Southern Africa is in the throes of a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic driven by the delta variant.
In the midst of this, the question has to be asked: are people’s behaviour patterns sufficiently adjusted to adapt this existential threat?
An investigation by this writer points to worrying complacency, carelessness and corruption as key drivers of the spread of the pandemic.
The probe – funded by the National Geographic Society – covered several parts of Zimbabwe and the two inland ports of Beitbridge and Chirundu, which connect the country to South Africa and Zambia respectively.
Major issues of concern include uncontrolled travel across borders, unchecked internal movement and corruption.
In Zimbabwe, recent genomic sequencing results have indicated that approximately 80 percent of fresh cases are due to the delta variant. The country has so far recorded more than 91,120 confirmed cases and over 2,809 deaths.
The deadliest COVID-19 strain to date, according to the World Health Organisation, is the Delta variant, first identified in India in October 2020.
The variant has now been detected in more than 100 countries, and has been virulent in countries with both low and high vaccination coverage.
Delta was designated as a variant of concern (VOC) in May 2021. Other VOCs are alpha, beta and gamma.
Like all viruses, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is evolving and sometimes, new variants emerge and then disappear. Variations often allow viruses to spread more easily and.
According to the acting chief executive of Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, Professor Solwayo Ngwenya: “During a virus’s replication inside the bodies before infecting the next person, it gets a chance to change its structure. The movement between countries allows variants to be moved within societies.
“When a country has relaxed citizenry and allows free movement it gives the variants a chance to mutate bringing new variants to these communities.”
WHO COVID-19 incident manager Dr Lincoln Charimari adds, “Mutations are not caused by movement of people between countries but by continued circulation of the virus in populations such as which happens during waves of transmission.
“Reducing transmission through established and proven disease control methods, are crucial aspects of the global strategy to reduce the occurrence of mutations that have negative public health implications.
“Just as the virus spreads from community to community or from country to country, so do the mutations, also called variants.
“Once they spread to new areas, they then continue to be transmitted via local, community transmission. The SADC region has not been spared of the mutations.”
The rapidly evolving nature of the new coronavirus is something countries like Zimbabwe need to urgently factor into their COVID-19 responses.
Immigration & Migration
The pandemic has forced countries to go on lockdowns, with travel restrictions across and within borders.
To cross borders, countries now demand production of a certificate showing that the traveller is covid-free.
In Zimbabwe, failure to produce the certificate attracts a US$60 fine while those found with fake certificates face custodial sentences. There are also mandatory testing and quarantine regulations.
But irregular migration makes a mockery of all these measures.
Zimbabwe Republic Police national spokesperson Assistant Commission Paul Nyathi says more than 30,000 people have been arrested while trying to illegally cross the country’s borders since January 2021.
There is no telling how many more thousands have evaded the reach of law enforcement agents.
Zambia Police spokesperson Esther Mwata-Katongo weighs in: “We do conduct patrols within our respective boundaries and Zimbabwe does the same on their side. We review our security situations at different times and levels through regional bodies such as SARPCCO and Joint Permanent Commissions. We also conduct bi-lateral meetings aimed at reviewing border security situation.”
The International Organization for Migration, in its Flow Monitoring Report for May, noted that 11,753 irregular movements in Zimbabwe.
“The Zimbabwe–South Africa corridor hosted the largest number of individuals (5,901), the majority of whom were Zimbabweans (98 percent). This was followed by the ZambiaZimbabwe corridor with 3,039 movements tracked,” the report indicated.
The IOM says its information is based on direct observation and self-reporting by individuals.
It costs as little as R400 (US$27) to cross Beitbridge Border Post without a valid travel document, with “agents” on hand to assist those who are prepared to fork out the payment.
“It’s more expensive to go into South Africa from Zimbabwe through the border post. You can pay as little as R200 coming back into Zimbabwe,” one of “agents” told this writer.
There are several illegal crossing points along the Limpopo River that flows between South Africa and Zimbabwe.
One of these is the Spillway crossing point, which is a few hundred metres downstream of Beitbridge Border Post. Border jumping was also observed at Chinyampanza, Gate 10 and Gate 27.
“There are several crossing points along the Limpopo River and its rampant when the river levels are low,” a border official says.
At Gate 27, business is brisk for transporters of smuggled goods who use donkey-drawn carts.
Recently, Zimbabwean police stopped a bus that was suspected to have illegally crossed over from South Africa. When the 34 passengers were tested, three of them had COVID-19.
The situation is the same in Chirundu. In addition, informal traders make frequent use of canoes to cross the Zambezi River.
To cross into Zambia illegally, one pays US$10 to a person who carries the luggage, which is handed back to the border jumper once the deed is done. This is because a border jumper carrying his/her own luggage is conspicuous.
Zimbabwean Police have this year impounded six buses traveling to Chirundu at night.
Complacency & Carelessness
And of course there is the problem of complacency.
Throughout the investigation, across Zimbabwe, it was observed that basic COVID-10 protocols were not being adhered to.
In Chivi District of Masvingo Province, thousands of villagers attended a market day in without any health protocols being followed.
“These market days are held every month-end and some people come to buy good while others come to socialise. Very few people wear masks and social distancing is not observed,” said resident Jane Danda.
She said COVID-19 was associated with big urban centres, and no one really cared about enforcing regulations elsewhere.
Before the hard lockdowns in Chinhoyi, Karoi, Kariba and Chirundu in Mashonaland West Province, curfews were routinely ignored. Live bands hosted music shows and drinking places could be open all night.
Prof Ngwenya of Mpilo Hospital says authorities need to be stricter on violation of protocols and regulations.