Back in March, if you’d offered somebody the choice of riding out the Covid pandemic in Britain – with its £200bn NHS budget – and the police state of Zimbabwe – which spends around £500m a year on healthcare – you would have struggled to find anyone picking the latter.
But now, with the UK in the midst of a second national lockdown, it is the dysfunctional but relatively Covid-free African republic that’s looking far more appealing.
“When I see what’s happening in Europe and North America, I’m so grateful to be experiencing the pandemic here,” says Dr Alex Stevenson, a 46-year-old pediatrician working in Harare.
That wasn’t the case at first, he admits.
“Initially we locked down hard, just like many countries in Africa, and we all thought it was going to be this great disaster. Only essential services stayed open, schools closed, and it was difficult to get supplies. The police were pretty zealous about enforcement, with roadblocks set up all over the place.
“We feared the worst. I thought there was going to be a mass pandemic, and I was worried that the lockdown would cause mass starvation, but in the end neither happened. Corona just didn’t really arrive.”
This assertion is backed up by the official figures – to date, Zimbabwe has reported just 8,897 Covid cases and 257 deaths (compared with 1,390,681 and 52,147 for the UK) – but also by Stevenson’s own observations.
“We were thinking we weren’t testing enough, and that the big influx of patients was just around the corner,” he says. “During the winter, when South Africa was reporting big numbers, there was fresh concern. But the influx never happened.
“Covid is certainly around. But we’re only seeing maybe a few dozen cases a day, nationwide [68 were reported in the latest daily update]. The site where I work, St Anne’s, was designated a special corona hospital. Treatment is free, and it’s well known in the community – but almost all the beds are empty.”
Quite why Zimbabwe remains so unscathed is a matter for debate. Its young demographic (average age: 18.7) and low obesity rate are factors, says Stevenson, but other theories abound.
“Covid has taught all of us to be careful with theories, but vitamin D is one, the warmer climate and spending more time outside is another, and then there’s the idea that we’re less reliant on crowded public transport. Cross-immunity has also been discussed.
“South Africa, however, which is similar to us in many ways, did have a bad epidemic, which is confusing. I’m at a loss to be honest and of course it may yet take off.”
With some medical experts arguing that mass testing of asymptomatic people is exaggerating the severity of Europe’s second wave, Stevenson believes it’s also a factor worth considering.
He says: “Testing is a part of it. Obviously we’re not testing like they are in other countries – just people who have a respiratory illness – so we’re not getting those big case numbers. Having said that, we’re not getting many sick patients with Covid either, and all the people with flu-like symptoms I have sent for testing came back negative. I just don’t think there’s much corona.”
That’s not to say the pandemic hasn’t had an impact on other health services.
“The March lockdown, which coincided with strikes by doctors and nurses, disrupted supply chains. It meant people couldn’t get hold of HIV and TB drugs, and pregnant women couldn’t get to hospital to have their babies,” says Stevenson. “What I found very interesting as a pediatrician was how my business collapsed. So much of my work is dealing with various viruses passed from one child to another, so everything was very quiet for me until all the kids went back to school.”
There was an economic hit, he adds, albeit not as bad as he first feared.
“Most people have no savings here, and there were no payouts or furlough schemes or anything. But we have a formal and an informal economy, and the informal economy didn’t really stop – people found a way around.
“It’s been tough for the tourism industry with no foreign visitors, and some hotels have been offering big discounts to locals, although they are still beyond most people’s budgets. We went camping in Mana Pools, and it was very quiet.”
Unlike in Europe, where a fresh round of lockdowns is underway, restrictions continue to be eased in Zimbabwe and there is a sense that the country has moved on, according to Stevenson.
“Zimbabweans go from disaster to disaster, so we’re already thinking about the next one. People are still wearing masks in public, especially inside, and if you go to a shop or hospital you will be offered hand sanitizer. But no-one is really paying much attention to corona now or looking at the rolling news or death counts. We were at the start, but now we aren’t.
“People are relaxed, and many of my friends have gone back to shaking hands and hugging. There are rules on gatherings, and they stopped in lockdown, but they’ve gradually come back. Weddings are happening, and I was invited to a party recently and was astonished to turn up and find 200 people packed into a pub. I actually left, because if I did catch it and had to self-isolate the financial hit would be too much.”
Most travel restrictions have also been lifted, with overseas arrivals now able to skip quarantine if they present evidence of a negative test no more than 48 hours old (if the test has expired, they can take one at the airport for $60 – the results usually arrive in a couple of hours).
However, despite the country’s low case numbers, the UK has not granted a travel corridor to Zimbabwe – or, indeed, any country in Africa – so Britons hoping to visit after lockdown will need to self-isolate for two weeks when they return.
Nevertheless, Stevenson urges Telegraph readers to consider the country.
“It’s a tricky place to do DIY holidays, and the bureaucracy is a struggle even for me, but there’s a successful market for boutique safaris, with everything organised in advance. And with places like Victoria Falls and Mana Pools, there’s such a variety of natural wonders in a relatively small space. I certainly feel very lucky to be here right now.” – Telegraph.