Zimbabwean-born gender activist, Betty Makoni, is one of many Zimbabweans who got to live to tell about her experience with COVID-19. Founder of the Girl Child Network which supports young victims of sexual abuse, Makoni is a multi-award winner who was nominated a CNN Hero for protecting the powerless in 2009 and was honored by UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and Academy award winner Nicole Kidman. In an interview with Blessing Zulu of VOA's Zimbabwe's Service, Makoni, who lives in Essex, United Kingdom, said she felt death as the virus overtook her lungs, disabling her breathing. Makoni fell seriously ill on the 16th of March after coming into contact with someone who later tested positive to coronavirus.
Betty Makoni: I had a fever. I also had a sore throat. But it was quite mild, I could take like ibuprofen unknowingly that it is quite dangerous and then it could heal me. I could feel better. And then I moved along, it was almost a week where I had mild symptoms, a cough, but my temperature was quite high. I was feeling very weak. My body, I was feeling very weak. So all are the symptoms … like interchangeably sometimes you have of them, sometimes you have all of them, and they keep changing. But what was very outstanding about my symptoms, was the itchy sore throat, that one I would never forget, it was so irritating. It was unusual. I've never experienced that before. So those were my symptoms.
Blessing Zulu: Did you at any time require hospitalization?
BM: What happened is, I was very lucky to get ambulance services come to my rescue on time. So everything was done at home, I had to NHS 111 doctor on video Skype, or the tests done here. So mine was better because I was not a case… because I had a blocked chest. I had mucus build on my chest I couldn't breathe, so everything was done at home. If I had gone to hospital given how infectious this disease is, and all the issues around the viral load, the doctor advised that I could be worse. So mine was actually treated by secondary treatment, which is a heavy antibiotic at home, just to clear the mucus which was on my chest.
BZ: So you did not require like any ventilation?
BM: No no no. Those who saw me, emergency. They felt my lungs were still ok, although of course, later on I'm discovering something might have happened, but they felt it was the chest that had blocked more than the lungs not breathing well.
BZ: Any exercises that were recommended by the doctor while you were still quarantined?
BM: Yes, yes, he definitely did. And also NHS 111 also did. They recommended to me that I do cardio, anything around the chest because with my case, ummm, sorry I am still having these breathlessness still. With my own issue, it was like just doing any kind cardio, like I was using my tassel like a woman who is grinding - Zimbabwean women like on the gayo - and also I would take a walk outside my house, two miles, and then I would walk a little bit like on the uphill so that you start breathing with your lungs naturally.
So I was still very much at the natural level, but I had to exercise the lungs more to bring them more air, and also, not too heavy sometimes you don't have to do it heavy, and then I do weight lifting where I lift, you know my weights here, they are my son’s weights, and then I lift them a little while so that I just breath in and I also breathe out. So there are excises to help you breathe in and also breathe out. So I did those and it helped quite a bit.
BZ: How about food. What was recommended for you?
Because I was reacting to meat for the first time for some reason, I dont know why. So I stopped eating meat. I also stopped (eating) sadza and rice and potatoes. And then I started taking mostly tomatoes mixed with lettuce, with cucumber and then eggs, boiled eggs, three per day. And then I started taking things like any vegetable works very well because it is a lot to do with your Vitamin C, you have to have Vitamin C in abundance because it helps to boost your immunity. So I did very well. And I just want to advise everybody that Vitamin C really works well because it builds your immunity system.
BZ: You also said you had problems breathing and at one time you nearly collapsed. What were you feeling?
BM: What happened according to the doctors, I had mucus build-up, so it kind of blocked my breathing. It means air was no longer going to the lungs. That's why I was not hospitalized because it was just a matter of treating the secondary infection. That's the build-up. So when they give me antibiotics, the mucus, it was yellow in color and very thick, started coming out.
So it was just a matter of getting treatment. If I didn't get that, that could also have affected my lungs ending up with very acute situations you are seeing like having lungs that are like a honeycomb crystal, like particles of glass. So I, according to doctors, and I am yet to get more tests, like next week, mine did not deteriorate. I don't have scarred lungs at all, so I can say I was very lucky because they intervened at a time when it was still the chest that was blocked. So I had stiffness of chest, so people should take that very well because when you get the stiffness off your chest, it means it has moved quite a bit. It’s really a dangerous stage. You should actually get anything to treat that quickly. So I can say I didn't get to my lungs being affected too, but I was on the verge of my lungs being affected.
So it ended with just blocking the chest - you can't breathe. That's it. So when I called the emergency, I couldn't breathe. I just needed something to clear my chest quickly and then I started breathing again.
BZ: And how many people have lost their lives within your community?
BM: We have seventy-eight, seventy-eight people. Here in Stanford-le-Hope, we lost somebody who is the owner of the Taverna, you know, the pub people go to. We lost him. And then many reports of children because I'm also an independent social worker. Mom to one of the children died. I've received reports of quite a number of deaths. It’s been very, very sad here. Very sad. I am not able to tell you the loss, but because I'm almost breaking down, we are in the middle of bereavement, we have lost seventy-eight people in Essex only, and there could be more, we don’t know.
Not looking good at all. Things are not looking good. Blessing. Things are not okay. Things are not ok at all. I don't know why a disease could come like this.
And you know, like this child, her mother died. I don't know. I haven’t even gone to her, this is a child I have been working with. I don't know why a disease could do that to our people…I’m not able to understand what's going on. My head is like round and round. How can people die so much? So many. And also, something I didn’t tell you, we have got thousands of people not tested, they are in their homes. They are sick. And we created a WhatsApp group. People can't breathe.
And we can't even go to hospitals. Hospitals are full. A workmate of mine, we fell sick at the same time, she went to hospital and she waited for five-hours before she could be allocated a bed. It’s tragic here. Very sad. I don't know. I can’t understand this at all.
BZ: My deepest condolences for your loss, and I'm glad that you are recovering very well.
BM: I don't understand, Blessing. We are mourning. I mourned myself in this house. I was mourning myself and I said, my mother can I come join you? Look I can’t breathe. I couldn't breathe. I lost my breath. I was alone in the room and my family can not come in, so I said, this is the end of me. You see I'm talking to you. But sometimes I feel I'm dead.
I feel I’m not here on earth at all. I don't know how people are going to heal. Do you know how people will heal from this? When you die and then you are back? I don’t know. Your whole breathing stops and you know, I'm gone. But then you are told you are back on earth. All of that mental health. I don't know. Sometimes they don't know where you are. You don't know. You're just waiting for people like you to call them to say ‘how are you then you say, yes”. Things that happened in my room here were so scary. You know, this breath doesn’t come at all. You will be blocked on the chest. And then when you breathe, you are like, thank you!
You are just asking for air. And also during the time I fell sick, there were no ventilators. You are told not to come to hospital at all. You are assessed in the home, and they decide whether you go. But you go to the hospital when you are virtually dead, I think. I have never seen this. I have never seen, you know, people… like I mourned myself! I mourned my own death. I suffered. I suffered in terms of just trying to tell my chest to unblock because it had something like concrete. You know concrete? And then it stays heavy here. That’s what happened. It's a very dangerous virus.
BZ: What will be your last word to people in Zimbabwe in particular, and in Africa in general where there are now cases that are on the increase?
BM: I just told them that no, it shouldn’t go anywhere. Africa, Zimbabwe, please don't allow any further infections anywhere. Just stay inside the home. The facilities…as you can see I am in the UK but look how difficult it is just to get the treatment at the moment in the UK. And I'm thinking because I've lived in Zimbabwe all my life and also I've traveled to Africa and I can imagine if the virus is to spread through populations, it will wipe out a whole generation. So my suggestion is just stay indoors. I know there are economic challenges, I know there is hunger, but you know what! The double tragedy of hunger and death, will be worse.
We prevent death that is coming from miles away, and hunger, we have had it for long. I think we've developed strategies in Africa. We'll speak to that. This disease is very, very serious, this virus. It's complex. Nobody knows anything about it. So don't spread it amongst yourselves. Keep to your families. Make sure you are well covered when you go outside, and also, yes, wash your hands. And if there's any body in the family who is sick, use warm remedies as well, like what I did. We have got vegetables in Zimbabwe, eat lots of them, drink lots of water, buy Vitamin C like I did, because your immune system is going to save you. Your immune system is the one that stands with you, because virus does not have medication. But also know symptoms in your own language.
Gararwa in Zimbabwe is what I had myself, know it. It goes and sticks on the chest - describe it. Sore throat. It's different when they say sore throat here, means different from Zimbabwe. So know…kuwhawhiwa pahuro (itchy throat). I want you to describe it, I don’t want you to speak to the tense that 14 countries are using because your context, language-wise is different from us here. So I want you to master this virus with your local stories. I want research to say who has got it, how did they get it? Let’s not wait for Britain and other countries. Let’s do local knowledge inside there. I'm one of your own. Look at what I've written about my experience. And you can also use that to treat others because there is no medication at the moment. We can't leave people to die, we have to go by what is there?
What is there is to boost our immune, and what is there is when somebody starts not breathing like what happened to me, call emergency. And if they can be put to an antibiotic, let it happen. We must understand this virus in our own countries. Let’s not rely on outside. Yes, we can share research, but what is coronavirus according to Zimbabwe. How are the symptoms?
What do we call them in Shona and Ndebele? What do we call them in Chichewa, in Swahili, that is what I want to hear. I want you to own the issue, not to leave others to own your lives. With this virus, its individuals staying in the homes, isolate your children - little ones, little kids are also catching the virus, and don’t get any lies that black people not falling sick. I'm a black woman. I fell sick. Very sick and near death. And also know that when the virus is treated, when the symptoms are gone, you also have the after-effects, this can also be mental health, it can also be anxiety. It could also be bereavement because sometimes I'm mourning myself. The reason why I can't come on video is that I can't be close to any light, my eyes are blinking. They are scaring a lot of people when I’m on video. So there are all those things that are happening.
So I would actually say unite against this virus. It’s a virus all over world. It’s not sparing a country, it’s not sparing a people. All of us have fallen victim to it. It doesn't matter whether Africa is hot, it’s not a virus about temperature, it’s just a virus, check is just a virus. You get infected, it stays in your body and then it goes to someone's body, someone's body, and it goes on and on and on. So that’s my advice, Blessing, that I want to give.