COVID-19 in Zambia
‘Tuleisakamana’ (Stop Coronavirus) The old woman’s voice rings out surprisingly loud coming from such a fragile frame. She regularly gathers ripe granadillas from the hedge at the front gate. For the last week or so, I hear her singing nearly every day, reaching increasingly deeper into the hedge, rolling the fruit carefully to test for a wrinkly skin. Granadilla wrinkles equal nourishment, care and a bit of sweetness; as does this slight figure with the head scarf. To her offspring, she also equals nourishment, care and a bit of sweetness.
‘Tuleisakamana’ echoes the sound from tiled wall to tiled floor in the empty expanses of a mall in Lusaka. On a huge TV screen B’Flow reminds the Zambian nation to wash their hands, stay at home. As in the rest of the world, modern history in Zambia is also moving into a new epoch. In decades to come, people will mark milestones in their lives with before-corona and after-corona. Before-corona B’Flow (Brian Bwembya) was known in the smokey night clubs of the city. Now even the grandmothers sing along ‘Tuleisakamana.’
Our complex in the shady suburb of Kabulonga in Lusaka, is hauntingly silent. The Austrians family and Australian bachelor left when the first warnings about a pandemic surfaced. They still had time to settle electricity bills, pet care and disconnect the car’s battery. The American family had to make do with a hasty goodbye to their two cats. They barely managed seats on one of the last planes leaving Kenneth Kaunda Airport.
The cleaner of the complex’ six-year old boy was delivered with bags of rice, maize meal and a carton of cigarettes at the grandma somewhere up north in rural Zambia. Taking the children to grandmother in the village is the Zambian way of handling a crisis; be it a naughty child, a long holiday or a looming catastrophe like Covid-19.
Zambian people have strong roots in the village. The village is the center of the clan, a haven of security despite the lack of shops, roads and seemingly very few modern amenities. The western definition of a group of houses and associated buildings does not apply to a village in the Zambian culture. It might be only a few simple dwellings, a chicken coop, a cattle kraal, surrounded by maize of cassava fields. In the Zambian mind however, village implies grandmother, the embodiment of stability in an everchanging world. Agogo is keeper of traditions, a pillar in rough times and proof that everything will be alright – eventually. In moments of crisis, Zambians go back to be nourished by the deeply engraved security of the village and the wisdom of grandmother.
In the beginning of March, a partial lockdown was announced in Zambia. Overnight the city came to a virtual standstill. After the first corona patients were diagnosed, President Edgar Lungu spoke, and the people listened. Within hours the streets were empty, the shopping malls quiet. The stream of school children in the streets carrying books in faded blue backpacks bursting at its sides, dried up within a day. Taxis usually packed like sardines, were half empty. ‘Callers’ shouted out its destination in vain, as there were few takers. With dogged obedience people moved behind the high walls of properties; walls dating from the colonial era – covered in ivy, peeling paint and fungi in autumn colours.
It became a daily habit to check the statistics; accompanied by the nagging question: should I have left? Comparing home country with temporary place of residence is part of every expat’s life. One continuously must convince oneself that the drastic decision to leave country and clan behind, was indeed wise. The uncertainty surrounding the pandemic makes us remaining expats, uncomfortable. A lot of monkey chattering is going on in the head, not helped by the lack of reliable information. All in vain anyhow; the borders are closed, the flights cancelled.
We try to stay positive; exceedingly difficult, given the grave predictions of the World Health Organisation, scientists and medical experts. Is Africa a corona time bomb waiting to explode?
And so, we wait. We WhatsApp. We phone. We speculate.
‘The timing of this virus was excellent,’ a born optimist says, correcting himself quickly. ‘No disrespect intended.’ Had the virus come a few months later, even so much as one month later, the situation would have been disastrous. Zambian’s tourist season starts late March after the summer rains. During summer, big parts of the country is inaccessible due to the river basins of the Zambezi, Kafue, Luwanga, and numerous other big rivers. When the rains stop somewhere late March or April, wildlife flock to the basins and tourists follow. Luxury lodges welcome tens of thousands of guests from America, Europe, Japan and China during autumn and winter. With much needed revenue, the virus would have entered and would have been distributed to all corners of the country. Doom prophets predicted that Covid-19 would come to Zambia via China and the Chinese were immediately under scrutiny. China has a finger in nearly every Zambian pie, be that government or private enterprise. The Chinese invasion is locally known as the second colonisation. Over the last decades Chinese companies took over many local industries. Very few local companies can compete with the Chinese and the latter dominate especially the building industry.
Thousands of Chinese came to Africa, single men on contract, but during the past few years numerous families also settled in the country. Typical expat custom, they travel home specifically for special celebrations. Chinese construction companies usually work through Xmas and new Year when the rest of the world stops to celebrate Christmas. In January, with the onset of the Lunar New Year, the Chinese fly home to celebrate with family and friends. This year the Chinese New Year fell on 25 January, the height of the Covid crisis in Wuhan.
Once again, the timing of the virus, worked in Zambia’s favour. Due to the travel restrictions in China, many Chinese decided to postpone their home visit despite missing the celebrations. Those who did go, were slow to return as they were quarantined in their home cities for two to three weeks. When eventually declared healthy, they flew to Zambia to resume work; only to be quarantined in Zambia as well. The quarantine regulations were meticulously obeyed as health officials checked each and every traveler on a daily basis. This double quarantine apparently worked as up to date no Chinese citizen in Zambia was diagnosed with Covid-19.
It must furthermore be remembered that Africa is used to combatting highly contagious illnesses such as HIV, Hepatitis B and C, TB, Ebola and cholera. Zambia, and specifically Lusaka, has been subject to cholera outbreaks often during the past few years. As recently as 2018/2019 nearly a hundred people died in the city from this disease transmitted through contaminated food and water. The terror of cholera still fresh in the minds, both public and authorities acted swiftly when Covid warnings were issued.
During recent cholera outbreaks, schools and universities were closed immediately, and a huge clean-up started. Zambians, in general well-educated and informed, gave their full cooperation during the cholera and Covid crises. Given that the country does not have a system of social grants, people in Zambia do not look to the government for assistance. They bite the bullet and look after themselves and their families. On the surface it seems that Zambians have a high level of civil obedience but underlying this is a strong sense of self-preservation.
Not that it is all smooth sailing. On 25 March President Lungu seemed somewhat upset with the citizens: ‘I have gone round the city and I have seen for myself that many among us are not taking this Covid-19 seriously. I have seen multitudes patronizing bars or freely, hugging and shaking hands at funerals…’
According to news reports, the virus first arrived in Zambia early March when a Zambian couple came back from a holiday in France. On getting sick, they immediately acted, and the spread was seemingly contained.
But then a Pakistani came back from a home visit and within days 39 people were infected. All hell broke loose, and Pakistanis in general became suspect and even treated with contempt. Public and press reacted with anger and one blogger wrote: ‘They recently attended an Islamic annual ceremony. Just there in Pakistan, government orders for maintaining social distancing amid Covid-19 was defied blatantly by the Pakistanis and all those that traveled there. These people …are the ones spreading the virus in Zambia – otherwise we would not have any case so far. I want to believe Gvt knows these people. My simple investigation has revealed that most of them live in Emmasdale with a small group residing in Madraas Kabwata/Kamwala areas.’
Another journalist believes the pandemic is an opportunity for Zambia to show the world: ‘In this regard, the DP requests the Government to disclose to the nation and the world what medicine Zambia is using in treating these patients. It is evident that the world is struggling to treat their patients while Zambia has continued to record remarkable progress. With this progress, we believe Zambia can take this opportunity to be the solution that the world is looking for. May be France or even Italy can learn from us on how we are managing to treat our patients…’
Not everybody is so positive though. The government is often severely criticised for its handling of the crisis. A senior minister was accused of showing his ‘huge forehead’ on the TV too often and not do enough. A well-known former politician was accused of spreading the virus through a donation of hand sanitizer during a by-election. An opposition newspaper hinted that a prominent minister helped himself to Covid money.
After a severe drought, Zambia’s economy is in ruins which leaves the country with few resources to fight the pandemic. In 2019 it was estimated that round 1,7 million people were affected by the worst famine in three decades. UNICEF reported 40% of all children under five was under-nourished. Rural Zambia relies on subsistence farming for daily meals. Although the 2019 / 2020 rain season was good, it would take months for the harvest to be ready. NGO’s were still in the process of distributing food parcels when the pandemic hit.
In a radio interview a grandmother tells she and her grandchildren lived on wild fruit in the days prior to receiving a bag of maizemeal from an aid organization. She is exhausted, her voice barely audible. She, like thousands of grannies, reverted to the old ways once the maize supply in the nkhokwe (the woven storage structure) ran out. When the family from Lusaka did not pitch with the promised food, she was forced to turn to nature’s pantry; the trees of the miombo forest. Zambia has some twenty national parks, and more than thirty game management areas where patches of miombo forests remain fairly untouched. Although these miombo forests make out a small percentage of the land, it is a source of nourishment during lean seasons. The wise grannies know that fruits alone, do not always kill the hunger pangs. They probably do not have the scientific knowledge as to how nutritious these these wild fruits really are; might even have never heard of high concentrations of vitamin C or proteins in the kernels. They probably are uneducated, some not even literate, but these grandmothers have the wisdom and indigenous knowledge to harvest the forests in times of need. They know their way around the bush and are well versed in the laws of the land. The tree in your yard is yours alone, but those of the bush are for anybody to pick. Water berries are slightly acid in flavour. Wild loquat is sweet tasting like a pear and mobola-plum can be eaten raw, cooked, or processed into juice or jam. The seeds of the latter are taken home to be roasted, boiled, or grounded into powder to add to cassava or rice.
Lusaka is still the epicentre of the virus, but it spread north to Kabwe already. Life is far from normal in this in-between stage, but the government has lifted the lockdown. In general, only schools and universities are still closed. Most Zambians are confident that this pandemic will pass as did the cholera scares in recent years. Masks have become a fashion trend; Sunglasses on the head, mask from chitenge on the chin. Zambians are used to outside forces shaping their lives. They have a remarkable ability to adapt, taking things in their stride. Even expats adapt, refueling their vehicles on a Thursday. On Fridays the queues at the filling stations are endless with vehicles packed with groceries and toilet paper. The road is long, the village far, but at the end of the road is agogo, and the century old truth that life is a circle of good and bad and that nothing is permanent.
Covid-19 will pass.