December 1, 2020
HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Clara Tandi felt feverish. Worried she was sick with the coronavirus, she grabbed handfuls of lemon, guava and mint leaves from her garden and boiled them into a liquid. Then Tandi, 59, stripped off her clothes, swaddled herself in a blanket and inhaled the herbal steam until sweat beaded on her forehead. Finally, she stirred a topical cold-and-cough ointment into the greenish brew and drank an entire cup.
“Then you know that, if the virus was inside, it has disappeared or has been killed,” she says.
Some Africans routinely use alternative treatments, including herbs, roots, barks and powders, to meet their medicinal needs. In Zimbabwe, the underfunded health care system can be so frustrating to navigate that traditional medicine is increasingly popular. So as the coronavirus marched across the country – and infected more than 9,000 people – some turned to berries and herbs instead of doctors and nurses.
But because the virus is new and what is known about it is ever-shifting, it is a particularly ripe target for misinformation, or what the World Health Organization has called an “infodemic.” Medical experts here have noticed a slew of social media posts promoting unproven remedies. In one, a woman claims she cured her daughter of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, with a routine that included steaming under a blanket four times a day and stuffing her socks with onions and garlic.
While some alternative treatments have proven medicinal value, many coronavirus antidotes do not. They may not stop the disease, says Shingai Nyaguse, president of the Zimbabwe Senior Hospital Doctors Association. And even if an herb is effective, it could linger in the body, severely damaging the kidneys as they try to flush it out.
Agnes Mahomva, chief coordinator of the country’s COVID-19 response, recently met with specialists who analyzed COVID-19 cases at a large hospital in Harare, the nation’s capital. A number of patients had suffered renal failure.
“We know some of those complications can come because people were taking some concoctions that are not regulated,” she says.
Zimbabwe’s health care system was once among the region’s best. But over the last two decades, the country’s economy collapsed under the leadership of former President Robert Mugabe. Health care funding evaporated, and some hospitals had neither electricity nor water. Many physicians left the country. Those who remain frequently strike to demand more supplies and better pay.
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Many Zimbabweans depend on a strained network of public clinics. Doctors are usually only available on certain days, and the lines to see them are long. While they once dispensed medication for free, they’re now more likely to give patients a prescription to buy it elsewhere.
“Once communities know that, when you visit a health facility, there are no drugs, and the health workers are rude because they are poorly paid, they end up not visiting those health facilities because the quality of care will be poor,” says Itai Rusike, executive director of the Community Working Group on Health, which advocates for health care for the poor.
Instead, Rusike says, many Zimbabweans visit traditional or faith healers to treat digestive problems, mental illness and sexually transmitted diseases. They are often less expensive than physicians, and it’s easier to get an appointment. The government requires healers to join a registry and only use treatments deemed safe. One of the largest associations counts 55,000 members.
The government has authorized herbalists to treat COVID-19 patients. But Prince Sibanda, secretary of education for the Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association, notices that people bypass even registered healers and try to mix their own concoctions instead. He attributes this to headlines out of Madagascar, where the president touted an herbal tonic as a potential cure. (There’s no proof that it destroys the virus, though the WHO recently helped establish rules for scientists to test such therapies.)
It’s easy to find ingredients at open-air markets. And if a recipe comes from a friend on social media, it may seem trustworthy, says Nyaguse, the doctors’ association president.
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Tandi lives in Kuwadzana, a Harare suburb where large families pack into small homes. A chatty woman with an ever-present smile, she has hypertension and diabetes, which would put her at higher risk of severe illness if she contracted the coronavirus. As a tailor, Tandi already worked from home, and when she leaves, she protects herself by wearing a mask and avoiding crowded events like church services and funerals. But in June, her uncle died from COVID-19. That terrified her.
In the past, Tandi had tried treating her medical conditions with herbal cocktails, though she also takes prescription medication. She heard that a woman from church beat the virus with homemade therapies. So she and her friends trade recipes on WhatsApp and experiment with different ingredients and measurements.
“I heard that coronavirus does not thrive in hot temperatures or sour stuff,” Tandi says, “so I started looking for things that are hot and sour, and l drank those regularly to avoid being infected.”
Now, three times a day, Tandi sips a mix of Zumbani, an herbal tea people drink to reduce fever, and garlic. She saves the steam and cold-ointment ritual for when she has flu-like symptoms, though ingesting ointment is potentially toxic. But she considers her experiments safe and more efficient than visiting the local clinic. She heard the nurses there were on strike.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is an internationally acclaimed economy and education reporter.
Gamuchirai Masiyiwa, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona. Click here to learn more about our translation policy.