Harare, Zimbabwe – Behind bars and confined in a tight space shared by dozens of other detainees, Zimbabwean opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume was anxious about catching coronavirus.
Designed to hold 16 people, the crammed cells at the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison were full with more than 40 people, he said.
“I was very afraid I would contract COVID-19 because the cells were overcrowded,” said Ngarivhume, who spent 43 days in detention for organising outlawed anti-government protests in late July.
“If prison authorities had observed social distancing rules of a metre (3.3 feet) apart, the cell would have accommodated only 10 people.”
Instead, he said, detainees were barely 30cm (12 inches) apart. At night, the inmates at the small facility on the outskirts of the capital, Harare, spread filthy and lice-infested blankets on the hard concrete floor, forming elongated rows for going to sleep.
“You could literally smell the breath of the next guy,” said Ngarivhume, who was charged with inciting violence and freed on bail in his fourth attempt earlier this month.
With physical distancing virtually impossible, and major shortages in essential items to protect against COVID-19 such as soaps, hand sanitisers and clean face masks, Zimbabwe’s prison population is at great risk of being exposed to the highly infectious disease, according to experts.
Already, some cases have been recorded.
In late July, 43 inmates and 23 prison officers tested positive for the highly infectious respiratory disease in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city.
In facilities based in Harare and elsewhere, no cases have officially been confirmed. But two former detainees at Chikurubi said several people tested positive last month when authorities decided to conduct random tests.
“In the hall where I was staying, there were 10 cells housing inmates,” according to Ngarivhume. “Prison authorities randomly selected an inmate for COVID-19 testing from the 10 cells. Of the 10 who were tested, seven were positive for COVID-19.”
But with “no quarantine facilities … they put them back in the cells”, said Ngarivhume, adding that this took place in the week before his release on September 2.
Questions sent days before the publication of this article to Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Service (ZPCS) spokeswoman Meya Khanyezi were not responded to. Additional efforts to get a comment were unsuccessful.
Overall, Zimbabwe has so far registered 7,752 coronavirus cases, including 227 related deaths. Some 6,043 people have recovered. In late March, President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a “national disaster” as he introduced a tight lockdown to stem the spread of the pandemic. Schools were closed, borders were shut and large gatherings were banned, while mask-wearing in public was made mandatory.
The threat of coronavirus could not have come at a worse time for people in the country. In December last year, the World Food Programme warned that Zimbabwe was facing its worst hunger crisis in 10 years with half of the population – 7.7 million people – food insecure.
After years of underfunding, the country’s healthcare system is in shambles and doctors say medicines are in short supply. Depleted state coffers mean the government is unable to purchase sufficient supplies for state-run medical facilities.
The country is in the throes of a deepening economic crisis characterised by high inflation of more than 800 percent and foreign currency shortages, as well as a devastating mix of a rapidly weakening currency and stagnant salaries.
Amid the economic woes, government departments such as ZPCS have struggled to cope. In March, authorities said Zimbabwe’s prisons, with a holding capacity of 17,000 inmates, had a population of 22,000. Between March and June 2020, a total of 4,208 prisoners were pardoned by Mnangagwa – but the number of people in crowded conditions remains high.
A prison officer, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, confirmed prisons were overcrowded, with facilities designed to hold 1,400 inmates having in excess of 2,000 people.
“Overcrowding also affects food rations because when budgets are drawn, funds will be released against 1,400 people. Any number above that is not provided for,” the officer said, adding that prison authorities had to go to great lengths to ensure everyone is fed.
“Chikurubi is like a concentration camp,” said Hopewell Chin’ono, a prominent journalist who was detained on the same day as Ngarivhume after expressing support for the anti-government demonstrations. He was also released on bail from Chikurubi in early September.
“Prison conditions were horrible and I think they generally reflect the state of affairs in Zimbabwe,” Chin’ono said, raising alarm over the lack of safeguards against the coronavirus and warning that COVID-19 is a real threat for detainees in tight spaces.
“Inmates don’t have basic things like soap and running water in cells,” he added. “Prisons are failing to provide basic things like food. Prisoners eat only sadza and cabbages and beans. In the morning they are fed porridge that has no sugar. For me, this is a reflection of the corruption in the government system.”
Chin’ono said the situation has been worsened by restrictions imposed by prison authorities to curb COVID-19. Under the new rules, relatives of inmates can no longer make visits and deliver essentials such as food and medication.
“There is no medication in there for those showing symptoms. Those who show symptoms such as sore throats are given warm water to drink and that is it. The prisoners don’t have masks. Most are given masks when they are set to appear in court to conform with the law,” he added.
Norman Matara, secretary-general for the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, said prisons are “potential COVID-19 time bombs, by their nature”.
“But we don’t have specific information at the moment on the state of affairs regarding the COVID-19 situation.”
He said his group was working with authorities and would provide educational and material support once they have assessed their needs.
Last month, ZPCS Assistant Commissioner Mzila Moyo said his service had introduced various measures at all prisons in Bulawayo to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
COVID-19 “knows no boundaries, and as Bulawayo Metropolitan Province we have a number of programmes that we have put in place to curtail the spread of the virus. Social distancing, mask-wearing are a must in the prisons in the whole province”, he said.
“Our health teams are moving around educating the inmates and officers on preventive measures. In each and every prison, we have sanitisers and foot baths at all points of entry.”