The Sunday News
Bruce Ndlovu, Sunday Life Reporter
YEARS before he picked up a stethoscope or a scalpel, Professor Solwayo Ngwenya already knew about the devastating effects of viruses.
Years before he studied medicine at the University of Zimbabwe, decades before the University of Science and Technology (NUST) gave him the title of Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, he was learning about viruses while sitting at his father’s feet.
A simple man who had seen his herd of cattle lost for a song when a white settler purchased them off him for a pound each, the elder Ngwenya watched as his family was resettled from its Insuza farm to a less desirable patch of land in Lupane, Matabeleland North province.
As all this was happening, his wife was pregnant with a son, a future herd boy for Ngwenya’s remaining cattle. When this son was born, Ngwenya told him of the ruthlessness of the white settler, a ruthlessness that stripped unborn babies of their inheritance while they were still in their mother’s wombs.
While he could no longer bequeath to him the wealth offered by the rich soils of his former home in Lupane, Ngwenya would give another sort of treasure to a son that would be a professor. His son, Professor Solwayo Ngwenya, would inherit a knowledge of viruses and the deadly effect with which they spread.
“My father survived the historic influenza of 1918 up to 1920,” Prof Ngwenya told Sunday Life in an interview.
“He used to tell me these stories because the destruction he saw was unimaginable. A lot of people lost entire families and even the survivors were traumatised for life. He spoke about it his entire life so it left an indelible impression on me and he taught me about viruses and how I had to respect them. Little did I know that another virus a 100 years later would ravage the world. So, in my mind I never had any doubt what a pandemic would do to people.
Immediately after the World Health Organisation labelled this (Covid-19 )a global pandemic, I knew that we were in for it.”
Those fireside lessons about the Spanish flu were not to be taken lightly. This was after all, a virus that is estimated to have infected 500 million people, a third of the world’s population, and killed between 20 million and 50 million people in four deadly waves.
“The Spanish flue caused widespread destruction. My father would tell me how after a funeral, you would next attend one of a people that was also at that funeral. It is something that left a big scar on his mind and I would say, the same thing that happened to the survivors of that pandemic is the same thing that will happen to the survivors of this one.
People will have lifelong psychological problems from this and I think we have to respect the virus,” he said.
A year and a half ago, those tales that seemed to have been ripped from a story book came back to visit again.
Professor Ngwenya woke up one day and the earth was sick. The nightmares from his father’s stories were real.
Illness and death were once again airborne.
“Once this started in Wuhan in China in 2019 and the WHO declared it a global pandemic in March 2020, I immediately knew we were going to have a bad time. I also noticed how the Chinese were treating it. They were very fast, locking down quickly, building up new hospitals and separating the infected from the uninfected. I knew from that time that this thing is not a joke at all,” he said.
During those initial days of the virus, it all seemed all so far away. At the beginning of last year, Covid-19 seemed like a problem for other people on the other end of the world, a respiratory illness tucked away neatly in a God forsaken corner of the Far East. And yet, every plane ticket, every stamped passport bought the danger ever closer to people’s doorsteps. Professor Ngwenya said he knew even then that the dawn of a terrible time, a time filled with tears and death, was upon his homeland.
“I made the first tweet in March, warning about the effects of this virus and a few days later Covid-19 was declared in Zimbabwe. After the first case a person died from it. So, I believe I have always been ahead of the virus I would say.
As time went on, I saw other health professionals taking this lightly and saying this can be cured by paracetamol and so forth. That is when I also decided to increase my own noise levels just to make sure that everyone got the right information.
“When I spoke about it in the beginning, I saw that people were really behind in terms of knowledge. I saw a big information gap and that is when I knew that this was going to cause a lot of havoc. I made a lot of noise in the beginning and I think that helped with the first proper lockdown we had, the 21-day lockdown in March 2020.
Without it we were going to be overrun because we had no facilities then and we did not even have test kits and to allow the virus to spread would have caused a lot of death,” he said.
Like most prophesies, Prof Ngwenya’s predictions were met with resistance. He was a prophet of doom, some said.
Others claimed he was a false prophet, as they believed a man who is an expert on obstetrics and gynaecology had no right divine about viruses. On social media, the label “alarmist” was quickly slapped on the herd boy turned doctor.
“People are quick criticise and I have learnt that a lot of Zimbabweans don’t like to be told the truth, they prefer lies.
If they’re presented with the true picture, they feel threatened. It’s not surprising that I have been labelled a professor of doom, I have been labelled an alarmist and I have received insults and threats. I have been labelled and belittled from WhatsApp groups and other platforms.
“I have been made a figure of derision because a lot of people are arguing from positions of ignorance. A lot have not had the inter-generational connection like I had with memories of my father and the Spanish flu. Pandemics were also not taught much in medical school because the last one happened 100 years ago! So, people had a very narrow-minded view of what a pandemic is. But because I knew that my basics were correct and I was consistent and not distracted by people that had less knowledge about pandemics, I persevered,” he said.
With a third wave now washing over Zimbabwe with a ferocity not seen before, Prof Ngwenya does not take pride in the fact that his prophecy of doom came true. So much death, so much heartbreak could have been avoided if his words had fell on listening ears.
“My close family, friends and the followers I have know my principles are stable and founded on consistency. A lot of research goes into how I put out the information. Frankly, I have not been affected by all the criticism. I’m not easily distracted so I have continued with my work. We are now on the third wave and what I have said has come true despite what naysayers are purporting. I have a lot of family members and a lot of friends from around the world. I also have a lot of followers on Facebook and Twitter who listen to what I have said and have heed my advice. I’m happy that this core group of people are ready to listen to my way of handling the pandemic,” he said.
While he has emerged as one of the preeminent voices in the field of medicine against the virus, Prof Ngwenya still occupies an important role as the acting Chief Executive Officer Mpilo Hospital, the only referral hospital in the southern region.
As the virus ravages the city and country, Prof Ngwenya wakes up every morning with the unenviable task of keep his staff’s morale up amidst an overwhelming overflow of death and sorrow.
“In a behemoth institution like this we have to work hard. We have to vet people and find ways of going around the pandemic. Our biggest problem is a population that continues to be extremely complacent and allowing widespread infections. Ultimately these land on our doorstep. We have to continue because if we were too close, there are thousands of people that would have no access to healthcare. That fact on its own keeps us going so have to be resilient and make sure we fight this virus head on. We have to talk to staff because there’s widespread death and these deaths happen at the hands of our healthcare workers on a daily basis. This is on an increasing basis as well.
It’s really hard to lead such a team and try to motivate them,” he said.
As the world opens and closes, going in and out of lockdowns, many people have accepted disruptions and sudden illness and death as reality. The phrase, “a new normal” has been coined to capture the mood of the times. For Prof Ngwenya, who was once forced to relive his own father’s tortured memories of a bygone age, there is nothing to celebrate about this new reality.
“There is no new normal. If you say new normal, you are normalising widespread infection, mass hospitalisation, mass sickness and mass deaths. You can’t call that normal. That nomenclature should stop because people will start to think that their current behaviour is fine. There is nothing normal about a pandemic. This is a global medical emergency, it can never be normal,” he said.