THE Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (the Forum) in collaboration with its members, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), note the declaration by President Emmerson Mnangagwa of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic as a National Disaster on 17 March 2020. This follows the declaration of COVID 19 by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) on 31 January 2020 and as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. An estimated 220 000 infections have since been recorded globally with significant mortality of around 9 000 to date. In the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), a number of countries have recorded some cases with our immediate neighbour to the south, South Africa, having recorded more than 100 cases. The declaration by President Mnangagwa comes at a critical time when the nation is anxious about the preparedness of our country to respond to this pandemic. This declaration is crucial and brings the necessary attention to the crisis.
In unprecedented times of anxiety and uncertainty such as these, responsible citizenship demands concerted effort and unity of purpose. To that end, the Forum will play its part in responsible citizenship to contribute to the curbing of the spread of the virus, through amongst other things, complying with directives and guidance from the authorities in such a time as this, where collective national action is warranted. The Forum will also intensify its work around information dissemination and awareness raising, and will support ongoing efforts led by government.
The Forum recognises the steps that have been taken by the Ministry of Health and Child Care to provide information following a query by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, on its evolving response mechanism to this pandemic.
The pandemic comes at a time when Zimbabwe’s health sector has been struggling. As such, we implore concerted national effort led by government to strengthen the healthcare system and vigilance by focusing on the following critical issues to enhance preparedness and response to COVID 19:
- Early detection and mitigation – As our major ports of entry remain open, we urge the government to introduce a more robust screening and testing process that will effectively help the detection of COVID 19. Noting that the isolation centers and health institutions equipped to deal with COVID 19 are more than 250km away from some major ports of entry, we urge government to equip local health facilities and personnel that are closer to ports of entries with the necessary resources and information relating to the detection and treatment of COVID 19.
- Capacitation of health personnel – Health workers in most public health institutions are inadequately prepared to deal with COVID 19 cases. Reports indicate that health workers are not conversant with the management protocol, referral pathways and they lack personal protection. We urge government to expeditiously roll out a massive training programme on COVID 19 targeting all health workers, including private practitioners, to enhance the workforce preparedness.
- Decentralisation and capacitation of health centers – We note with concern the absence of isolation facilities in every province. We urge government to ensure that we have a minimum of one hospital with adequate isolation facilities and high-level expertise per province. A clear referral pathway must be communicated to all health practitioners in the provinces on how they can expeditiously refer cases, request back up of diagnostic kits, personal protective equipment or expertise. We urge government to ensure that health facilities across the country are equipped with enough protective equipment, testing kits and isolation facilities. Health centers outside Harare and Bulawayo do not have supplies of personal protective equipment, testing kits and sundries. Data from hard-hit countries indicate that 20% of COVID 19 cases require Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admission. Our health facilities currently lack adequate ICU facilities. We note with gratitude the offer by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba and other Chinese organisations to render assistance with protective wear, diagnostic kits and other aid, and we urge government to ensure that distribution of such aid is done transparently and conscientiously.
- Access to information – We urge government to continue to ensure consistent, regular, accurate and detailed updates to be availed to the nation in the interests of openness, accountability and transparency. These updates must include information on the total number of cases investigated, admissions recorded and cases confirmed, if any. To that end, we urge government to establish reliable and accessible centers of information and work closely with all media outlets in ensuring that information about COVID 19 gets to all citizens. Further, simplified information must be provided in all the languages recognised in the Constitution on detection, prevention and treatment support available.
- Restrictions of gatherings – The Forum welcomes the restrictions to large gatherings. Enforcement of such restrictions must be done within the confines of the Constitution, fully respecting fundamental rights and freedoms of those affected. However, we note with concern the decision by government to allow schools to remain open. Schools have thousands of children who share facilities and personal space. As such, the decision for schools to remain open would subtract from the gains to be made through the restriction of large gatherings. We implore government to reconsider this position.
- Maintaining high standards of hygiene – This ought to be the norm, but extra care is called for in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic. Citizens, residents and visitors are encouraged to maintain the highest standards of hygiene to curb the spread of the virus. This can only be achieved if central government works closely with local authorities to ensure constant provision of potable water.
As civil society, we commit to assist and work with government in fighting COVID 19, and we implore everyone in Zimbabwe to be compliant with directives from the health and national authorities in the interest of our health and the collective interests of our nation. As much as possible, we must drive prevention while preparing for the worst.