HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Malaria has dogged Steven Munyaradzi Nyamuda and his family for the past year.
The disease struck him, his wife and his mother in 2019, and in June it sent his 12-year-old son to the hospital for a week.
Nyamuda lives in Mutoko district, a hot and sultry area in eastern Zimbabwe long stalked by the mosquito-borne disease.
“I panic every time a member of the family gets it,” says the 34-year-old. “It’s a killer disease.”
For decades, Zimbabwe has tried to combat malaria with a home-spraying program called Indoor Residual Spray, which uses insecticides designed to repel mosquitoes.
Yet corruption has diluted the program’s effectiveness this year, as some government fumigators have taken to spraying a watered-down insecticide inside homes. The sprayers make extra money selling some of the pure repellent to farmers, who use it in their gardens to kill pests.
Health officials say the corruption likely contributed to a spike in malaria cases, particularly in Manicaland, Mashonaland East and Mashonaland Central provinces, regions with hot weather and high rainfall. As of late April, Zimbabwe had seen more than 236,365 malaria cases — a 220% increase over the same period last year.
Along with the health implications, the program’s challenges show how corruption has infected virtually every aspect of Zimbabwean society.
Zimbabwe ranks among the world’s most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to stop corruption.
In recent years, the organization has found that corruption has infiltrated Zimbabwean agriculture, elections, local governments, police, courts, education, the massive mining industry, land governance and the health care system, among other industries and institutions.
The current anti-malaria spraying program began in 2001 and reaches 47 regions where the disease is most common.
Nearly 80% of the Zimbabwean population is at risk of contracting the potentially fatal illness, according to the Malaria Journal, a scientific publication focused on the disease. Ninety percent of global malaria transmissions occur in Africa, with over 80% of infections in the sub-Saharan region occurring indoors at night.
Located 142 kilometers (88 miles) northeast of Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, Mutoko sits in the Mashonaland East province and features vast stretches of smallholder fields that yield crops such as tomatoes and leafy vegetables.
It’s also known for granite and gold mines that are often pocked with puddles in the rainy season, forming breeding grounds for mosquitoes.
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The spraying program has generally worked in the past, says Dr. Paul Farai Matsvimbo, the provincial medical director, and the Ministry of Health occasionally changes the insecticide when its monitoring shows that mosquitoes have grown resistant.
But, he says, mosquitoes may have found it easy to resist the watered-down insecticide this year, causing the increase in malaria cases. He notes that the ministry has fired five sprayers for selling the repellent.
Farmers buy the pure insecticide to save money, says Blessing Chikanyambidze, program officer for Mhuriimwe Trust, a community organization in Mutoko. For growers, purchasing one repellent for all their crops is cheaper than buying a variety of insecticides.
Nyamuda even bought a liter of malaria repellent from a government sprayer and uses it on his tomatoes, onions, covo (a type of kale) and other crops.
“Instead of me buying various chemicals to kill different types of garden bugs and worms,” says the jovial farmer, “I buy the malaria insecticide because it kills all the pests at one go.”
Such behavior angers headman Damasi N’anga, the traditional leader of Nyamuda’s village in Mutoko.
“It encourages the spray operators to continue stealing and makes it difficult to control malaria,” he says. “I have had to introduce a regulation that whoever refuses to have their homes sprayed is fined two goats as a way of encouraging people to allow home malaria spraying.”
Matsvimbo, the medical director, worries about those who eat from these gardens. “Consuming such chemicals that are not meant for human consumption can cause damage to a person’s health,” he says.
Home spraying usually occurs once a year. But in May, the ministry ordered another round in Mashonaland East province, as malaria cases rose there.
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Godwin Chibvuwura, provincial malaria field officer for Mashonaland East, says the government’s coronavirus lockdown may have worsened the malaria outbreak because patients had to stay at home.
At the same time, Zimbabwe’s already-battered health care system couldn’t diagnose and treat malaria patients quickly.
In June and July, Zimbabwe’s winter months, the rate of cases slowed throughout the country.
Nyamuda’s son has recovered, but the farmer says the government should change its malaria prevention tactics. He and his family now use mosquito nets, he says.
“The government needs to distribute more mosquito nets to villagers as there are loopholes with the [spraying] program,” he says. “Most of the times, people scramble to access mosquito nets because these are the ones they prefer.”
Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She specializes in reporting on agriculture and the economy.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.