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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. During the Unity government (2009–13), the situation improved but the country has 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, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls 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. Control centres and medical teams around the country are on call 24 hours a day.
ACE Air and Ambulance provides a similar general service as MARS, but also another specifically tailored to the safari industry and has bases in Harare and 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 2017 the estimated adult infection rate was 13.6%, with 1.3 million people living with AIDS. In 2017, new infections dropped to 41,000 from 2010’s figure of 79,000, with behaviour change, high treatment coverage and prevention of mother-to-child transmission services thought to be responsible for this decline. Deaths from AIDS-related illnesses continue to fall – from 61,000 in 2013 to 22,000 in 2017.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available. For other journey preparation information, consult Travel Health Pro (UK) or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA). Information about various medications may be found on Net Doctor. 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 long hibernation between 2000–2013. 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.
By on what authority can we write this? Paul Murray has spent many years travelling in the country, while Paul Hubbard has lived in the country all of his life and has over a decade of experience in the tourist industry.
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. There are worrying reports of robberies and thefts in the larger urban centres and you should take all reasonable precautions as when in similar places anywhere else in the world. Despite the lack of current statistics, crime against tourists is generally minimal, not least because you will usually be in remote areas, and 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, money 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. Tourism is a major currency earner and employer, so most people are well used to respecting 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. 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 we frequently get asked about the number of kids we 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 the situation has greatly improved 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 political and religious leaders here regularly use the words ‘homosexual’ and ‘gay’ as terms of abuse. So what are the implications for gays and lesbians visiting the country?
In Zimbabwe, homosexual sex remains a criminal offence for men but not for women. Cross-dressing for men is illegal. There is a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage too, upheld by the supreme court in 2019. 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. Sleeping arrangements should not be an issue as you are in the privacy of your own room.
Anti-gay sentiment is not usually expressed in terms of physical violence but can result in verbal abuse. According to a 2018 survey, 50% of gay men in Zimbabwe had been physically assaulted and 64% had been disowned by their families; 27% of lesbians also reported disownment. There is also the common, foolish misconception that being gay immediately equates to paedophilia. White local 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 among 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.
Contact GALZ (Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe) for more information and advice.
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. Minimum age limits vary between six and 16 years old. If on a walking safari in a dangerous game area, the usual lower limit is firmly set at 12 years old.
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. One tip — pack one pair of binoculars for each child; it will keep them interested and engaged during any trip to a game park.
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.
Several lodges and companies are introducing special sections of their properties for families travelling with young children, replete with specially designed rooms, creative activities, specialist guides and flexible schedules to enable you to enjoy your time together to the fullest. Inter-connected rooms on raised platforms, walkways to main areas, extra staff to assist, and private game drive vehicles are some of the facilities being added to entice families to travel together. Babysitters are also now often on call in many camps.
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 non-existent, 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.
The point that has frequently been made to us is that virtually everyone comes for the wildlife viewing but people with physical disabilities cannot be catered for as the vehicles used are completely inaccessible to them. Therefore there is – they reason – no necessity to make adaptations to their buildings or grounds. The problem with this approach is that it assumes that everyone with a disability is completely physically incapable. Access to these high, open wildlife-viewing vehicles can indeed be difficult, requiring a degree of agility to climb in, but with assistance a lot of folk can manage it.