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COVID-19 surges in Southern Africa

Churches play a key role by combatting misinformation

by Douglas Tilton, World Mission | Special to the Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Valente Tseco is President of the Presbyterian Church of Mozambique, a partner organization of the PC(USA). (Contributed photo)

SOUTH AFRICA — After comparatively low rates of COVID-19 infection throughout most of 2020, Southern Africa experienced dramatically increased caseloads in the wake of the holiday season.

In Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, the total number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection more than doubled during January 2021. The spike in infections appears to have been driven in part by increased social interaction over the holidays and also by the emergence of a new, more contagious, coronavirus variant, 501Y.V2, first identified in South Africa in November. The 501Y.V2 strain was also isolated in Mozambique and Zambia in late 2020 and is assumed to be circulating in Zimbabwe, where three government ministers have succumbed to COVID-19.

Zambia’s Health Minister reported that the new infections were more transmissible, more widely spread geographically and generally more severe, with more people requiring hospitalization and oxygen therapy. Zimbabwe hospitals reached full capacity and patients were turned away.

In Zimbabwe, doctors often require that a patient be tested before they can see the doctor, but few people can afford the $60-$100 private clinics charge for testing. While testing is available through the public health system in Mozambique, it can take a long time to get results, prompting those who can afford to do so to turn to expensive — and less accurate — rapid tests available from private clinics for about $60.

Government and church responses

On Jan. 2, the government of Zimbabwe announced a new 30-day lockdown, which it relaxed on March 1.  All gatherings, including weddings and church services, were banned, except for funerals, which were limited to 30 mourners. Face masks, hand sanitizing, social distancing and temperature checks continue to be mandated.

The lockdown seems to have slowed infections. From mid-January, when Zimbabwe’s daily infection rate peaked at 956, the numbers fell back sharply to below 300 infections per day by the end of the month — unlike in Zambia and Mozambique, where dramatically increased daily infection rates were largely sustained through the end of January.

Zambia’s government rejected a strict lockdown. At the beginning of February, Health Minister Dr. Jonas Chanda told parliament that Zambia will need to find a way to remain economically active, even in a pandemic. Instead, Zambia has opted for promoting strict adherence to health guidelines — use of masks, social distancing and temperature checks.

Mozambique announced new COVID-19 mitigation measures on Jan. 15 and extended these with additional restrictions in February. Schools and places of worship were closed, and trading hours were restricted.

Rev. Valente Tseco, President of the Igreja Presbiteriana de Moçambique, a PC(USA) global partner, said government restrictions can do only so much. For instance, the government requires burial to take place within 24 hours. Families are not allowed to observe traditions of washing the body and holding a vigil throughout the night before the burial. The coffin must remain closed and go directly into the grave. Services are limited to 10 minutes, and the police ensure that no more than 10 mourners attend.

While legislators in the United States debated the magnitude of an economic stimulus package to alleviate the impact of the pandemic, the government of Zimbabwe has little capacity to provide relief. Although Zimbabwe announced a multi-billion-dollar recovery and stimulus package in spring 2020, there is little evidence that the funds were disbursed effectively.

As a result, communities have often looked to churches for support, despite their limited capacity. “We have mango trees in our church yard,” one pastor in Zimbabwe reported, “and we have had to minister to the community by giving out mangos. People were not coming for mangos to supplement their diets, but simply for something to eat.”

Vaccine availability

Vaccines are not generally available in Southern Africa, but Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique are all expected to receive vaccines though the global COVAX initiative. Coordinated by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, the World Health Organization and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations in association with other public, private and philanthropic sector partners, COVAX is one of the three pillars of a joint WHO-European Commission initiative to ensure equitable access to COVID-19 diagnostics, treatment and vaccines.

The initial list of distribution targets published Feb. 3 show allocations of the AstraZeneca vaccine for Mozambique (2.4 million doses), Zambia (1.4 million) and Zimbabwe (1.15 million).

If the United States’ recent decision to resume participation in WHO is accompanied by renewed political and financial support for the agency and for the COVAX initiative, this could provide a huge boost to its efforts. Even so, the rollout of vaccines will take time. Dr. Richard Miti, co-convener of the Zambia-Zimbabwe-Mozambique-USA Mission Network’s Health Concerns Working Group, said that the Zambian government expects that vaccines will be available at the end of March. While industrialized countries have bought more than enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations, African nations have secured enough vaccines for only about one-third of their people.

Another big concern is whether people will be willing to be vaccinated. Social media is awash with misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines. Messages often portray vaccination as part of a global conspiracy or a demonic plot to harm people — and, in Southern Africa, African people in particular. Churches have a key role to play in combatting misinformation. The Presbytery of Zimbabwe is using Facebook to provide education on COVID-19, with messages that will also be shared via WhatsApp.

Douglas Tilton is World Mission’s regional liaison for South Africa.

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