In Zimbabwe, there is a creeping fear that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will go beyond its physical and economic toll.
The country’s healthcare system is at a point where mental health remains a matter of secondary importance – precisely why experts can hear the ticking of a time bomb amid the rising casualties of the pandemic.
They are concerned that the emotional and mental toll of the crisis is getting nowhere near the attention it deserves.
At the moment, fear and anxiety abound among Zimbabweans – fear of contracting the virus, infecting or losing their loved ones, or becoming unemployed are just some of the many worries plaguing the public.
Adding to the burden is the stigma around the disease, with people just as distressed about others finding out they are sick as they are about actually being infected.
“There is a sense of despondency and hopelessness. There is no trust in the system; this crisis is challenging people’s faith and beliefs, it has shaken their concepts of relationships and humanity,” said Fungisai Mazhandu, a psychiatrist based in the capital Harare.
“The anxiety is so high it can make people believe they have COVID-19 without an actual diagnosis.”
An additional burden for health workers is the guilt they can feel over a patient’s death.
The closure of borders is also worsening the situation as people fear not being able to ever see their children or relatives living in other countries.
School children too are feeling the effects of being restricted to their homes and the uncertainty of the pandemic’s impact on their academic future.
David Mukwekwezeke, a medical practitioner, feels the crisis can have “catastrophic results” for the country.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is a mental health time bomb that will soon explode with catastrophic results in Zimbabwe,” he told Anadolu Agency.
“All these fears will have ramifications in the years to come.”
– Testing and delayed results
For Mukwekwezeke, Zimbabwe is simply not carrying out enough tests and the pace of test results still remains too slow.
“We must realize that there is a psychological impact on patients if the duration between tests and results is so long,” he explained.
Similar concerns were previously raised by the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR).
“We urge the government to scale up their testing capacity as delays in testing and production of results could lead to other unforeseen challenges in the near future,” the group said in a recent statement.
Zimbabwe, a country of some 15 million people, has conducted just over 179,000 tests so far, with the government citing a lack of resources to defend the low figure. The official count of infections in the country stands at 6,388, including 195 deaths and over 5,000 recoveries.
The number means only 1.19% of Zimbabwe’s population has been tested, compared to 5.96% in neighboring South Africa as of Aug. 19.
Mazhandu, the psychiatrist in Harare, said she has counseled several patients who are struggling with depression – even suicidal thoughts in some cases – as they wait for their COVID-19 test results.
“I have dealt with people who just think they are COVID-19 positive. They were tested and are isolating at home as they wait for the results. All this waiting creates so much anxiety,” she said.
Zimbabwe is relying on polymerize chain reaction (PCR) and a rapid diagnostic test (RDT) that cost $45 and $15, respectively.
At present, PCR and antibody testing are the dominant ways global health care systems are testing for COVID-19, while RDT is for emergencies, according to the World Health Organization.
– Shock and sleepless nights
Nancy Muzamindo, a college student still recovering from COVID-19, fell sick on June 15 but was not tested until June 28.
“Waiting for the result was very stressful. I was very anxious and had sleepless nights. I had all the symptoms so I was fearful that I could die,” she said.
“I had seen news reports of how a young journalist became the first person to die of COVID-19 in Zimbabwe because the hospital failed to save his life.”
For Muzamindo, who used a pseudonym while talking to Anadolu Agency, the way her test result was revealed was “shocking and left her more depressed.”
“A contact tracing team just showed up to my house. That’s when they confirmed I had tested positive. I did not want to believe it and I wept for hours – that left me feeling worse than before,” she narrated.
The young woman has also felt the stigma surrounding the disease firsthand, saying she has been shunned by people in her community since her diagnosis.
Abigail Mbizi, a 30-year-old woman from Harare, said she started developing symptoms soon after a colleague at her construction company tested positive.
She was tested but never received the result, giving rise to severe anxiety along with her worsening symptoms.
“I asked for my results many times but they kept saying that the laboratories were overwhelmed,” she said.
By the time the result of her second test came back negative, Mbizi’s symptoms had completely gone.