COVID-19 in Zambia: Country Updates from Mike Buffo
KiloWatts for Humanity has been present in Zambia since the organization’s founding in 2015. The vast, land-locked country is home to more than 17 million people and is one of the world’s largest exporters of copper. However, nearly 2 out of 3 residents do not have access to electricity, and outside of urban centers, only 6% of the population has a reliable source of energy. To date, KWH has helped bring power to four separate communities (Chalokwa, Cheeba, Filibaba, and Munyama), and has plans to complete a new solar-kiosk in the town of Kanchomba by the end of the year.
To stay informed about Zambian news and culture, KWH relies on communication with its in-
country partners and Mike Buffo, a member of KWH’s Board of Directors. Buffo lived in the
Zambian cities of Lusaka and Solwezi for three years from 2005-2008 while working as a project manager for the Peace Corps. To update KWH’s community, Buffo took the time to share information about the country’s response to the global pandemic.
What is the situation in Zambia currently?
Mike Buffo: “The short answer is that it’s hard to know because there’s not enough testing…
What’s been striking is how they are finding cases all over. In the capital [Lusaka] and across the country, they are finding one case here and another case there, but it’s hard to believe that it is just a single case in these instances. They are doing social distancing practices. Businesses, schools, and churches are all closed, and they clean the markets, taxis, and busses. They are responding to it seriously, but in some ways, they are woefully unprepared… I know some people in healthcare, and they’re saying there are no masks or gloves, so they’re worried.”
The first recorded cases of COVID-19 in Zambia occurred on March 18 in the capital city of
Lusaka, a metropolis of sprawling markets and home to an estimated 2.8 million residents. A
Zambian couple returning home from France tested positive just days after the country had
begun increased screenings, closing businesses, and implementing social distancing measures. In the single month since then, the number of confirmed cases has reached 654 with seven deaths.
What has been the reaction to closing community centers like schools and churches?
Buffo: “At a government level, there has been a lot of bi-partisan support and motivation to
implement social distancing measures. On the local level, it’s been hard. A lot of people are living in multi-generational families and in close proximity to their neighbors. They also have to
go out to get food or make money.”
Are there any other ways that Zambia is handling the crisis well?
Buffo: “HIV is quite common, so there is a lot of [healthcare] infrastructure around HIV
education, some of which has been turned toward COVID, such as radio programs and
billboards. So there is more, non-political public messaging around COVID than we see here [in the US].”
What misconceptions could someone in the US have about COVID-19 in Zambia?
Buffo: “‘Most Zambians are really young, something like 50% of the population is 17 or below,
so, therefore, it’s not going to be a problem.’ We don’t know that. The fact that 11% of adults
have HIV is going to be a factor. It’s hard to imagine how a disease that is affecting people with compromised immune systems isn’t going to impact people with HIV.”
How is a solar-kiosk beneficial during a pandemic?
Buffo: “The best thing a kiosk can be for a community is an alternate source of income, which is important. Communities and towns are economically tied to each other through the sale of corn, fish, and chickens… but with markets [temporarily] shut down, the ability to freeze things is helpful.”
How is the pandemic impacting KWH and the project in Kanchomba?
Buffo: “Everything is being done remotely this year, which impacts our community and ability to interact with people, which is really important right now... Our partner organization,
Caritas, which works in Cheeba and surrounding communities in the southern region of Zambia, is reducing the size of community meetings to about 10 people and maintaining 2-
meter spacing during these meetings. They are also visiting members of the groups they work
with at their homes where they can meet outside.”
Caritas is also assisting KWH with its current project in Kanchomba. In response to the pandemic, Caritas is now tasked with directing all in-country operations while KWH and its
team of engineers are designing the microgrid to be used. While this will be the first time KWH
is not on the ground to assist with a project installation, Mike and Kirk MacLearnsberry visited
Kanchomba on behalf of KWH in May 2019. Through a tour and meeting with the community, KWH learned more about Kanchomba’s needs and developed a better understanding of how a solar-kiosk would benefit the town.
Is there anything else you would like to share about the situation in Zambia?
Buffo: “Zambia has had a hard year. Rainy season in Zambia is at the same time as the rainy
season in Seattle, but the winter of 2018 and 2019 was really dry in Zambia, which led to a hard summer of low food. At the same time, they’ve had huge growth in the cities and electrification of more places, but they haven’t built any new power plants, which has made load shedding more common, where they cut off power for a period of time… and the power utility is telling people with grid connection that, ‘You only have 12 hours of power per day.’ These things are piling up: low food, low power, and COVID, which is now impacting the copper industry. The Kwacha [Zambian dollar] is in free fall and the country has taken on a lot of debt. The situation is quite poor and is probably the worst it has been in 30 years. Zambia is a peaceful place so it is still stable, but there is a lot going on all at the same time. To tie it back to our solar-kiosks, now is a really important time for communities to be able to diversify their income and store food.”
To further combat the spread of COVID-19, Zambia recently announced they would be
restricting travel to and from the neighboring port-country of Tanzania, which will further
impact the regional economy.
Mike Buffo and the rest of KWH will continue to monitor how the pandemic is affecting Zambia
Or, if you would like to read more about KWH in Zambia, click here to see Julia Gorman’s volunteer experience helping to set up a solar-kiosk in Cheeba.