By Judith Sibanda
As Zimbabwe intensifies its efforts to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus with a three-week-long countrywide lockdown, concern has been raised over the plight of shack dwellers living in overcrowded settlements in Victoria Falls.
The resort town, with a population of over 33 000 people, has one of the largest numbers of people living in informal settlements and backyard shacks due to prohibitive rentals.
Landlords and other service providers in Victoria Falls charge in United States dollars, taking advantage of some employees in the tourism sector who are paid in foreign currency.
Morgan Dube, the chairperson of the Victoria Falls Residents Association, warned that any outbreak of the coronavirus disease in the town would be catastrophic because many people were living in overcrowded places.
Dube said shack dwellers shared ablution facilities and had no access to running water, at a time health experts were encouraging social distancing and high levels of hygiene to prevent the spread of the disease.
Zimbabwe’s first coronavirus case was recorded in Victoria Falls and authorities said 10 people that came into contact with the 38-year-old man had since tested negative to the disease also known as COVID-19.
“We have a huge challenge as a town when it comes to overcrowding,” Dube said.
“Even though a lot of residents moved to the rural areas ahead of the lockdown, we have seen many people moving into illegal settlements to put up more structures.”
The shacks are not only limited to undesignated settlements, but high-density suburbs such as Chinotimba and Mkhosana are littered with illegal backyard structures.
Some residents, who cannot afford the average US$100 being charged by landlords for a room per month, resort to staying in backyard shacks.
Dube said practising social distancing in such an environment was difficult and this made the resort town more vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Shacks are being pitched everywhere, including backyards of houses in high-density suburbs and the problem is worsened by lack of services like toilets and clean water,” he added.
“People are failing to practise social distancing and these areas will become hotspots if there is an outbreak of coronavirus.”
A 2001 study showed that one toilet served 507 shack dwellers while one water tap served 1 350 people in the informal settlements.
Victoria Falls is Zimbabwe`s tourism hub, with over a million foreign visitors every year.
The government said Hwange district would be central in Matabeleland North’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic because of the tourism activities in Victoria Falls and construction at the Hwange thermal power station where there is a large number of Chinese nationals.
COVID-19, which was first detected in the Chinese province of Wuhan late last year, has since spread throughout the globe and continues to kill thousands of people daily.
Zimbabwe has recorded eight cases of the disease so far with one fatality.
Health experts say one of the most effective ways of preventing the further spread of the flu-like disease is social distancing and maintaining good hygiene, practices that might prove impossible for Victoria Falls’ shack dwellers.
Purgie Chimberengwa, the Matabeleland North provincial medical director, conceded that keeping the disease out of the resort town’s informal settlements and overcrowded residential areas might prove to be a difficult task.
“We have said people must self-quarantine and try by all means to maintain social distancing,” Dr Chimberengwa said.
“For those people, it is a challenge as many of them on average live as families of four in one room.
“So when one becomes ill they might not have other facilities where they can quarantine that sick person except for calling health workers and we will be there to assist them.”
Fungisai Sithole from Citizens Health Watch said the government should have considered the fate of Zimbabwe’s homeless people, like the Victoria Falls residents living in shacks, before rolling out the countrywide lockdown.
Sithole said the poor conditions at the informal settlements could militate against the government’s efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus.
“This is a crisis that could cripple all the efforts the government is trying to put in place to control the spread of the disease,” she said.
“Most people, especially in urban areas, live in shacks due to unemployment and poverty and there they live in large numbers where a single shack can accommodate up to 10 people, including young children.
“The government should have implemented this lockdown guided by considerations of human rights as is the case with people without proper shelter.”
Sithole said Zimbabwe should have learnt from South Africa where shelter was arranged for homeless people, including street kids, to enforce social distancing and ensure good hygiene.
South Africa is also under a three-week lockdown to stop the spread of coronavirus.
“Homeless people are not able to fend for themselves and even the reasons for self-isolation are meaningless to them,” Sithole added. “South Africa considered all those people including street kids and homeless blind beggars.
“Zimbabwe is just applying what other countries are doing without practical solutions for the vulnerable.”
Itai Rusike, the Community Working Group on Health executive director, said the plight of Victoria Falls’ shack dwellers represented a larger national problem.
Rusike said many Zimbabweans, who had no guaranteed access to clean water and other social services were in danger of contracting coronavirus.
“The right to social services must be guaranteed to all people in Zimbabwe such as water supply and health services for prevention, monitoring and treatment of COVID-19,” he said.
“The people’ health cannot be separated from other socio-economic rights.
“Before the homeless people and street kids could self-quarantine or practice social distancing, they need affordable, decent and mass housing and transport systems.
“These are not present in many urban areas as many, including the underemployed, live in abhorrent housing conditions and homelessness.”
Dube, however, said his association had teamed up with other interest groups in the resort town to seek solutions to the problem of overcrowding in the face of the pandemic.
“This is beyond the authorities’ control and we have been trying to identify centres where such people can get help, especially, in terms of hygiene as is the case with Sipandawodi people in Chinotimba.
“They are overcrowded and have no proper facilities.
“We will be sending a health team to do regular monitoring while financial support will also be rendered to them.”
Experts say Zimbabwe’s response to the coronavirus pandemic will be complicated by the dire economic situation, which has left the majority of the population vulnerable.
Residents in the majority of the country’s main urban go for several days without running water due to consecutive droughts and failure by municipalities to buy adequate stocks of water treatment chemicals.