- Author, Kennedy Gondwe
- Role, BBC – Lusaka
When I met Andrew Kazadi, after his 26-year-old nephew died of cholera at a treatment center in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, he seemed deeply shocked.
Kazadi revealed to us some things that reminded us of the restrictions imposed by governments during the Corona virus pandemic, and he said, “They told us (at the hospital) to look for a coffin, but if we are late, they will bury him this way.”
Now, Zambia is in chaos due to an outbreak of cholera, a bacterial infection caused by contaminated water or food, with more than 15,000 cases and nearly 600 deaths recorded, most of them in the hotspot of Lusaka, since the start of the rainy season in October. /October.
As clouds gathered in the sky in preparation for another heavy rain, Kazadi said, “We have to hurry to get the coffin.”
Kazadi’s match was outside the Heroes Football Stadium, which has a capacity of about 60,000 spectators and has been converted into a treatment center with about 800 doctors treating patients from all over the country.
The sound of ambulance sirens continues, patients are brought or taken for burial after the disease has defeated them.
For Kazadi, seeing the body of Charles, his nephew, was a shock.
Charles suffered a bout of diarrhea and was vomiting, and was taken to a clinic, where his family learned he had cholera. He was transferred to Heroes Stadium, where he died eight days later.
“We expected that he would be fine with time. We are really sad as a family,” Kazadi said, noting that his nephew left behind a three-year-old child.
But he pointed to the family’s deep faith, adding, “When someone gets sick, we leave it all in God’s hands – that person can either die or survive. With all the challenges we’ve been through, we just have to thank God.”
In line with government regulations to limit the spread of the disease, Charles’ body was wrapped in a body bag, before men wearing protective gear placed it in the coffin.
The family was not allowed to touch the body to protect them from the risk of infection. But only five of his relatives were allowed to attend the burial.
The government guidelines are similar to those of the World Health Organization, which advises families to limit handling of bodies, and preferably burials should take place within 24 hours.
The World Health Organization says, “Gastrointestinal infections (such as cholera) can easily be transmitted through any waste leaking from dead bodies.”
Sadly, some families in Lusaka are experiencing a different kind of trauma than the Kazadi family, as they do not know the fate of their loved ones, as exhausted health workers have been unable to tell them how they are doing, or whether they are alive.
Eunice Chungu told me that she did not know the fate of her son, Boniface, 34, after an ambulance brought him to the stadium about a week ago.
“All I want is for the government to tell me the truth about my son’s whereabouts,” Ms. Eunice said, looking distressed.
The government has set up a call center to urge people like Eunice to report missing family members so they can help track them down.
Zambia has witnessed cholera outbreaks at least 30 times since 1977, and the charity WaterAid said the latest was the worst since 2017.
This is despite the government’s pledge in 2019 to eliminate the disease by 2025.
Yankhu Mataya, WaterAid Zambia director, said the government would not achieve its goal “without increased investment and improved coordination to address the root cause – the lack of access to clean water and decent sanitation.”
Research published in 2019 showed that a large number of Zambia’s population, about 40 percent, live without adequate clean water, while up to 85 percent lack access to proper solid waste management.
Zambia’s Disaster Management and Mitigation Unit Coordinator, Gabriel Paulin, said data was still being collected to assess progress made since 2019 to improve water and sanitation facilities.
He added, “The numbers are very worrying, and we see here a reluctance on the part of communities regarding hygiene.”
Lusaka’s cholera hotspots are slum areas, known locally as shantytowns, where people live in poor conditions.
Earth latrines are often dug near shallow wells, from which drinking water is drawn.
When it rains, water levels rise, along with the risk of water contamination from human waste, and poor drainage causes homes to be flooded.
To combat the disease, the government has taken a range of measures, including banning the drilling of shallow wells and the sale of food in unsanitary conditions.
In a speech earlier this month, President Hakainde Hichilema promised to improve the conditions of residents of these poorly planned informal settlements and prevent the emergence of new housing complexes.
The president said that some young people are “loitering and doing nothing” in cities and towns instead of moving to work in rural areas to farm.
“There are large areas of land in the villages, there is clean water, and we can build beautiful houses in unpolluted villages,” he added.
While the government may see alleviating congestion in cities as a long-term solution, its priority now is to prevent further loss of life through the vaccination campaign.
It received about 1.6 million doses earlier this month, the majority of which were administered to Lusaka residents.
“The response has been comprehensive,” Health Minister Sylvia Masebo said in a public press conference. “We are only concerned about whether we will be able to cover the hotspots with the doses we have available.”
But she said there was some hesitation about receiving cholera vaccines, including among some religious groups.
Minister Sylvia did not explain the details of what she meant, but it is known that some believe that vaccines make their souls impure.
The minister’s message to them was, “Please let us not be influenced by such beliefs. We all know that true religion aims to protect the health of its believers.”
Minister Sylvia also spoke about the hesitation of groups of young people to receive the vaccine.
Again, she didn’t go into detail, but she seemed to be referring to the fact that some of them believe they don’t need to be vaccinated because they have a strong immune system.
Some men resorted to drinking large doses of alcoholic beverages, believing that it kills the bacteria that cause cholera.
In what appeared to be a message directed at them, the minister said people should spend their money on chlorine – which kills bacteria in water – instead of alcoholic drinks.
But it seems that the minister will need to continue making these calls, before changing the beliefs of the young people who are increasingly frequenting the beer halls in Lusaka.