As Coronavirus Spreads, Small-Batch Sanitizers Flood Zimbabwe Markets

Facing an ongoing economic crisis and reduced manufacturing capacity, shops in Zimbabwe have run out of imported hand sanitizer. As Zimbabweans make small batches of hand sanitizer to fill the void, some experts are skeptical that they work – but one pharmacist is confident that his formula is supported by science.

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As Coronavirus Spreads, Small-Batch Sanitizers Flood Zimbabwe Markets

Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe

Joseph Musarurwa, right, refers to his formula for making hand sanitizer as his colleagues mix chemicals in a manufacturing room in Harare. Entrepreneurs like Musarurwa are making small batches of hand sanitizers as Zimbabwe faces a shortage of the product, but some experts worry about their efficacy.

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HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Crammed together in a tiny factory room, Joseph Musarurwa and three assistants mix chemicals, including glycerin and alcohol spirits, to make what they say is a hand sanitizer that will protect users from the coronavirus.

The operation is small. Musarurwa, a trained pharmacist, handles the sales and marketing alone, only taking on assistants for production. His product has been in demand the past few weeks, since imported hand sanitizer has disappeared from Zimbabwe’s shelves as news of the virus’s arrival spread through the country.

The country was already in an economic crisis before the arrival of the coronavirus, making imported hand sanitizer unlikely to be stocked. Entrepreneurs like Musarurwa are meeting public demand with their small batches of sanitizers, but some experts question their efficacy.

Zimbabwe has had 13 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and three deaths so far, with more infections expected. Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Health and Child Care has encouraged people to wash their hands regularly, and use social distancing and hand sanitizers to restrict the spread of the disease.

This is not the first time Musarurwa has made sanitizers. He first manufactured them during a cholera and typhoid outbreak in 2018.

Musarurwa says the imported hand sanitizers once available in local markets were too expensive and he is providing “an affordable, effective product to my community.” Musarurwa sells his sanitizer in 125-milliliter (4.2-fluid ounce) bottles for $2 each.

He also notes that there are water shortages across Zimbabwe, leaving hand-washing more difficult and making hand sanitizers an even more necessary part of public health.

Emmanuel Mujuru, chairman of the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Association, says even though many people have begun making and selling hand sanitizers, there is no way of knowing if the products are effective.

“There is no quality control,” he says. “The danger is that some of these products might be ineffective.”

Mujuru says the concentration of alcohol in hand sanitizers must be at least 60% to kill viruses. They should contain other disinfectants, he adds, as well as be safe for use on human skin.

Musarurwa says since the first case in Zimbabwe was recorded on March 20, the market has been flooded with homemade hand sanitizers, and he agrees that some may be unsafe to use.

“In any situation there are always opportunists who want to take advantage of the situation and just sell substandard products,” he says.

However, Musarurwa says his products contain 80% alcohol and are effective.

Pharmacy owner Progress Gwisai is among those reselling Musarurwa’s hand sanitizer. Since the outbreak began in Zimbabwe, she has been selling at least 50 liters (13.2 gallons) a day.

Gwisai says she has no way of verifying the hand sanitizer’s effectiveness, but she says she’s reassured by its chemical smell.

“I have been using it, and I am still alive,” she says, “so it works.”

Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona.

Editor’s note: Emmanuel Mujuru and Linda Mujuru are not related.