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Zimbabwe - Health and safety
With Dr Felicity Nicholson. For up-to-date information on health issues across Africa, click here.
The economic meltdown in the decade of 2000 onwards had a dramatic effect on Zimbabwe’s health care system, resulting in chronic shortages of manpower, medical supplies and equipment, even in the capital, Harare. After the political events of 2009 the situation improved but the country subsequently slipped back economically. Public hospitals are still extremely understaffed and generally very poorly equipped. Well-run private clinics and hospitals can be found in Harare and Bulawayo and are capable of dealing with common emergencies but facilities in the rest of the country are sketchy and changeable. For serious conditions, evacuation to South Africa is invariably the best option unless the patient can’t be moved. Comprehensive medical insurance should therefore be a priority. Outside of towns and on safari, your lodge or camp will be well versed in first aid but will probably only stock basic medications. Rural clinics are rudimentary and cannot be relied upon for medical expertise, equipment or provision of medications.
Many fully inclusive lodges and tourism facilities subscribe to MARS (Medical Air Rescue Service), a private Zimbabwe-based medical service provider offering emergency road or air evacuation to the nearest medical facility. Another relatively new entrant to the medevac scene is ACE Air and Ambulance which provides a similar service to MARS and with bases in several towns including in Victoria Falls. Prior to booking your trip you may wish to enquire whether the places you plan to stay at subscribe to the above services.
Emergencies aside, Zimbabwe is a generally low risk in medical terms but of course with the proviso of malaria, which is endemic in large areas of the country that tourists are likely to visit. The country’s tourism sector has a long and enviable history of catering for ‘high end’ visitors, so hygiene requirements are well understood and standards in camps, lodges and hotels are generally on a par with first world countries. That said, municipal water supplies have suffered greatly from under-investment and poor maintenance in recent years so be extremely wary about drinking tap water in town accommodations. Safari accommodations obtain water from boreholes, which provide some of the nicest water you are likely to drink. Pharmacies can be found in towns around the country but stocks will not be very comprehensive.
The incidence of HIV/AIDS is hard to gauge accurately, but in 2010 the estimated adult infection rate was 14.3%, with 1.3 million people living with AIDS.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Nobody involved with Zimbabwe tourism can be in any doubt about the power of the international media, which effectively put the industry into a fifteen-year hibernation. We have been told in graphic detail that there is widespread violence, with murder, beatings, police brutality and torture. Zimbabwe must be a very dangerous place because even South Africans, who are quite prepared to live in one of the most violently criminal countries on the planet, are frightened to come here. Of course Zimbabwe has obligingly provided all the gory news fodder necessary to sell papers and have us glued to our television screens, and certain sections of the population have indeed had a horrid time for many years.
But, and it’s a big but, every scrap of that violence has been tied up one way or another with politics. This means that tourists are not – and never were – under any threat of violence, provided they keep clear of political activities.
So what about normal crime? First, it’s almost inevitable that as soon as one starts to compile a list of anti-crime precautions, even though most of them are simple and very obvious, one is in danger of implying that the destination has significant crime problems. Zimbabwe, along with several neighbouring countries, has traditionally been virtually crime-free, to the extent that many rural tourist accommodations don’t even have locks on their doors. Crime against tourists always used to be absolutely minimal, but with so few people visiting the country in recent years there are no statistics, and although one suspects the situation may be slightly worse today, you should still look on Zimbabwe as an extremely safe country to visit.
With such a large proportion of the population being reduced to poverty and with a situation of extremely low (formal) unemployment, it’s no wonder that a very small minority have resorted to crime. This is nearly all property-related, with a significant increase in Harare’s residential burglary rate but, unlike in South Africa, virtually none of it involves gratuitous violence. Generally speaking, pretty well all of the few burglaries one hears of involve theft of items such as food and clothing.
Women travelling in Zimbabwe, either on their own or in pairs, are certainly safer here than in most other countries of the world. Provided you take normal, reasonable precautions you’ll find the place remarkably hassle free to travel through. Don’t forget that not too many years ago Zimbabwe was a major tourist destination, so most people are well used to travellers of all sorts. Around town in the day, don’t forget this is a very conservative country so the usual dress sense applies: don’t wear provocative clothing, which generally means covering your shoulders and taking care not to bare midriffs or show too much leg – knee-length skirts and shorts, jeans and trousers are fine. If you do get a bit skimpy clothing-wise, while you won’t be at risk you will probably attract attention and be regarded in a negative light. Additionally, there have been recent reports of police lecturing women who they consider inappropriately dressed in some of the larger towns. Dress more conservatively in the evening and in bars or your intentions may be misconstrued. Where possible, team up with friends before you get to a bar, rather than waiting alone to meet them there. As always, laid-back Victoria Falls is something of an exception, where single women are extremely common (numerically speaking) and taken for granted
As a lone, female traveller any attention you may attract will almost certainly be purely inquisitive. The way you are travelling (ie: without a man) tells people that you are clearly a very capable person and the very opposite of vulnerable. Basically if you can fend off an unwelcome advance in London, New York or Paris you will have no problem in Zimbabwe.
That is not to say that you will not be an object of great interest to both men and women. Africa is generally very conservative and male dominated, with women having definite roles in life, none of which involve swanning off around the world without a man. Two of the first questions you will invariably be asked are ‘Where is your husband?’ and ‘How many children have you got?’ This is all very important information and tells them a lot about you. Big families are good news in Africa; everybody has them so where are your children? You shouldn’t get too defensive about this because men too are expected to father children and are frequently asked about the number of kids they have.
Depending on their age, childless women travellers may want to invent a husband and a child or two because women of marriageable age who decide not to have children are generally regarded in African cultures as lazy or even worthless. Similarly, men without children are usually considered inadequate. For either gender to choose not to have any children is virtually incomprehensible.
Finally, a word of advice: sanitary products have been notoriously absent from Zimbabwe’s shop shelves in the last few years and although conversion to the US dollar has greatly improved the shelf-stocking situation, it would still be wise to take sufficient stocks with you for your whole trip.
Zimbabwe, in common with most African countries, has an extremely conservative attitude towards homosexuality, and its president has hardly been reticent in voicing his views on the subject, regularly using the word ‘homosexual’ as a term of abuse. So what are the implications for gays and lesbians visiting the country?
In Zimbabwe, sex between men is a criminal offence as is any show of affection in public that may be construed as sexual. Sex between women is not illegal but lesbians excite revulsion in many younger Zimbabwean men and there is strong disapproval of women who refuse to marry and have children. Cross-dressing for men is illegal. Nevertheless, if you are discreet, you are very likely to be safe although, for men, there is a good possibility of being blackmailed if you have sex with a local person with fewer resources than yourself.
Zimbabwe is not uniformly homophobic and an urban generation is now growing up with the knowledge that gay and lesbian people exist in their midst, but it is still best to be very discreet about your sexuality unless you are sure you’re in safe company.
Anti-gay sentiment is not usually expressed in terms of physical violence but can result in verbal abuse. However, most people will keep their opinions to themselves and then ‘bitch’ about you later. White males tend to have a very macho outlook on life and few will have had any contact (knowingly) with gays, and it’s not uncommon to hear anti-gay jokes and comments voiced in public.
There are no gay clubs or bars and there are very few, if any, that can be described as gay-friendly. If you want to be in a club with other gay or lesbian people, it is best to make arrangements beforehand.
It is not known what the HIV prevalence rate is amongst the local gay community but you are advised to use protection at all times, since the prevalence is likely to be higher than in the general population, which itself has much higher rates than in the West.
Travelling with children
Zimbabweans love children and are generally extremely accommodating and helpful to families; and the country is without doubt an exciting place for children to see wildlife up close, bringing those television nature programmes dramatically to life. However, if you are planning a holiday to include a significant amount of wildlife viewing there are a number of issues to take into consideration. First, you’ll need to check whether there is a minimum age at the places you want to stay. Before the economic turmoil, the minimum age limit was sometimes as high as 16 years old; operators relaxed this rule when tourist numbers dropped off, but it may well be reinstated now that tourism is taking off again. At present, it’s common to see a minimum of six to seven years being applied.
The age limits are set in place for good reasons: in wildlife-rich areas, animals routinely enter the unfenced grounds of safari camps/lodges, so children will need constant supervision. When out on safari, close encounters with wildlife are naturally very exciting for children – however, noisy and impulsive reactions are likely to startle wildlife and thereby jeopardise the enjoyment, or even the safety, of everyone. You’ll often find game drives catering separately for people with children.
Second, a typical wildlife-viewing day has several hours of ‘down time’ between morning and evening activities and since safari camps tend by their very nature to be in remote areas, some children may get bored. Few camps have facilities to keep children occupied and even fewer have robust Wi-Fi. Children are generally encouraged to be well behaved when back at the lodge as most clients are typically here to enjoy peace and quiet.
People with physical disabilities may find it rather difficult to enjoy many of the popular attractions of Zimbabwe. Towns are usually fairly navigable by wheelchair, although pavements can be uneven and frequently nonexistent, with only the alternative of travelling on the side of the road itself, which may very well be pot-holed. Many people will feel distinctly uneasy at this prospect, given traffic volumes and the fact that drivers feel they have an absolute right of way. Crossing roads can be an issue as there are frequently deep storm gullies requiring a detour to the next ‘bridge’. Dropped curbs exist in a few of the larger towns but even here they seem to be completely unplanned so you never know where the next one will be. Although most upmarket town-centre accommodations and facilities are wheelchair-friendly and becoming increasingly so, many of the wildlife-related venues are in remote areas and specifically designed to blend in with natural surroundings that do not readily lend themselves to wheelchair access. In practical terms this means there can be long distances between chalets and the central guest area and paths can be steep, often involving flights of steps, areas of sandy ground, rock-strewn paths and all manner of obstacles. Many lodges do, however, have relatively accessible accommodation facilities in the rooms closest to the main building.