A different epidemic in Zambia

Zambian woman wearing a mask

We have all been struggling in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, however, the challenges faced around the world are not equal.

The UK is suffering extreme pressure on the National Health Service, Europe is struggling to distribute vaccines efficiently, causing frustrations amongst the public.

China has gained international criticism over its handling of Covid-19 in the early stages of the pandemic, countries reliant on tourism and travel have certainly suffered economically.

America has been under the microscope with its high death rates and is feeling the pressure of public opinion.

In contrast, southern Africa has become a victim of Covid-19 in a different way. According to the World Bank: “driven by the economic fallout of the Covid-19 global pandemic, growth in Sub-Saharan Africa is predicted to fall to -3.3% in 2020, pushing the region into its first recession in 25 years.”

We wanted to discover how this impacted the lives of African people, so we focused on talking to people in Zambia to see what issues they are dealing with.

While Zambia is obviously a unique country and faces issues that are not applicable to all Sub-Saharan territories, it is a good example of how an already indebted country is heavily reliant on the importation of goods and international cooperation to relieve poverty.

In August 2020, The World Bank reported that “the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic has exacerbated Zambia’s macroeconomic vulnerabilities. The country is Africa’s second-largest copper producer but depressed commodity markets have pushed copper prices down by about 14% through May 2020.

“The supply chain breakdown in major trading partners such as China and South Africa is negatively affecting domestic production and consumption. The kwacha (the Zambian currency) has depreciated by 30% since the beginning of the year”.

Wilfred Nyirongo image

Wilfred is a journalist and works with NGOs in Zambia [Wilfred Nyirongo]

We spoke to Wilfred Nyirongo, a Zambian journalist and who has also worked with NGOs in rural areas of Zambia around the impact of Covid-19 in Zambia.

“The virus has hit Zambia hard as the cost of living has tremendously gone up, all basic needs are fetching at a higher cost, the kwacha is now K21.8 to the dollar, from K12 for one dollar to somewhere around K21.85.”

It is reported that Zambia’s debt accounted for nearly 90% of the national GDP in 2020, and some reports expect that to increase.

Another major problem has been the import of goods. Zambia relies heavily on imported basic needs such as food and other goods. This has led to an increase in living and transport costs.

Kennedy Lungu, a young person who aspires to be a politician in the country said “the cost of living is going to rise, absolutely. This is going to be a really hard lesson on this country over how much we import and how much we depend on these imports.

“An example of the way higher living costs have affected me, in general, is for instance bread and other simple things you would buy for the home have doubled [in price], literally gone up by a factor of two,” Kennedy explained.

maize meal cooked into a high carb food, a staple in zambia that has increased in price

Mealie Meal, a high carb staple food in Zambia, has increased in price during Covid-19. [Flickr: Paresh Jai]

Deborah, a student at Levy Mwanawasa Medical University, told Artefact about other issues: “Costs are so high now it is leading to some families that are not financially stable to only having one meal a day and others not having any.” Even personal hygiene products like soap, toothpaste, tissue and sanitary pads- which should not be expensive because every woman needs them, have increased in cost.

Deborah said that she does not only blame the coronavirus pandemic but also people in higher positions of power, who “think of themselves but not the people of Zambia”.

Zambia is a country that was already battling social and health issues. Before the Covid-19 epidemic, they were making efforts to reduce the number of people who were infected with HIV by including the provision of ARV (Antiretroviral) drug treatment to those who already contracted the virus, meaning health services could be overwhelmed, similar to the UK.

According to the Zambian government, transmission in southern Africa seems to be low, and the economic pressures have not affected existing health systems.

Mulenga Hope, an environmental health technologist in Serenje Urban Clinic, noted that “there have not been any direct effects on the health system in relation to the devaluation of the Kwacha.”

shows government stats of Covid-19 in Zambia

A daily release showing the data recorded in Zambia [Facebook: Zambia Ministry of Health]

While the data in daily Covid-19 briefings released by the Ministry of Health in Zambia suggest small numbers of infections, some have said the numbers are not representative.

One reader, Andrew, comments that contrary to their report, “your death figures are very high and the low-level PCR testing is not representing the true picture.”

The British Medical Journal has also published reports suggesting there is a lack of accuracy in these reports due to insufficient testing in Zambia.

According to a report looking at Covid-19 cases in Zambia’s capital city published in February, concluded that: “Few people who died at facilities were tested, despite presenting with typical symptoms of Covid-19. Therefore, cases of Covid-19 were under-reported because testing was rarely done not because Covid-19 was rare. If this data is generalisable, the impact of Covid-19 in Africa has been vastly underestimated.”

Without acknowledging the impact of Covid-19, the economic problems in the country will continue to grow, and the future of Zambia and similar countries will remain uncertain at best.

 

 

 


Featured image by World Bank Photo Collection via Flickr CC.
Edited by: Sophie Victoria Brown, Giuli Graziano and Darnell Christie.

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