One year of COVID-19: Looking back at a year of isolation and loss

A worker disinfects a pastor after a burial in Harare (pic: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP)

It has been a year since Zimbabwe’s first recorded its first case of coronavirus. A year later, 1510 people have died, and a total of 36 652 cases have been recorded.

Like elsewhere around the world, the journey has been of loss and failure, some successes and scandal. Here, we provide a timeline of events over the past year.


February: This was a month full of speculation and fear. A case of a Zimbabwean woman, who returned home from China, showed this. Having been tested, as required, on her arrival, social media and newspapers called her a “COVID-19 suspect”. Critics accused government of cover-ups, one paper said she had been released “prematurely”. After harassment – her name was leaked online – she had to be admitted for mental care.

March 1: Government announces that a traveller from China’s Hunan Province was screened for coronavirus at an isolation facility. The test was negative. The suspicion continued. Some insisted that the traveller was in fact from Wuhan, the COVID-19 epicentre, insisting that Government’s reference to “Hunan” was a mistake. It was not.

Reflecting the reporting of the time, one headline said: “Second coronavirus traveller isolated”.

Unprepared: An April 1, 2020, picture showing one of Wilkins Hospitals’ hurriedly upgraded wards. (pic: XINHUA)

March 9: A man who had arrived from Thailand ‘escapes’ from Wilkins hospital before being tested, highlighting weak testing and tracing systems. He later tests negative for the virus.

March 16: South Africa vows it would never close the Beitbridge border post. Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi says: “We will never close that one. It’s the gateway to the rest of the continent.”

March 17: President Mnangagwa declares the coronavirus crisis a national disaster. Even though the country has no confirmed case yet, the declaration is meant to raise resources.

Borders remain open, he says, but ‘travellers from high-risk countries are discouraged from travelling to Zimbabwe’.

Govt postpones events, including the ZITF, Independence Day celebrations and sport. Gatherings of more than 100 people are banned for 60 days.

“Our response will neither be arbitrary, nor reckless,” Mnangagwa says.

March 20: Zimbabwe records its first case of COVID-19. The first known person to have the virus is a 38-year old Victoria Falls resident, who tests positive after a trip to the UK.  

March 21: Zimbabwe records a second confirmed coronavirus case. “Patient 2”, authorities say, had recently travelled to New York.

March 23: Zororo Makamba, a talented young broadcaster, is the first person to die of coronavirus in Zimbabwe. He was “Patient 2”. His tragic death at Wilkins Hospitals lays bare how woefully unprepared Zimbabwe is to treat patients.

Zimbabwe declares a national state of disaster. Borders are closed, save for commercial cargo. Returning residents must go into 21-day self-quarantine. Bars, clubs, gyms and all sport events are closed.

March 25: Rock Foundation, an exclusive hospital in Arundel, announces it is to open to COVID-19 patients. It is owned by Kuda Tagwireyi’s Sakunda, raising outrage that elites are setting themselves apart in the COVID19 crisis.  

March 26: The UN’s human rights chief says “broad sectoral sanctions” on countries such as Zimbabwe should be lifted to allow them to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

March 26: Air Zimbabwe suspends all regional and domestic flights.

RBZ responds to the economic impact of COVID-19: Free use of USD is allowed, the exchange rate is fixed at 1:25 (the black market rate was 1:40 at the time). The bank rate is cut by 10 percentage points to 25%.

The impact on Zimbabwe’s already fragile, commodity-dependent economy is beginning to tell. Kwekwe’s Zimasco plant shuts down after ferrochrome prices fall to four-year lows.

The Chamber of Mines warns that mineral output could fall by 60% in the quarter, and the country could lose US$400m in mineral revenue.

CZI says 46% of local firms have already suffered supply disruptions. Airport arrivals have already fallen by 50%.

March 27:  President Mnangagwa says COVID-19 poses “grave threats to our nation” and the country must take drastic action. He announces a 21-day lockdown. Only food markets are to remain open. All public transport grounded, save for ZUPCO and public service buses.

He pledges a Z$200m payout to one-million vulnerable households over three months. Budgets to various Ministries are cut to redirect money to fight COVID-19. Some 4 000 health sector posts are unfrozen and 200 new posts are created. Duty and tax are suspended on goods and services related to testing, protection, sterilisation and other medical consumables.

Mnangagwa says: “This (lockdown) was not an easy decision. But this is the right decision. Our economy will survive. It will recover.”

April 11: CZI urges government to reconsider the lockdown. They propose the removal of “wasteful” subsidies, including on fuel. They also propose that the exchange be freed, and plead to landlords to “show compassion” to businesses.

April 19: Government extends the lockdown by a further 14 days. Mnangagwa says Zimbabwe is yet to meet the conditions for lifting lockdowns, among which are the capacity to trace, isolate and treat coronavirus cases.

May 1: Lockdown is extended for another 14 days. Mnangagwa announces a Z$18bn economic stimulus, saying: “The package is proportionate to the disruption the virus has caused to the national economy.” It includes Z$500 million in bank loan guarantees for players in tourism, one of the worst hit sectors.

May 6: The World Bank uses a special health fund to provide US$7 million to Zimbabwe to help the country fight the spread of coronavirus.

May 12: Health Secretary Agnes Mahomva is appointed Chief Coordinator of Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 response. But, controversially, this appointment means she leaves her position at the Ministry of Health, after just a year in the job. A scandal over the procurement of COVID-19 materials is raging.

May 16: Government announces that Zimbabwe is to remain under the COVID-19 lockdown for an indefinite period with reviews being made every fortnight.

June 3: UK-listed diagnostics firm Novacyt secures a contract to supply 1.5 million COVID-19 test kits to Zimbabwe. The country gets a US$10 million loan from the Arab League bank BADEA for its COVID-19 response.

June 12: Mnangagwa allows the informal sector to reopen, but only after they formally register.

July 7: Health Minister Obadiah Moyo is fired over the COVID-19 procurement scandal. He later faces abuse of office charges.

Obadiah Moyo: sacked and arrested over alleged COVID-19 contracts

July 21: A 6PM-6AM curfew is imposed as part of new measures.

July 29: Agriculture Minister Perrance Shiri dies of COVID-19.

August 4: Mnangagwa springs surprise by appointing his deputy, Chiwenga, as Minister of Health.

August 18: Curfew is eased to 8PM-6AM, and there is no more mandatory quarantine for everyone arriving in Zimbabwe. Those who are negative can quarantine at home; those who test positive are isolated.

September 1: Cabinet announces that exam classes start September 14 for Cambridge and September 28 for Zimsec classes. Zimsec exams will start in December.

September 8: An eleven-member panel of health experts is appointed to advise government in COVID-19.

September 10: Zimbabwe resumes domestic flights, ahead of the resumption of international flights October 1. Government lifts restrictions on inter-city travel.

December 1: Zimbabwe reopens land borders to returning citizens. Crowds of travelers clog the Beitbridge border post.

December 19: President Mnangagwa warns that the progress that Zimbabwe had made against COVID19 is under threat, as cases rise due to “complacency and recklessness”.

He also announces: “Zimbabwe is participating in clinical trials and vaccine research to ensure that our response to the vaccine is guided by science.”

January 2: As cases spike, Government announces a 30-day partial lockdown. All gatherings are banned for 30 days.

January 15: Manicaland provincial affairs minister, Ellen Gwaradzimba dies of COVID-19.

January 20: Foreign Affairs Minister SB Moyo dies of COVID-19 at age 61.

January 22: Transport Minister Joel Biggie Matiza dies from COVID-19. His death brings to three the number of Cabinet Ministers to have succumbed to COVID-19. Former Prisons boss Paradzai Zimondi also dies.

The deaths of senior officials forced elite to confront Zimbabwe’s decayed healthcare system (pic: AP)

January 23: In a national address, Mnangagwa says the COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe is “worrisome and threatens to become dire”.

January 29: Lockdown is extended by two more weeks. VP Chiwenga says: “Even though numbers we are losing to the pandemic are falling, we bemoan the fact that Zimbabweans are dying at all. Any death is one death too many.”

February 12: Government releases its COVID-19 vaccination plan, showing a three-phase rollout strategy starting with a target of 60,000 frontline workers, mostly those in healthcare.

February 15: Zimbabwe receives its first vaccines; a consignment of 200,000 Sinopharm doses donated by China. The lockdown is stretched by another two weeks. Mnangagwa says while new cases have slowed, a lockdown is still needed to bring down new infections and allow health officials to assess possible strains and increase tests.

February 16: Cabinet says the COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa is now the most common variant in Zimbabwe, with 61% dominance. Zimbabwe says it is registering a second Chinese vaccine Sinovac, and assessing more vaccine options. Chiwenga presents Zimbabwe’s vaccine rollout plan to Parliament.

February 18: Chiwenga takes the Sinopharm COVID-19 vaccine, becoming the first in the country to do so, marking the launching of the national rollout.

March 1: Mnangagwa eases the lockdown. No more letters needed for movement, supermarkets open for longer hours and industry reopens.

March 2: Zimbabwe is allocated 984,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine under the COVAX facility’s revised distribution list, down from 1,152 million doses in the initial schedule circulated in February.

March 4: Zimbabwe becomes the first African country to authorise India’s COVAXIN vaccine. Zimbabwe says it is expecting 75,000 doses of the vaccine from India.

March 9: CIMAS announces it is leading a private sector drive to import vaccines. The initiative includes banks, mines and industry

March 10: Amid slow uptake, Zimbabwe has started Phase 2 of the COVID-19 vaccination plan, targeting the education sector, the elderly, people with chronic illnesses, workers in the hospitality sector, and tobacco traders.

March 16: Zimbabwe receives 200,000 bought from Sinovac, and another 200,000 Sinopharm doses donated by China. A consignment of 1.2 million consumables is also imported.