Irish aid agencies in Zimbabwe are repurposing their development programmes in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus in a country with millions of vulnerable people.
Networks of rural organisations originally set up by Trócaire and Goal to facilitate the roll-out of essential food aid will now also be used to educate rural communities about coronavirus, also known as Covid-19.
In addition, the Irish non-governmental organisations have launched major awareness-raising campaigns about the dangers of Covid-19 and the need for people to adopt hygienic practices and social-distancing measures .
The aid agencies' scramble to address the threat of Covid-19 has coincided with the launch of a joint international appeal last week by President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the United Nations for $715 million to tackle the pandemic.
Zimbabwe only recorded its first Covid-19 case on March 20th, with Mr Mnangagwa implementing a 21-day lockdown 10 days later to try to slow the spread of the disease, as the country has scant financial resources and its health system is on the brink of collapse.
In addition, many in Zimbabwe’s 16 million population are extremely vulnerable to disease, having been impoverished by the country’s longstanding political and economic crises and more recent climate shocks.
Most doctors in the country only returned to work in January after a four-month strike over wages, because local telecoms billionaire Strive Masiyiwa established a fund to cover their subsistence and transport costs.
Furthermore, drugs and medical supplies are in short supply, and depleted state coffers mean the government is unable to buy even essential items for state-run hospitals.
According to Zimbabwe’s ministry of health and child care, as of April 7th there were still only 11 cases of Covid-19 – including two deaths – on record. But the fear within the development community is that the virus is far more prevalent in the country than the government’s figures suggest.
Local media organisations have reported there is little testing for Covid-19 because Zimbabwe’s hospitals lack test kits, and those reports appear borne out by the health ministry’s April 4th Covid-19 update. It said that only 349 people had been tested for the disease by that date.
Trócaire’s country director for Zimbabwe, Sarah McCann, told The Irish Times it suspended its development work a week ago in order to assist the government in educating Zimbabweans about the dangers of Covid-19.
“We are doing as much as we can to get the message about Covid-19 out to rural communities, using our local partners who are working with farmers and churches to educate people,” she said.
Ms McCann said it is essential to keep delivering food aid in conjunction with the Covid-19 messaging, because people’s natural immunity has been seriously compromised by poverty and the ongoing food shortages.
“Keeping people’s immune systems healthy is a high priority, and proper food is essential to that. But we are handing out soap and sanitisers at the same time and teaching people about hygiene, social distancing, and the need for self-isolation if they become ill,” she said.
Goal’s Zimbabwe country director Gabreilla Prandini said that in addition to relaying Covid-19 information via their food distribution networks, the organisation was collaborating with government on different media campaigns.
“Our Covid-19 messaging goes out on local and national radio, and we have mobile units driving around urban areas with posters that educate,” said Ms Prandini, adding these activities were the cheapest and most effective ways to educate Zimbabweans given the government’s lack of resources.
However, she warned that not all aid agencies in Zimbabwe were able to turn their attention to Covid-19 because of bureaucracy.
Although Irish Aid is allowing Goal to redirect the funding it receives from taxpayers to address Covid-19, other development organisations in Zimbabwe were struggling to get the same co-operation from international donors.
“That is one of the biggest challenges the development community is currently facing. Some international donors are not allowing their funds to be redirected into Covid-19 activities, which is creating paralysis on the ground at a time when we need to act fast,” she said.