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In Zimbabwe, fourth Cabinet member dies of COVID-19 amid surge

Amid military and other officials in masks, pallbearers in full hazmat suits carry coffins along a red carpet.
Pallbearers carry the coffin of a government minister in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Thursday.
(Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi / Associated Press)

Four Zimbabwean Cabinet ministers have died of COVID-19, three within the last two weeks, highlighting a resurgence of the disease that is sweeping through this southern African country.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa said the coronavirus was reaping a “grim harvest” in the country.

“The pandemic has been indiscriminate. There are no spectators, adjudicators, no holier than thou. No supermen or superwomen. We are all exposed,” Mnangagwa said in a nationally televised address.

Mnangagwa presided at the burial of one Cabinet minister last week, shortly after the death of the foreign minister was announced. Then came the death of the transport minister. Several other high-profile politicians and prominent Zimbabweans also have died recently.

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The opposition accuses the government of using COVID-19 as a weapon by detaining its members of parliament, officials and other critics in overcrowded jails where the disease is easily transmitted. Critics also accuse the government of neglecting the public hospitals, where many ill with COVID-19 cannot get the oxygen needed to survive. Many of the country’s elites are treated at expensive private facilities or fly out of the country for care.

The government says it is doing its best and that, despite the wide political and economic differences, fighting the virus is everyone’s war.

Zimbabwe, like many other African countries, initially recorded low numbers of COVID-19 but recently experienced a surge in cases. There are fears that a new, more infectious variant of the virus came to the country when scores of thousands of Zimbabweans living in South Africa returned home for the holiday season.

The country of 15 million recorded a total of 31,007 cases, including 974 deaths, on Saturday, up from the slightly more than 10,000 cases and 277 deaths at the beginning of December, according to government figures.

Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 fatality rate has doubled recently, with the seven-day rolling average of daily deaths rising over the last two weeks from 0.10 deaths per 100,000 people on Jan. 9 to 0.28 deaths per 100,000 people on Saturday, according to Johns Hopkins University.

In poor areas such as Chitungwiza, the sprawling residential area about 18 miles southeast of Harare, gravediggers are overwhelmed.

“Coronavirus, this is something I used to read about in the news, [but] it is here on our doorsteps now. People are dying,” said Coleta Moyana, a Chitungwiza resident.

Officials are seeking more burial space to accommodate rising numbers of deaths.

Many people are not being tested, nor are they going to hospitals for help, said a doctors association, noting that, on some days, nearly half of COVID-19 deaths happen outside hospitals.

“Those undiagnosed cases are super-spreading,” the Zimbabwe Senior Hospital Doctors Assn. said earlier this month.

“COVID-19 is affecting everyone, but it is not affecting everyone equally. It has entrenched and exacerbated the extreme inequalities and injustices that existed before the pandemic,” Itai Rusike, director of the Harare-based organization, Community Working Group on Health, told the Associated Press on Sunday.

“The majority of poor Zimbabweans without medical insurance end up dying at home,” he said.

Zimbabwe has not yet received any vaccines. Mnangagwa on Saturday said the government health officials were still deciding which vaccine to acquire.

“Our experts are very close to finalizing the course to recommend … and it will be quite soon,” he said.


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