by Gretinah Machingura and Zhang Yuliang
HARARE, Dec. 23 (Xinhua) -- China and Zimbabwe had set the stage for accelerated implementation of ongoing infrastructure projects after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Zimbabwe in January this year.
However, the scope of cooperation took a new turn, following the advent of the COVID-19 in Zimbabwe in March, resulting in China channeling most of its support this year towards helping Zimbabwe to combat the pandemic.
Zimbabwe is in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic, with new infections that had remained moderate for the greater part of the year, resurging.
As of Tuesday, the country's total number of COVID-19 cases stood at 12,544, including 10,159 recoveries and 326 deaths.
Despite the pandemic, China continues to trudge forward with ongoing infrastructure projects in Zimbabwe, although at a reduced pace.
INFRASTRUCTURE PROJECTS CONTINUE TO PROGRESS DESPITE COVID-19
The major projects at various stages of completion are the 1.5 billion U.S. dollar Hwange Thermal Power Station expansion, the 153 million dollars Robert Gabriel Mugabe International Airport expansion, and the 100 million dollars new Parliament Building.
In a show of commitment, a team of over 200 Chinese experts arrived in Zimbabwe in October to accelerate the implementation of the Hwange Thermal Power Station expansion project, after delays caused by COVID-19.
Power utility ZESA had reported in August that the project to expand Zimbabwe's biggest coal-fired power plant by 600 megawatts by Chinese firm Sinohydro, had fallen behind schedule due to travel restrictions owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The project was supposed to reach 57 percent completion in the second quarter of 2020, but was at 48 percent in August, Zesa said in a statement.
The project is part of Zimbabwe's efforts to find sustainable solutions to its power challenges that are severely curtailing industrial growth and the economy at large. Zimbabweans are having to endure long hours of load shedding every day due to depressed generation capacity and limited ability to import power from regional neighbors.
Chinese ambassador to Zimbabwe Guo Shaochun last month reaffirmed China's commitment to completing several infrastructure projects that China is funding in Zimbabwe, despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, adding COVID-19 cannot stop the pace of cooperation between China and Zimbabwe.
"With the completion of the project (Hwange Thermal Power Station expansion), Zimbabwe's power self-sufficiency capacity will be greatly improved which is exactly what the country needs for its development and what practical cooperation should mean," Guo said.
Another infrastructure development project that is being undertaken by China in Zimbabwe is the construction of the new Parliament building in Mt. Hampden on the outskirts of the capital Harare.
The state-of-the-art parliament building is being constructed by China's Shanghai Construction Group through a grant that was provided by the Chinese government.
The building was expected to be completed by March 2021 but is now due for completion in September of the same year following disruptions that were caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa last month, however, expressed satisfaction with the progress.
"Constraints came around as a result of COVID-19. I am sure they would have been far advanced compared to where we are now. Arrangements have been made for technicians who had been out of the country to come back and I believe that from next year, construction would be in full pace," he said after touring the building for the fourth time since construction began in November 2018.
The imposing six-storey building, sitting on a hill-top, is the largest building to be funded by China in a southern African country in recent years.
CHINA'S CRUCIAL AID TOWARD ZIMBABWE'S COVID-19 FIGHT
As China forges ahead with infrastructure projects, it has not lost sight of the pressing need to help Zimbabwe deal with the pandemic.
Zimbabwe recorded its first case of the novel coronavirus in March, at a time when its public health delivery system was least prepared to deal with the pandemic.
However, through support from the Asian nation and other donors, Zimbabwe managed to slowly build its capacity to handle the pandemic.
Chinese companies operating in the country were the first to invest over 500,000 U.S. dollars in March for the rehabilitation of Wilkins Hospital in Harare, the country's main isolation and treatment center for COVID-19 at the time.
The renovations enhanced the hospital's capacity to handle infections, increasing beds for COVID-19 patients to 60 from 35, with an additional 10 beds designated for the intensive care unit.
Jack Ma and Alibaba Foundation chipped in with a huge consignment of medical supplies to help the African country combat the viral disease.
In April and June, the Chinese government handed over two significant consignments of anti-COVID-19 medical supplies and equipment to the country.
China strengthened its assistance when in May, a Chinese medical team from central China's Hunan Province arrived in Zimbabwe to assist the country in its fight against the pandemic.
The 12-member team brought along with it a consignment of medical supplies that included ventilators, nucleic acid testing kits, face masks, and medical protective suits.
During its two-week mission, the team shared its experience in epidemic control with the Zimbabwean side and offered training for medics on the prevention, control, diagnosis, and treatment of COVID-19.
"We are lucky as Zimbabwe to have had this opportunity to get this team of 12 Chinese specialists who were actually in the forefront in China dealing with COVID-19," Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa told Xinhua in an interview.
"We are grateful for the practical advice and suggestions we received from the team," she added.
State-owned Chinese companies operating under the banner of the Chamber of Chinese Enterprises in Zimbabwe also made a donation of medical goods to the country's largest referral hospital, Parirenyatwa, as well as surgical masks to various provinces, the Immigration Department, and the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority.
Speaking at the virtual China-Africa Extraordinary Summit on Solidarity against COVID-19 in June, Mnangagwa praised China for its support.
"We remain grateful for the assistance that continues to be extended to us by the Government of the People's Republic of China towards the fight against COVID-19 pandemic.
"The regular sharing of information between China and my government has been invaluable," the president said.
China continued to explore new ways of helping Zimbabwe to fight COVID-19.
In July, a newly established COVID-19 treatment center which was funded by Chinese firms started operating in Zimbabwe. Three Chinese firms teamed up with a local private medical institution to establish the facility in Harare.
The medical facility, named Health Point Upper East Medical Center, has a capacity to accommodate more than 80 patients. It is the first hospital in the country to be run through a partnership between Zimbabwe and China.
And in September, the Zimbabwe-China Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Acupuncture Center was opened.
Jiang Zhichao, founder of the center, said TCM played a critical role in China's fight against COVID-19, adding that the inclusion of TCM knowledge in Zimbabwe's medical practice will be of practical importance.
Guo Shaochun said the opening of the center marked a new chapter of cooperation in the health sector between Zimbabwe and China.
"Under the framework of building a community of common health for both China and Africa, China and Zimbabwe will be campaigning to strengthen cooperation on health and give full play to the unique advantages of TCM," the ambassador said.
He said despite the challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the two sides managed to complete the construction of the TCM and acupuncture center successfully. The clinic is housed at the Parirenyatwa Hospital. Enditem