EDITORIAL COMMENT : Targeted action  can beat Covid-19

Zimbabwe faces the danger that Covid-19 will “go wild” rampaging throughout communities and quickly driving our total of confirmed cases into tens of thousands and our death rates into the thousands.

Until a week or so ago, the vast majority of cases were among returning citizens and residents.

This was expected and was being dealt with through a policy of compulsory supervised quarantine for at least 10 days.

But in recent days there have been sharp rises in what are defined as community infections, that is among people who have not been travelling recently and were definitely infected inside Zimbabwe. Some are contacts of known cases, but in an ever-growing number of cases no one knows how they were infected.

Chief co-ordinator of the National Response to the Covid-19 pandemic Dr Agnes Mahomva now wants a more intelligent response to the growing number of infections, with greater community involvement and greater testing and isolating when there are clusters of infection.

This is a best practice already implemented with success in countries such as China, Germany and South Korea.

Germany’s public health authorities, probably the most efficient in Europe, have moved swiftly whenever there is a local spike in cases, tightening up lockdown regulations in a particular town, industrial complex or even a single factory while they get all potential contacts to come forward for testing.

Germans respond to those sort of appeals, so they are beating Covid-19 while keeping their jobs.

It also requires an adequate supply of test kits and testing equipment and of medical staff who can take samples.

Thanks to some incredible generous gifts from China and Chinese businesses, and the efficiency and innovation of Zimbabwe’s own medical testing sectors, with machines bought for testing for HIV now in use for diagnostic testing of Covid-19, a lot of earlier bottlenecks in testing have been eased significantly.

So such a careful nuanced response is possible in Zimbabwe, if only everyone is willing to help by simply agreeing to follow some sensible rules and cooperate with emergency responses to a new cluster of infections in their community.

This is not the case at the moment. We have seen people, including infected people, leaving quarantine centres before they are cleared. Some of our community infections must come from this group.

We have seen truck drivers smuggling people from surrounding countries, so they do not have to go through screening and quarantine.

You can even find people boasting how they escaped border screening. Neither the border jumpers nor the truck drivers are thinking of others.

While the police have now arrested close on 500 border jumpers, we suspect that there are hundreds more who have escaped detection since our borders are porous.

What is needed is for everyone to see why the controls are needed and decide not to be a source of infection.

A nuanced response that fights Covid-19 spikes without wrecking our economy and making life a misery for all requires that we can, when necessary, isolate a cluster of cases. So truck drivers and pirate kombis shifting people across the country at will is not helpful.

Government has promised to open intercity travel, but we need controls to prevent an infected person travelling around and starting a new focus of infection.

The deferment of reopening schools announced yesterday is a response to a particular culture problem in Zimbabwe. If everyone attended their nearest high school, it might well be possible to cope with spikes in infections by closing a handful of schools for a couple of weeks while the cluster was tackled.

But many families are happy to see their children travel long distances as boarders or even day pupils to a “better” school. So a spike cannot be isolated.

The deferment allows the authorities to think carefully over how to manage the problem, but it probably means that an effective strategy to deal with the spikes and clusters of infection is needed first, to bring the risk of dying children down to negligible levels.

Even the three simple rules of wearing masks in public, especially in crowds, keeping social distances and keeping clean, work only when everyone follows them.

The general rule is that you do not want anyone sneezing or breathing on anyone else, so masks stop infected people passing on the virus, social distancing protects others from you, and keeping clean means it is harder to pick up a virus globule before you rub your face.

Everyone, medical experts and the general public from the President down, have been talking about the “new normal”.

It is likely that we will have to live with Covid-19 for some time. We live with other diseases, and we cope by taking precautions, acting sensibly, following simple medical rules and playing our part in not passing on the infection.

We can do the same with Covid-19.

Dr Mahomva has stressed “community involvement”. This means that everyone in a community is alert, everyone in a community takes precautions, and no one is complacent.

It also means we are ready to see friends and relatives quarantined when necessary, for everyone’s greater good, including these who may well need treatment early.

Around the world the message is the same. When there are high levels of self-discipline and community involvement, Covid-19 can be beaten down to a minor nuisance.

When many are complacent or do not care, the disease can run wild. We can choose what sort of Zimbabwe we want.

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