas.
  • Complete the exercise to compensate the former farm owners.
  • Provide a time-framed program for electoral reforms, including a parliamentary oversight committee to implement reforms before the next general election.

We have seen promises given in the past, without being fulfilled. Is there any reason to believe that it will be different this time? Is there reason to hope that the type of agricultural reform being pursued will benefit smallholders rather than the government elites? Can we believe that grand corruption will be stopped, considering that government bigwigs are involved? Is it believable that electoral reforms that could make it possible for the opposition to win will be implemented? Will the white farm owners finally be compensated?

I would like to believe so, and so would the people of Zimbabwe. But most will take an extremely cautious position, knowing how they have been let down in the past. It is also unlikely that the international institutions will bail out Zimbabwe without very fundamental and dramatic reforms that can curb the corruption and put an end to the violence being unleashed by the state.

.From Africa Confidential.

ANALYSIS BY “AFRICA CONFIDENTIAL” [30 APRIL 2020]

https://www.africa-confidential.com

In an extended mea culpa on behalf of President Emmerson Mnangagwa‘s government, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube has written to the international financial institutions (IFIs) in Washington saying it takes ‘responsibility for the recent policy missteps during late 2019’ which have led to inflation currently running at an annual rate of over 500% year.

Ncube then writes that the government and economy are near to collapse, with the coronavirus pandemic dealing the final blow. The letter, dated 2 April, came a few days after reports of a coup plot against Mnangagwa had been circulating. A security source said the authorities had delayed the lockdown in Harare for fear that dissident officers might exploit conditions to move against the president and his circle.

So bad is the situation, says Ncube, that it could cause an implosion of the state and threaten security in neighbouring states. ‘The global pandemic will take a heavy toll on the health sector, with many lives being lost and raise poverty to levels not seen in recent times, including worsening food security. A domestic collapse also would have potentially adverse regional effects, where spillovers are significant.’

Concerns in southern Africa about conditions in Zimbabwe are deepening. They might explain a call by South Africa‘s President Cyril Ramaphosa, at an African Union teleconference on 28 April, for Western states and the IFIs to lift sanctions against the Mnangagwa government.

In exchange for the Bank and the IMF agreeing to an emergency debt rescheduling, the government promises a ‘time-bound programme’ of economic, political and governance reforms. Ncube, who has been at odds with Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor John Mangudya, pledges the government will introduce a market-determined exchange rate and end what he calls the reserve bank’s ‘quasi-fiscal operations’ and its direct lending programme. It will also include all state subsidies in the budget documents presented to parliament and scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee, he adds.

This, according to finance officials in Washington, is code for saying conditions are so horrendous that Ncube has been the given the political cover to promise a crackdown on grand corruption at the heart of the government. They add that it is well-known among banks and business people as well as foreign diplomats that RBZ subsidies to gold-mining companies have directly benefited President Mnangagwa’s inner circle.

This group and senior army officers have also benefited from preferential access to foreign exchange and schemes that profit from arbitrage between the official and parallel rates of the Zimbabwe dollar, the officials add. Even if he wanted to, there is no way that Mangudya could have stood up to those factions.

Ncube’s letter also promises to ‘limit the fiscal costs of the financing of agriculture, ensure transparency, and resolve all the related governance issues’. This would deal with another big leakage of state funds: the financing with zero accountability of Mnangagwa’s favoured Command Agriculture scheme.

Apart from failing to boost productivity substantially – due to poor distribution of seeds and fertiliser as much as the latest regional drought – the Command Agriculture Programme has become a formidable source of patronage for Mnangagwa’s ally Kudakwashe Tagwirei, owner of the Sakunda group of companies working with Swiss-based Trafigura to import fuel, and well as running its own agricultural projects.

One of Zimbabwe’s canniest operators, Tagwirei, who financed ZANU-PF’s election campaign in 2018, has evaded any attempt to limit his sprawling empire, and maintains close ties to both Mnangagwa and Vice-President General Constantino Chiwenga even though they are bitter rivals.

Against this, Ncube’s promise of an ‘ambitious anti-corruption strategy’ rings hollow to finance officials. Neither do they take seriously his promises of political reform, most of whose elements have been on the government’s agenda for the past five years. Ncube’s final pledge to continue with ‘engaging in National Dialogue’ elicited the response of ‘what dialogue?’ from an official in Washington.

We hear that neither the World Bank nor the IMF have responded formally to Ncube’s letter, nor do they intend to, despite him following up with phone calls over the past week. ‘Zimbabwe is in a political, not an economic policy, crisis …without credible change on that level, nothing else will move,’ concluded the official.

 

SATURDAY 25 APRIL 2020

Cartoonist ZAPIRO from the Daily Maverick on 21 April 2020.

CORORNA [9] – WHAT NUMBERS TELL US?

Like many others, I have often felt confused by all the COVID-19 numbers flying around, distributed by public institutions and media, sometimes just communicated without much explanation, and at other times used in questionable ways when numbers from different countries in different circumstances and phases are being compared. It reminds me of my days in Botswana, when complicated statistics and numbers on HIV/AIDS would be flying around, often making discussions difficult, because it was not always clear if we were comparing apples with apples or apples with bananas.

To be clear: The global numbers for COVID-19 cases are terrible. The number of people dying is tragic. The consequences are difficult to comprehend, but certainly devastating.

But like I have mentioned in an earlier article about an unnamed rural district of 300.000 people in Zimbabwe, the reality for our friends in that part of the world is incomprehensible. The district is more than 100 kilometers wide. There is only one doctor. There is hardly any fuel to drive to the 12 clinics. Almost all of the 300.000 people depend on food relief from international donors. Under normal circumstances, malaria is normally the disease that kills most people. Every year. For decades now. Although it could easily be prevented.

I have noted that the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, has just called on all countries to ensure that essential malaria prevention work continues, despite our necessary preoccupation with Covid-19. She says:

“A recent analysis has found that if insecticide-treated bed net distribution stops, and case management reduces, malaria deaths in sub-Saharan Africa could double in comparison to 2018. This would be the highest number of deaths seen in the region since the year 2000.”

The Director pointed to statistics from Africa’s ebola outbreak showing that more people died of other diseases, including malaria, than from ebola itself, due to lack of access to treatment. She therefore states:

“Let us not repeat that again with COVID-19.”

In 2018, there were 213 million malaria cases and 360,000 related deaths in the African region, accounting for over 90% of global cases.

The WHO said that if the focus on slowing the spread of the new coronavirus leads to a reduction by three quarters of access to anti-malaria medicines, deaths could double to 769,000. This doubling of the number of deaths represents the worst-case scenario, which also assumes the suspension of all distribution of treated mosquito nets due to the pandemic.

To put this in perspective: The region of sub-Saharan Africa has more than 25,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with more than 1,200 deaths, and governments working with partners such as the WHO are focusing on tackling the pandemic.

I will not make the mistake of comparing the present the 1,200 deaths from COVID-19 with the worst-case scenario of 769,000 deaths from malaria if nothing is done – or even the 360,000 deaths from malaria-related diseases recorded in 2018. That would not be fair. But I would still like to suggest that we need to keep a global perspective, just like the cartoonist ZAPIRO is doing in his cartoon above.

A few days ago, the World Food Programme Director alerted us to the number of people threatened with hunger and possible death, partly due to drought, but in my own reading of the situation also very much due to political mismanagement. The same old stories told for half a century of how we in the North contribute both directly and indirectly to this situation comes to mind. This is not the time to remind ourselves in detail – but let us not forget!

Yes, the world has changed! However, the old ills and inequalities remain as powerful as ever. The international community, and each of us, must remember this, while we are struggling to find our way through the pandemic. We must do as much as we can [and this must be more than we contribute today] to support countries in the global South, with limited resources, to get through this pandemic. But we should also finally make a much greater contribution to stop  the malaria-tragedy unfolding, on a daily basis, year after year, without the world really knowing or caring. The same could be argued for all of the other poverty-related diseases.

 

SUNDAY 19 APRIL 2020

The cartoon used to open this article is taken from the online media “New Zimbabwe –the Zimbabwe News You Trust”, posted on 15 April 2020.

CORORNA [8] – INDEPENDENCE DAY IN corona times

On the Day of Independence of this year, 18 April 2020, I find it relevant and sobering to quote what President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania said on that same day 40 years ago, on 18 April 1980, when the new flag of Zimbabwe was hoisted at Rufaru Stadium:

“YOU HAVE INHERITED A JEWEL, KEEP IT THAT WAY.”

It makes me sad to suggest that we are not able to conclude that this is what Robert Mugabe did, first as Prime Minister, later as President. Certainly, the jewel did not end up benefitting most Zimbabweans. It remained in the pocket of the elite that over the years increasingly seemed to treat the resources of the nation as their own personal property.

Had it been a normal 18 April Independence Day, celebrations would have involved thousands assembled [either showing up freely or forced to participate] at a stadium to hear the President reiterate the blessings he and his fellow comrades in the cabinet have bestowed upon the people since last year in particular and since 1980 in general; followed by the rituals undertaken at the National Heroes Acre outside Harare, a shrine for those people the ruling party have deemed fit to be buried here because of their brave and selfless contributions to the struggle for independence and development. It is interesting to note that Mugabe refused to be buried here.

However, the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown made a normal celebration impossible, so President Emmerson Mnangagwa had to speak through television on the 40th Independence Day. His tone might be different than Mugabe’s, but you were still left with the same sense of a President speaking from a different reality than the one the millions of poor and relief-dependent citizens live in.

Messages from the President

He spoke about the land issue and the land reform, which has always been the case on 18 April, and understandably so. Land was after all a key reason for the liberation struggle, and a key reason for the poverty of the majority. And he said:

“The land shall forever remain united with the people, and the people to their land. To this, there is no wavering or going back. However, we shall not shy away from fine-tuning our strategies to enhance land utilisation, equitable access and productivity.”

The president expressed gratitude to Zimbabweans farmers whose efforts have continued to meet some of the food needs of a starving nation. Considering that the country is more than able to produce more food than Zimbabwe itself needs, if resources are utilized effectively, this is an interesting way of expressing how critical the situation in the rural areas is right now. He also said half a billion dollars has been set aside for the rehabilitation and expansion of irrigation projects countrywide, but it remains to be seen if this will happen – such pronouncements have been heard before without anything happening, or with only the privileged elite of farmers benefitting.

While insisting the country’s land reform process was irreversible, Mnangagwa’s government has welcomed back onto productive land, some few white former landowners violently removed from their farms under a process led by now late former President Robert Mugabe in the past two decades. Of course, Mugabe is now being presented as the scapegoat for all the bad decisions taken in the past, although it is common knowledge that President Mnangagwa was for decades a close advisor and cabinet member, often the one in charge. Right after taking over in November 2017, Mnangagwa met with white farmers and took a conciliatory approach, but so far not much has materialized.

The President also urged the tourism sector to prepare innovative strategies for recovery following the coronavirus outbreak that has devastated world countries and forced a halt to air travel. We all know how overwhelming many of the tourist spots of Zimbabwe are, with Victoria Falls as a key jewel, and with an abundance of wildlife. But these days the town of Victoria Falls is a ghost town, with the baboons moving freely around, wondering why there is no food to be picked up from the hotels. Opening for tourism, unfortunately, is more about trust in the government than managing the coronavirus.

The president finally addressed that reality facing most of the work force, i.e. people having to scrape through in the informal sector. Some say that unemployment is around 90 percent of the work force – but of course they work in the informal sector to survive. The President said:

“I am aware that our economy is now highly informal. My administration under the Second Republic will accelerate multi-pronged empowerment initiatives for start-ups and SMEs, especially those run by the youth and women, to grow and strengthen our manufacturing industrial base.”

Wishful thinking! Similar solutions have been announced in the past, and nothing has changed since the regime ruled by Mugabe and Mnangagwa together ran the economy into the ground before Morgan Tsvangirai won the 2008 presidential election and the unity government was formed in 2009.

Opposition message

The main opposition leader, Nelson Chamisa, from the Movement for Democratic Change, also communicated to the nation. Of course, mentioning the Covid-19 situation, but first of all addressing the track record of 40 years of independence. The opposition leader states that over the 40 years, the country has made remarkable strides to redress the injustices visited upon Zimbabweans during some one hundred years of brutal and dehumanising colonial rule.

He further mentions that during the first two decades 1980-2020, Zimbabwe became a beacon of peace and stability in the region; the exemplary primary education system saw the country recording the highest literacy rate in Africa; the healthcare system became second to none; and agriculture transformed the country into Africa’s breadbasket. But Chamisa then adds:

It is also a tragic truth that the same two decades of commendable success, witnessed the marginalisation parts of our country – notably in the Matabeleland region – where some 20,000 citizens were massacred with many more tortured, while thousands were internally or eternally displaced amid untold destruction of livelihoods in what has come to be known as the gukurahundi atrocities.

Related to this, another tragic truth is that the last 20 years have witnessed wanton use of violence in our politics. Cases in point are what happened in the implementation of the land reform programme, while a necessary fulfilment of a fundamental goal of the liberation struggle; its violent implementation, which bordered on racism, was unnecessary, unwarranted and unjustifiable.”

Towards the end of his address, he mentions other events and challenges, like Operation Murambatsvina destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of families; the shocking violence in the 2008 presidential runoff election; the 2017 political developments; the 1 August 2018 massacre of citizens in Harare, which was repeated between 14 and 28 January 2019 across the country’s urban centres.

Civil society messages

Readers can find several messages from a diversity of civil society organisations reflecting on the 40th Independence anniversary here: http://kubatana.net/.

 

 

TUESDAY 14 APRIL 2020

The photograph introducing this article shows the writer, Phuntshok Chhoden, in front of posters of some of the women standing for office in the local elections. The photo was taken in 2016. Other illustrations are drwaings by young artists, inspired by the King’s actions.

CORORNA [7] – HOW IS TINY BHUTAN COPING?

INTRODUCTION BY THE EDITOR

In addition to Zimbabwe, Botswana and Nepal, Bhutan is a country I have become fascinated with during my years of work, and a country that has offered me many close friendships. Phuntshok Chhoden is such a person. She has been the thinker, organizer and mover behind the Bhutan Network for Empowering Women [take a look at the website: http://bnew.bt/] that I had the pleasure of giving birth to back in 2012, when I was the Director of the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy. I asked Phuntshok to write her impressions of how the Corona is impacting on the tiny democratic Kingdom in the Himalayas. Here it is.

 

BY PHUNTSHOK CHHODEN

“Seemingly slow, cautious yet wise, precise and bold at the critical moments” – these are some befitting words to describe my country, and our leadership, as proven yet again during this pandemic. The same could be said of the brief war against Indian militants in 2003 (hiding inside Bhutan to revolt against their own state), led by the Great Fourth King, which put an end to the groups using our territory.

When the Tashi Delek magazine of our national carrier, Drukair, posted this question: “Why Bhutan is the best place to be living in during the current global pandemic?” on their Facebook page two days ago, inviting answers in the comments for a lucky draw, I could not resist posting a spontaneous response as follows:

“Because Happiness is a place called Bhutan, where Gross National Happiness is truly the way and essence of Life, where people live in harmony with nature, environment and spirituality, where leaders walk the talk, where most of all a King fearlessly and selflessly leads with love and compassion in this deadly war against CoVID19, because He is living his promise to us, his People, made in his Coronation Address on 1st of November 2008 in letter and spirit:

“Throughout my reign I will never rule you as a King. I will protect you as a parent, care for you as a brother and serve you as a son. I shall give you everything and keep nothing; I shall live such a life as a good human being that you may find it worthy to serve as an example for your children; I have no personal goals other than to fulfill your hopes and aspirations. I shall always serve you, day and night, in the spirit of kindness, justice and equality.”

May His Majesty’s golden reign continue to characterize all that He stands for with flourishing peace, stability, prosperity and Happiness 👍 Palden Drukpa Gyallo 🙏 Because of this, Bhutan has no equivalent or competition, even as we wage this war against the CoVID19 😊🙏💪💃 It is simply the best place to be living in during this pandemic, be it as a citizen or a guest 👍💃 we don’t differentiate nor discriminate 💕💕💕🙏.”

On 6th March 2020 Bhutanese woke up to the shocking reality of being part of the COVID19 pandemic that had spread rapidly across the globe. Bhutan declared the first case of CoVID19 that morning, after tests on an ailing 76-year-old American tourist confirmed to be positive. He was immediately isolated, and treatment began at the JDW National Referral Hospital. Subsequently at the request of his family, he was evacuated to the USA on 13th March in an air ambulance.

His partner remained in Bhutan in quarantine, but she tested positive at the 4th COVID test on 20th March. She was then isolated for observation and treatment and finally at the 9th test on 30th March her result was negative. She continues to be our guest due to non-availability of flights to return to the USA. Meanwhile, we learnt that our index case in DC has also recovered and says he survived only because of the personal attention he received from the King, Prime Minister and government while he was in Bhutan.

Hence, as of today (14th April), Bhutan has had 5 cases which includes 3 (three) Bhutanese students in quarantine facilities. They had returned from schools abroad (UK and USA). All 5 were imported cases. To date not a single case of local transmission.

Hundreds of returnees from schools, colleges, business trips, pilgrimage abroad are in quarantine in some 120 facilities in various parts of the country since the government made it mandatory for everyone who arrives by air and road to be admitted to the officially approved set of facilities, which are mostly hotels (3 stars++) offered by their owners to support the government. Cost of food for those quarantined is being borne by the government, although some have started to pay for themselves in recognition of the massive efforts by the government. The period of quarantine was enhanced from 14 to 21 days due to the nervousness around infectious asymptomatic cases that could possibly manifest after 14 days of hibernation. Quarantine facilities are being provided with all meals, snacks, free WIFI including mental health support provided by a team of psychologists and psychiatrists.

The Royal Government of Bhutan continues to battle against the CoVID19 pandemic with everything within its power, resources and imagination and handling the situation as comprehensively and effectively as possible. But, as the situation evolves, the challenges are galore and diverse. Being a landlocked and least developed country, Bhutan depends on imports particularly in the critical spheres of food, fuel and medicines. Bhutan does not yet have a single allopathic pharmaceutical company, hence a total dependence on others for Test Kits, PPEs and the likes needed at this juncture.

Ever since the first covid case was confirmed, His Majesty began touring the length and breadth of the country, to inspect and motivate teams of healthcare workers, armed forces and volunteers who are on the ground carrying our various tasks assigned to them as per the CoVID Response Strategies and Plans. Over 5000 members of low income groups in border towns living across the border on Indian soil were evacuated and camps built to accommodate and provide for them. Stocks of food, fuel and medicines to last almost a year were purchased and stored. As many flights possible were operated within 22nd March to evacuate stranded Bhutanese in India (and that effort continues till date!).

Finally, at 7 pm on the 22nd of March, His Majesty addressed the nation on national TV informing us about the decision to seal our southern borders towards India due to the impending threats the open and porous borders present to our small vulnerable nation. India suspended all international flights on 22nd March and  locked down from 1st April. With India locked down, Bhutan is as good as locked down too since 99% of our “business” is with them. The government of Bhutan decided not to formally lock down till we enter the red zone with community transmission!

Worth a mention here is that our Queen was, by then, in the last days of her second pregnancy and the royal baby, a second Prince, was eventually born on 19th March 2020.

However, with the ever fueling CoVID19 situation in India, especially in states near us, we remain vigilant and nervous. Every step is being taken with the worst-case scenario in mind. Our borders are tightly guarded. Several CoVID testing centers were built and operational in record time. Additional ICU facilities have been built and are ready. Regular testing (twice weekly) of suspected cases is on-going; in fact, among SAARC countries, Bhutan ranks highest in CoVID tests being performed per million population.

Mapping the elderly, disabled, sick and poorest of the poor has begun, and special hot lines created for them. To ensure that no one is left behind, special care packets including vitamins, are being distributed to these groups by His Majesty’s Secretariat. Accompanying the larger national CoVID19 Economic and Financial Response Plans and strategies being rolled out, a large Royal initiative (www.royalkidu.bt), for the welfare of all who fall outside the formal brackets and run the risk of falling through the cracks, has also been launched today by the Prime Minister and Governor of our Central Bank.

Within the limited means, no stone is being left unturned. The economy will suffer but will recover with time post Covid19. But lives must be saved at any cost. This is His Majesty’s key message and mission, which drives the government with full conviction and commitment.

Even Bhutanese living abroad continue to preoccupy our King’s mind. Our Diplomatic Missions abroad were commanded to ensure their safety and security. Their situation is being regularly monitored, and extraordinary support to be extended if required. Rescue flights are being sent wherever feasible and possible.

As I had shared with my Nepali friends recently via a Zoom meeting, facilitated by the DIPD office there, another fortunate co-incidence for people of Bhutan is the fact that we seem to have elected the right party to govern in 2018 during our 3rd Parliamentary elections! The Prime Minister is a well known surgeon, the Foreign Minister a pediatrician and both the Finance and Health Ministers are experienced Public Health Specialists. This factor adds to the trust and confidence we have in our government, and the fact that His Majesty can rely on them to do the right things professionally!

 

Above all, with a King like no other, living his Coronation promise word for word, benevolent, caring, compassionate to the core of his being, who had the whole nation choking with tears when His Majesty delivered an emotional address to the nation on the 11th April, we Bhutanese consider ourselves truly blessed to be born in Drukyul – the land of GNH!

Prayers continue to be conducted all over Bhutan. We pray for the whole world to be able to overcome COVID19 soon, for those infected to recover soon, for those not yet infected to remain immune to CoVID19 and for the loved ones of those beaten by the disease to be showered with strength to cope with the precious losses!

Stay safe everyone everywhere! We shall overcome this very soon. Together we can!

Tashi Delek!

 

MONDAY 13 APRIL 2020

CORORNA [6] – LEADERSHIP in times of crises

The photo introducing this contribution to my series of reflections and perspectives on the Corona pandemic was taken on 1st of December 2003, in a remote village in the northern part of Botswana. Back In 1988, the United Nations designated this day to be World Aids Day, and in 2003, the theme chosen for the commemoration by UNAIDS, the organization set up by the UN system in 1996 to deal with the HIV/AIDS pandemic, was Stigma and discrimination.

The photo shows the main speaker at the event, the President of Botswana at the time, the Honorable Festus Mogae, receiving flowers from the local community after he has addressed the thousands of villagers sitting in the scorching sun on the ground in front of the cool and shady podium offered to the President and other Very Important Persons, like the Ministers in the cabinet, Ambassadors from all diplomatic missions, and of course also the UN Resident Coordinator (me) with all other heads of UN agencies.

Just one month ago, before the Danish government asked me and other Danish global travelers to return to Denmark due to the aggressive spread of the Corona virus, I met with Festus Mogae in his office in a suburban area just outside Gaborone in Botswana. I had asked him to reflect on how the HIV/AIDS pandemic had impacted on his country and on his leadership during his tenure as president from 1998 to 2008. My intention was not to compare with the leadership required by leaders today to deal with the Corona virus. Considering the very different nature of the two pandemics, comparisons can be difficult and even unfair to make. However, despite the differences, I also find it difficult not to compare. After all, in both cases, the well-being of nations is at stake, both health-wise and economically, and decisions have to be taken without the President or Prime Minister knowing exactly what is the right strategy, and not knowing exactly how people will respond to the directives coming from the government.

Talking with Festus Mogae in March 2020 in Gaborone.

I first asked Festus Mogae about his thinking at the time, when he took over as President of Botswana, when the economy was in pretty good shape, but the number of people testing HIV-positive in the mid-90s started rising dramatically, threatening to overwhelm the capacity of the health system.

“You are right, around the time I became President, in 1998, people were literally dying like flies. As an economist, I knew that the country was in good shape financially, so I did not have to worry about that. HIV was the key challenge, and I decided that I would not give a speech about any issue anywhere in the country without talking about the pandemic. Talk about getting tested. Talk about the importance of knowing your status. Talk about abstaining from having sex – or using a condom if you decided to have sex. Talk about avoiding stigmatizing the people who tested positive.”

Then I asked him about how he saw the key challenge to him as the leader of the country, if it was primarily a health challenge, or rather one that had to do with changing the behavior of people.

“It was first about leadership and governance. Obviously, there were lots of issues of a technical medical nature, how to get testing done most effectively, how to get the medicine that could keep the HIV-positive alive. Bill Gates came in to support us, together with the Merck company. We brought in doctors from other countries to help strengthen our response. But in the end, it was a question of getting the basic messages across to people, like: CONDOMIZE OR DIE. At some point there was a discussion about testing, and I made it clear that I would also get tested. If I turned out to be positive, I would take the ARV medicine, which would keep me alive. In Botswana, this treatment was free for all citizens.”

Botswana managed to break the curve. From my perspective as the Head of the UN during 2003-2005, I can confidently state that the leadership of Festus Mogae played a key role. But the pandemic nevertheless changed the country dramatically, with thousands of children having to grow up without a mother or a father or both, with grandparents having to substitute as parents. And with a large share of the state revenue being allocated to the HIV/AIDS challenge.

Before our meeting ends, I ask him how he looks at the situation today, after the country managed to turn the tide and the infection rate came down.

“Unfortunately, the number of infections has started to rise again! There is really no room for complacency, and no room for unprotected sex. Also, there continues to be a need for strong leadership, speaking out clearly about how people need to behave, how we cannot afford ‘to leave no one behind’, including the sexual minorities.”

I am delighted to hear the former President speak out so clearly on the rights of sexual minorities, like gays and lesbians. This is not normally the case in African countries. If I remember correctly, Festus Mogae was not equally outspoken on this issue in the early stages of the pandemic, but as he struggled to find the direction Botswana had to travel to win the war, he realized that telling his people “to leave no one behind” meant NO ONE.

Having followed development and politics in Botswana after I left the country in 2005, I sense that Ian Khama, who succeeded Festus Mogae in 2008 and ruled for ten years, never provided the needed leadership on HIV/AIDS. He was more interested in environmental affairs, making sure that wildlife was managed in the right way. This was also important of course, but considering that it was a public secret that Khama was gay, you would have thought that he would have been the right person to communicate strongly on HIV issues. How the President elected in 2018, Mokgweetsi MasisI, will manage the old HIV pandemic as well as the new Corona pandemic remains to be seen. But until the Corona struck Botswana in March 2020, he had not been particularly vocal on the continued threat of HIV to the fabric of Botswana society.

It might be useful to remind ourselves that HIV/AIDS continues to be with us and among us. Many of the people I work with today in Zimbabwe and Botswana are only alive because of the ARV medicine developed during the 90s. On the UNAIDS website, you can get the following overview [all the numbers are estimates] of the global impact of the pandemic:

75 million have become infected with HIV since the start.
32 million have died from AIDS-related illnesses since the start.
25 million are accessing antiretroviral therapy.
38 million people globally are living with HIV.
1.7 million became newly infected with HIV in 2018.
770.000 died from AIDS-related illnesses in 2018.

 

TUESDAY 30 MARCH 2020

Photograph shows local residents queue to fill buckets and containers with water  at a communal tap in Empompini in Cowdray Park, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, in August 2019. Photo by Cynthia R Matonhodze/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

CORORNA [5] – lockdown in ZIMBABWE

 

INTRODUCTION BY THE EDITOR

On Monday 29 March, President Mnangagwa declared 21-day lock-down of Zimbabwe, thus following developments in neighboring countries South Africa and Botswana, as well as developments elsewhere in the world. And like elsewhere in the world, the decision will hurt the economy. In the case of Zimbabwe, an economy already struggling with a drought, shortages of foreign exchange and a staggering unemployment rate of over 90%, forcing people to survive on informal trade – and the remittances from the four million Zimbabweans living outside the country, although this source of income will also be drying up, since the corona virus has put the global economy at the brink of disaster.

The President made it clear, that “Should it become necessary, security forces will be deployed to assist in the enforcement of these measures.” That would not have come as a surprise to his citizens, considering the “measures” people have become used to during many decades of authoritarian rule. Having become used to hardships under normal times, it is also very likely that Zimbabweans will be much better prepared to endure still more hardship than people in other countries.

A few days ago, I wrote about the ability of communities in Zimbabwe to deal with the virus, considering that poverty is also a virus, a constant one indeed. Right after publishing the article, I read an article by Thandekile Moyo in the “Maverick Citizen”, and I found this very useful to understand what is happening in Zimbabwe. She is a writer and human rights defender from Zimbabwe, now living abroad. For the past four years, she has been using print, digital and social media (Twitter: @mamoxn) to expose human rights abuses, bad governance and corruption. Thandekile Moyo holds an Honours degree in Geography and Environmental Studies from the Midlands State University in Zimbabwe.

 

ARTICLE BY THANDEKILE MOYO

WRITTEN FOR “Maverick Citizen” AND PUBLISHED ON 28 MARCH 2020.

Because the government is guilty of neglecting their mandate to provide public goods, they are going out of their way to hide information about the extent of infections in Zimbabwe. In their 40 years of power, Zimbabwe has let the health systems completely crumble, and if Covid-19 hits Zimbabwe as badly as we fear, it will be entirely their fault.

We have a mealie-meal crisis in Zimbabwe

There has been a shortage of the staple food and thus the price of mealie-meal shot up from $40 to anywhere between $150 and $200 by December 2019. Whenever a shop receives a delivery of mealie-meal, a queue immediately forms, and people jostle to buy. In these queues, there is absolutely no respect for personal space as people touch, rub against, lean on, push and shove each other for hours.

We have a transport crisis in Zimbabwe

The majority of Zimbabweans use public transport and most use ZUPCO buses, which charge a fraction of what minibus taxis charge. For these bus rides, people queue for hours and they carry more than 50 passengers per trip. The other option for public transport users is tiny cars (second-hand Honda Fits imported from Japan), that operate as pirate taxis and ferry at least six passengers per trip instead of the 3-4 passengers they were designed for. Daring operators add two more passengers in the car boot to increase their load per trip to eight or nine passengers. In these little taxis, people sit on each other, cough on each other, sneeze into each other’s faces, touch each other and sweat on each other.

We have a water crisis in Zimbabwe

The majority of Zimbabweans in both rural and urban areas have no access to running water. We fetch water from rivers, boreholes and wherever else we can. In cities, people can go for days without water. The excuses by the government for failure to provide adequate water and sanitation services vary from shortage of chemicals, to lack of damning infrastructure, to drought. Lack of access to clean water cost thousands of Zimbabweans their lives during the cholera outbreak of 2018.

We have an unemployment crisis in Zimbabwe

Independent statisticians have put it at above 90%. Many Zimbabweans have resorted to vending and various forms of self-employment in the informal sector. We have markets that house in the same vicinity: hardware hubs, carpentry workshops, car washes and vegetable markets – our towns and cities seem to have long abandoned town planning as wherever you go, there is someone selling something on the pavements, in street corners and in flea markets. These areas are overcrowded and have no “real” infrastructure, so many have no toilets and no running water. Food, clothes, car parts and whatever you can think of, are sold wherever, whenever by whoever.

We have a Covid-19 crisis looming in Zimbabwe

At a personal level, Zimbabweans cannot do much to prevent contracting or spreading Covid-19. There is no chance that people will social distance while jostling for mealie-meal or in overcrowded buses. There is no chance that we can correctly, constantly and consistently wash our hands under running water. There is no chance, unless literally at gunpoint, that Zimbabweans living from hand to mouth, will stay at home.

We have a production crisis in Zimbabwe

As a country, we produce very little. Most of our groceries and clothes are imported. The closing of borders to Malayitshas and cross border traders will plunge the country into a serious shortage of basic commodities, from toiletries to food. A lockdown will also be difficult to enforce as very few Zimbabweans have the capacity to buy food supplies for 21 days. Unless households are given food, it will be impractical to have a lockdown. People have to be able to leave the house every morning to hustle for money to buy food. Whatever most vendors make per day is for that night’s and the next day’s meals. The Zimbabwean government knows and fears this, hence their failure to close our borders, as evidenced by the people that were still going in and out of the country even after announcement on 23 March 2020 that Zimbabwean borders have been closed; and to lockdown the country as South Africa has done. They also know that it would be political suicide to force a population on the brink of starvation to stay at home.

We have a health crisis in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwean doctors have been complaining about the incapacitation of hospitals for years now. In 2019, they went on strike for months explaining that because they were not earning decent salaries, they could not even afford to transport themselves to and from work, and to feed themselves and their families. Central to their grievances, was the state of the hospitals and lack of equipment. The doctors explained that our hospitals are dilapidated and unequipped for the core business of treating patients. They said there were no surgical gloves in hospitals, no disinfectants, no drugs – nothing basically to help them do their jobs of treating the sick. They said they were frustrated and tired of going to work to preside over senseless, and preventable deaths due to hospitals’ incapacitation. In response to their grievances, the government fired doctors en masse.

Using the Zimbabwe ‘health system’: Real life experiences

In January 2020r, I took my cousin to our local hospital and they refused to treat her because she did not have the $140 consultation fee. Her mother is a teacher and at the time earned $1,000, an amount that could only buy her a combination of 30 loaves of bread at $15 each ($450), 10kg of mealie-meal at $150 and 5kg of meat. There was no chance she would have $140 lying around for emergencies such as this one. We sourced the money and paid, only to be told there was no doctor available and she would have to return the next day, despite her case being an emergency. The nurses, who had no idea what was wrong with her, even after consulting google and a textbook they had, told us it could be mumps and prescribed medication, but advised us that the hospital pharmacy was closed and we would have to find a private pharmacy. All this after paying an amount equivalent to 14% of her mother’s salary. They did not even have paracetamol.

This was how dire the situation was for hospitals, health personnel and patients prior to Covid-19 landing in Zimbabwe. Now that we are faced with the possibility of an outbreak, what chance does Zimbabwe have? We have already heard that doctors and nurses have gone on strike until they are given adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) to deal with the virus. Wilkins Infectious Diseases hospital, Harare’s isolation centre was shut down, reportedly for renovations, on 27 March 2020. It is clear that our health sector is at present unable to handle the looming Covid-19 outbreak.

On 20 March 2020, I posted this on twitter :

#Sigh. So Gwanda hospital has people exhibiting #Covid_19 symptoms,
Spoke to some,
Who said they’ve been investigated & cleared,
They aren’t quarantined.
I’m like wow!
So fast?
Turns out no tests done,
There are no test kits at the hospital,
Investigation was verbal
#ZanuPfMustGo
“They have no hand sanitizers at the wards,
They don’t even at the very least,
Have soaps for hand washing in the bathrooms.
They have face masks thou,
But that’s hardly enough.
There are kids with pneumonia,
Nurses says there’s a pneumonia “outbreak”.
#Covid_19
#ZanuPfMustGo”

An hour after I posted the tweets about the suspicious cases, the Minister of Health was on national TV announcing Zimbabwe’s first (official) Covid-19 positive patient.

We have a propaganda crisis in Zimbabwe

This has led to trust issues between the people and the state. We have no idea what part of the news reported by state media is factual and what part is misinformation? Up to that point, the government had been insisting that we had no positive cases yet in the country. A declaration many found to be suspicious considering the fact that by 20 March 2020, nearly 100 people had already tested positive in neighbouring South Africa. Also, a Chinese woman exhibiting Covid-19 symptoms died on her way to Wilkins Hospital, but authorities insisted she had not died of Covid-19. A British tourist to the Victoria Falls, who had fallen ill while still in Zimbabwe, had tested positive once he got back to England. Namibia had also announced that someone who had tested positive in Namibia had come from Zimbabwe two days before. Add the fact that we were still letting people from all over the world come in and out of the country at will, and it was puzzling how we had got to be so lucky. Many thought the government of Zimbabwe was not being honest.

The next morning, Nelson Chamisa, leader of the opposition MDC, announced on his Twitter page that two more people had tested positive for the virus. Government was then forced to make a statement, but they claimed only one more person had tested positive and the other patient’s results were inconclusive. It became apparent to many that the government was withholding information.

The death of Zororo Makamba

On 23 March 2020, we were shocked to hear of the death of Zororo Makamba, a 30-year-old pro-government journalist and son of James Makamba, a businessman and a former Zanu-PF member of parliament. He had succumbed to Covid-19. One wonders at what point the government discovered he was positive and why they had not informed the nation. Had Nelson Chamisa not spilled the beans, would they have told us? How many more people have died or recovered from the virus that the government is hiding?

Zororo is said to have landed at the Robert Mugabe International airport from New York on 10 March. He is alleged to have recorded a high fever upon entry. Airport staff wanted to detain him, but Zororo allegedly called someone who apparently then instructed airport officials not to quarantine him and he was allowed to leave the airport, unleashing Covid-19 on an unsuspecting public. He had several meetings over the next few days, including with someone from the office of the president and cabinet as well as someone from the ministry of finance. Speculation is high that he was chasing payment for his propaganda videos. He was also seen at Pablos nightclub, a high-end club in Borrowdale where the country’s rich kids (read Zanu-PF kids) party.

I posted this on Twitter after Zororo’s death:

“So govt of Zimbabwe,
Expects us to believe,
To accept,
That from the 10th of March when Zororo landed in Harare,
Going through customs,
On the drive home,
Reunions with loved ones,
Before he fell sick,
During his illness,
Until his death,
He didn’t infect anyone?
#ZanuPfMustGo”

Even after interacting with many people from the day he landed, the government is mum on who else was infected by Zororo, or at least suspected to have been infected. Since his death, three more people have tested positive, but the nation is yet to be given details on the new infections.

It is said Covid-19 is more infectious than the flu. In other countries, it is spreading like a wildfire. We have heard of South Korea’s “patient 31”, whose case explains just how infectious this virus is, but the government of Zimbabwe expects the nation to believe that Zororo, who was allowed to roam around freely despite exhibiting symptoms, did not infect other people.

Zororo’s brother told the nation that staff at Wilkins Hospital were afraid of being around Zororo. He alleges that they would leave him unattended for hours and Zororo would call home telling them he was not being attended to. They were helpless because they were not allowed into the hospital. He says the doctor in charge switched off his phone. According to Zororo’s brother, Wilkins Hospital has no ventilators and even after they sourced one privately, the hospital failed to use it as there were no compatible electrical sockets in the hospital. The family apparently called the president to intervene, but even that could not save Zororo.

One wonders if one so monied and well connected could not get treatment, do ordinary Zimbabweans have a chance?

We have a corruption crisis in Zimbabwe

The story of Zororo Makamba is a sad but illuminating tale. It is appalling that we are led by people who, as a “favour” can allow someone exhibiting one of the most telling symptoms of Covid-19 to avoid quarantine. It illuminates the dangerous privilege, corruption, negligence, abuse of power, elite capture of institutions, failure and collapse of health institutions, the gap between the rich and the poor, and the absolute lack of readiness by Zimbabwe to deal with Covid-19 or any other crisis for that matter – much the same way the government failed to deal with Cyclone Idai, drought, cholera and typhoid before. It exposes the extent to which the government of the day is unsuitable to rule.

We have a leadership crisis in Zimbabwe

Covid-19 is exposing the failure of Zimbabwe as a state and the disaster that is Emmerson Mnangagwa. The current leaders are insensitive and completely detached from the suffering of the masses. In a clear display of cluelessness, instead of coming up with a context specific message, the president copied and pasted the general “how to prevent coronavirus” message on his Twitter feed. He advised us to practice social distancing. Does he know, or care about the mealie-meal shortage and transport situations? He advised washing of hand. Does he know we have no water? He says people must stay at home, but he then immediately got on a flight to Namibia. How does he expect this to work when we survive on odd jobs and vending? The president must first address these pertinent issues and tailor a strategy to curb Covid-19 that takes those issues into consideration.

Wilkins Hospital reportedly asked the government for $ 6.7 million to get the hospital ready for Covid-19, but they were apparently only allocated a mere $ 100,000. During that time, Mnangagwa flew to Namibia [for the presidential inauguration], on a hired private jet that flew from Dubai to Harare to take him on the hour-long trip to Namibia. How does one explain such gross extravagance at a time when the nation is facing an outbreak our hospitals cannot handle? Around that time, Mthuli Ncube, Mnangagwa’s Minister of Finance, was also gallivanting in Europe where pictures of him shaking people’s hands were taken. Was he quarantined upon return?

A day after the shipment of donations from Jack Ma landed in Zimbabwe, pictures of Mnangagwa holding a meeting of people wearing Zanu-PF regalia and face masks circulated on social media? Where did they get the masks? At a time when doctors and nurses have no personal protective equipment, they saw it fit to waste the scarce masks on themselves. What a shame.

We have a marginalisation crisis in Zimbabwe

Covid-19 is also exposing the extent to which the Zanu-PF government has been marginalising many parts of the country – most rural areas and all of Matebeleland since 1980. As it is, the government is in a panic and trying to refurbish Wilkins Hospital, and accused of getting an elitist Covid-19 centre ready for the ruling political elite. What about the rest of the country? The whole of Matebeleland province only has Thorngrove Hospital, a rundown infectious diseases hospital that has no capacity to handle any illness. So where is the rest of Zimbabwe going to go if the virus spreads? We cannot all go to Harare.

We have a political crisis in Zimbabwe

Because the government is guilty of neglecting their mandate to provide public goods, they are going out of their way to hide information about the extent of infections in Zimbabwe. In their 40 years of power, Zimbabwe has failed to build hospitals and clinics, or to maintain the hospitals built by the Rhodesians. They let the health systems completely crumble and if Covid-19 hits Zimbabwe as badly as we fear, it will be entirely their fault. Millions of people are going to suffer and thousands risk dying unnecessarily because of the state of our health sector.

Because of all these crises, Zimbabwe is an unfolding disaster. The government, which has misgoverned the country for decades, has neither capacity nor desire to deliver on matters of national and public interest. They just do not care.

My only prayer is that geographical and environmental factors like our weather, the age of people concentrated in the cities and sheer luck will protect us. This is a terrible, frightening and also infuriating situation. We have no reason to be experiencing this uncertainty. Covid-19 may be a natural disaster, but if it spreads in Zimbabwe, its effects will be entirely man-made.

God save Zimbabwe.

 

MONDAY 30 MARCH 2020

corona [4] – THE empty streets OF kathmandu

 

INTRODUCTION BY THE EDITOR

On a normal day, Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, is unquestionably one of the most polluted in the world, one reason being the number of vehicles [cars as well as motorcycles] needed to bring the three million plus people living in the Kathmandu Valley to and from their workplaces. This is also the reason why on any normal day, you will find many people wearing a facemask, not because they are afraid of a particular virus or diseases in general. I am not sure the exact number of people dying from pollution is known, but my guess would be that they should be counted in the thousands. Despite of the traffic that takes hours to navigate, and the fine particles of dust filling your nostrils, I have always enjoyed my visits to Kathmandu. I enjoy the streets of the old sections of town filled with people walking shoulder to shoulder. I love the old parts of town with the beautiful buildings. I never tire of the Hindu and Buddhist places of worship, filled with both Nepali citizens and the hordes of tourists coming to get a feel of the country.

I sent a message to Shrishti Rana, a former colleague during my years of working for the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy [Shrishti still works for DIPD as the Representative for Nepal], my mentor into the intricacies of politics in Nepal, and now a dear and close friend, asking what the corona situation was like. She told me that Kathmandu was right now not at all the city I used to visit. Just like my own city of Copenhagen is a different city altogether right now. When I asked her to reflect on the situation in her country, she accepted the challenge right away. Below you will find her contribution, and most likely not the last contribution from Nepal.

 

STORY BY SHRISHTI RANA

PHOTOGRAPH BY “KATHMANDU POST”

The streets of Kathmandu, which would be most crowded during this time of the year with excited and confused tourists milling around, are empty. There’s a sense of anxiety and apprehension in the air. The mountains look forlorn. Even when spring is coming!

For a majority of Nepalese, what’s happening is not unprecedented. We encountered a similar threat to our lives recently, when the massive earthquake accompanied by a series of big and small aftershocks struck Nepal in 2015. Soon afterwards, we were subjected to a blockade of essential goods from India, due to differences between two countries on a few political issues. We also lived with constant insecurity to our lives and frequent lockdowns during the armed conflict that had lasted till one and half decade ago. And, almost every year, we go through one or the other natural disaster. These experiences have made us accustomed to living amid shortages of food, fuel and future.

For months following the corona virus outbreak in China, it didn’t seem to sink in within us despite our borders with China. As it is, people dying from simple diseases is not strange to us; in 2017, around 7882 people including children had died from minor diarrheal diseases. Not surprisingly, rather than taking it seriously, we joked that Nepalese are used to so much dust, pollution, and pesticide-contaminated food that we would be immune to the corona virus as well. Our tourism minister also  advertised Nepal as a “Corona Virus Free” destination to attract tourists even from China when the epidemic was at its peak there.

As the infected numbers proliferated around the world, Nepal reportedly detected one positive case. The World Health Organisation also put Nepal into a list of high-risk countries. The government was compelled to respond and prepare for the crisis. One of the first actions we observed from the government was screening in our only international airport in Kathmandu. Unfortunately, this triggered nervousness among more aware citizens like me because it demonstrated that our government is trying its best, but failing miserably in the implementation side. The passengers coming from the highly affected countries were not quarantined and the staff checking their fever in the airport did not have any protective gears. The government would make right policy decisions such as increasing the capacity of ICU’s, but they would not carry them out in practice. One thing was sky-clear: if the mass transmission of virus occurred in Nepal, then millions could die due to our weak governance including poor health services.

Yet, most Nepalese were in their own la-la land. Even senior political leaders that we work with were saying, “Oh! Nothing will happen here.” When I told my father, who is well-educated and well-informed, to take precautions, he said, “Just take it easy. Nothing will happen here. An astrologer has said that Nepal does not need to worry.” I must admit that we in Nepal are not the most rational people around. Most of us can assume that nothing like the corona virus spread would take place in our country even though the evidence shows otherwise. Interestingly, it was reported that in many remote areas people experienced washing hands with soaps for the first time and they could not understand why they had to wash their hands so many times in a day. Based on all the above, I can claim that till mid-March, the corona virus scare had not really reached the youngest South Asian republic.

Suddenly, on 23rd March 2020, the government announced a complete lockdown after a nineteen-year-old girl coming from France via Doha was tested positive. As of now, five have been tested positive. Now, Nepalese seem to be finally coming to grips with the pandemic. There is a sense that so far, the numbers are low because testing has been limited due to inadequate testing kits. Understandably, people are concerned that virus transmission has already happened but not been tracked. The news from Europe and America have fueled our fears, because we feel if such resourceful countries could suffer like that, then what about us? Then, there’s also deep-rooted ignorance among some of us. Yesterday, I heard a deeply worried man in the street saying, “Now virus transmission will be airborne even if there are no infected patients.” People in this category are scared to come out of their houses even for essential groceries and seem mentally disturbed.

Personally, I feel a sense of helplessness, not just for the people in my country but also for my friends in Europe and America. Thinking about so many people dying and suffering is heart-wrenching. It’s impossible to eat, sleep or just be, without getting that stale sour feeling piercing all over your body. I am coping by trying to avoid the news as far as possible. It seems the most effective way, you can help right now, is by staying at home, and this is an unusual and uncomfortable position to be in.

I also see a ray of optimism in this situation. Perhaps for the first time in our human history, we are all sharing common fears, griefs and uncertainties irrespective of our nationalities. The divide between rich and poor nations seems irrelevant when it comes to the corona virus spread. Hopefully, this experience will foster a new global unity that’s urgently required to deal with many of the similar challenges in the future.

 

SUNDAY 29 MARCH 2020

corona [3] – 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 [2] – 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 [1] – 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.