Fiddling while Rome burns: COVID-19 risk and the absence of leadership in Swaziland

As of 20 April 2020, the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that the global infection and death rates continue to increase. About 155,124 people have died globally and 2 285 210 have tested positive. These figures are based on official statistics reported by United Nations member states and could be much higher if other factors are taken into consideration. 

For example, some states are under-reporting cases and deaths or not conducting sufficient tests to detect levels of infection. In many cases, COVID-19 related deaths that occur outside hospitals are rarely counted in official statistics. The government of Swaziland is one of the world’s worst offenders for under-reporting coronavirus cases. It has failed to show leadership in detecting the virus and slowing its spread in the country.

Despite repeated calls from the public, political parties, trade unions, the business community and civil society, the government has not announced a comprehensive national plan and emergency budget to fight the coronavirus pandemic. The People’s United Democratic Movement and the Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union warned about the catastrophic impact of the pandemic if government fails to take necessary actions to support the fight against the pandemic. 

Not a penny has been set aside to protect healthcare workers and prepare the health system for a major coronavirus outbreak. It is frightening that more nurses and doctors are being infected with the coronavirus because of poor working conditions in medical facilities. Access to personal protective equipment remains the chief concern and is creating distress and anxiety among healthcare workers, particularly nurses. 

Swaziland cannot afford to lose any of its frontline workers because of administrative inefficiencies and negligence. If nothing is done immediately to significantly improve the situation, the country must brace itself for a very painful experience. It is extremely frustrating to see this government fiddling while Rome burns. The government is simply not taking this pandemic and its potential impact on society seriously.

On 15 April 2020, the prime minister announced that his government was relaxing the lockdown restrictions it imposed three weeks ago to slow the spread of the virus. However, he surprised everyone when he admitted that coronavirus cases continue to increase and that the country is “not yet at the point of flattening the curve.” 

He acknowledged that “the risk of an uncontrollable spread remains high.” In his statement, the prime minister referred to projections by health professionals that “the partial lockdown measures may have delayed the onset of the infection peak by one to six months, and likely to have reduced the cumulative number of infections in Eswatini.” 

The issue of Social-Distancing in eSwatini is still overlooked.

In light of this information, why did the government decide to roll back measures that have been effective in slowing the spread of the virus? Many people in Swaziland are confused by this statement and struggling to understand the government’s reasoning for lowering lockdown restrictions when the risk of COVID-19 infection remains extremely high. If these projections are correct, further restrictions should have been announced to contain the virus and develop strategies for its eradication.

The decision to relax lockdown restrictions is senseless, reckless and an act of stupidity that will harm Swaziland’s efforts to combat the pandemic. It is not backed up by evidence that the government is gaining an upper hand against the pandemic. On the contrary, the government lost the COVID-19 war before it began. 

From the beginning, it lacked the will to fight this epidemic. Consequently, Swaziland is likely to experience the full impact of the pandemic in the next few weeks and months. The country is already recording increasing numbers of community transmission, e.g., coronavirus cases not linked to history of travel outside the country or contact with confirmed cases. 

These are early signs of a runaway pandemic, a very serious situation. Experts have warned the government that if it does not take sufficient actions quickly, the health system may collapse completely and the coronavirus death toll could rise to unprecedented levels. Tens of thousands could die during the pandemic. 

More questions have been asked about the government’s plan to help businesses, workers and households to survive the public health and economic impact of this pandemic. Most importantly, how is this government planning to support the health system to cope with an emergency situation without injecting new money into the system? 

What measures has the government taken to support poor families put food on the table during the lockdown? These families, particularly those in townships and rural areas, need urgent basic food supplies to remain in their homes and control the spread of the virus. They have given up their freedoms and are taking the economic pain of the lockdown but have been betrayed by a spineless and irresponsible government.

The people of Swaziland have been witnesses and victims of a failed public healthcare system for many years. Many have lost their lives. Families are still grieving and dislocated. They lost bread winners and loved ones. In the early 1990s, King Mswati III and his government had the luxury to study the HIV epidemic from East Africa and the risk of it spreading to Southern Africa. 

They did nothing and the virus spread uncontrollably with catastrophic implications for public health, social cohesion and economic growth. The government slept through the HIV epidemic and is again taking another nap when the country is facing a major crisis.

In the early 1990s, there were fewer than ten cases of confirmed HIV cases in Swaziland when the epidemic was at its peak in East Africa. With a sleeping government, HIV infection spread rapidly and uncontrollably. At the turn of the 21st century, Swaziland became to be known as a country with the highest HIV infection rate in the world. 

This was a heavy blow to a small country with a population of just over a million. Swaziland has not recovered from the economic and social impact of the HIV epidemic and now faces a different kind of a pandemic. 

The same government is leading the country to its death and refuses to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously. No Swazi should live under these conditions. Every Swazi must hold this government and King Mswati III responsible for every single coronavirus death. It is time that we all rise up in solidarity and unity to overthrow this regime, and secure our survival and a better future for the country we love so profoundly.

Dr Jabulani Matsebula is an exiled Swazi activist. He writes this article in his personal capacity.

Jabulane Matsebula

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