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Global EH Heroes in the time of COVID-19: Stephen Musarapasi

April 28, 2020

NEHA has partnered with the International Federation of Environmental Health (IFEH) to bring you stories of environmental health professionals responding to COVID-19 across the globe. In the first of this special series, we hear from Stephen Musarapasi, President of the Zimbabwe Environmental Health Practitioners Association (ZEHPA). In his capacity as an Environmental Health Practitioner (EHP), Musarapasi conducts disease investigation prevention and control through active case finding, contact tracing, isolation management, and reporting. As President of ZEHPA, he is also involved in negotiating for Environmental Health Practitioners in Zimbabwe in the Health Apex Council and advocating for the profession locally, regionally, and internationally.

Briefly describe the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic in Zimbabwe.

According to information supplied by the Ministry of Health and Child Care, as of April 26 Zimbabwehad 31 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 4 deaths, and 5 recoveries. The pandemic is still on the upward trend, rising slowly up the epi curve, but only Harare the capital city and Bulawayo the second-largest city have been majorly impacted so far.

Health workers are giving the battle against COVID-19 their best effort but things such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and meaningful risk allowances are still a big challenge. Health workers have not yet received adequate training on COVID-19 even though lockdown has been extended for an additional two weeks after the initial order expired in late April. EHPs love what they do, and they are working very hard despite the shortages and challenges of critical resources.

What does an average day look like for you since the onset of COVID-19?

Most EHPs worked 8 hours a day before COVID-9. Right now, with extended work activities such as monitoring all local funerals to enforce social distancing, improved contact tracing and case investigations we are working closer to 12 hours a day.

What is the greatest challenge facing environmental health professionals as they work to keep communities healthy and safe during this pandemic?

  • Lack of basic training.
  • Lack of PPE.
  • Lack of funding.

COVID-19 came to our country when our economic situation was already performing badly with hyperinflation being one of the worst in the world. An average EHP salary does not match the growing cost of living in Zimbabwe. This means that almost all EHPs are living outside their means and even the normal professional job suffers the impacts of a poorly remunerated workforce.

What can environmental health professionals abroad learn from the COVID-19 response in Zimbabwe?

The government of Zimbabwe undertook mass recruitment of all trained but currently unemployed EHPs to work in the fight against the pandemic. COVID-19 pushed the government to clear the entire unemployment backlog on EHPs which boosted manpower levels. Many countries should consider this type of intervention when necessary.

As some countries begin mapping out plans to ease social distancing and isolation restrictions how will the work of environmental health professionals change?

In Zimbabwe, we are presently battling COVID-19 and Malaria outbreaks at the same time, with Malaria deaths also on an upward trend on the epi curve. This means that EHPs are getting overwhelmed with enforcement work. This work will only increase as governments look to ease restrictions.

What long term affects will the COVID-19 pandemic have on the environmental health profession?

Many governments are beginning to realize that the health sector is not all about curative practitioners, nurses, and doctors, but instead, my government is now understanding that prevention is better than a cure. For a long time in Zimbabwe, EHPs were not given precedence, but with the onset of COVID-19, we are starting to see opinions and priorities change.