Disaster looms in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe is currently in its seventh week of the coronavirus lockdown which was initially set to last three weeks, and has since been extended by a further two weeks on two different occasions.

On March 20, the first case of COVID-19 was announced in the country already struggling both economically and in terms of public health.

“In March I had actually been very lucky to be contacted by three separate people who wanted me to build their houses, but it is now not possible, seeing that they will not be able to get the material anything soon because the lockdown might even be extended again without any notice just like before,” said 45 year old construction worker McDonald Pitiri.

Like Pitiri, most Zimbabweans are employed in the informal economy. According to Zimbabwe’s National Statistics Agency, 76 percent of those employed in the country work in the informal sector.

“We are left with around two months for us to reach harvest season where we will have enough to eat, because most of our crops will be ripe by then,” Pitiri said in an interview in the rural town of Goromonzi about 60 kilometres from Harare. “But in the meantime what I see is disaster looming, I am a family man, I have five children and they all rely on me to put food on the table and since I am not working things will be difficult for my family as we will  starve.”

Around Zimbabwe, police and the soldiers jointly man roadblocks and conduct patrols to enforce lockdown regulations.

In Warren Park, a suburb of Harare, a man was allegedly beaten to death by soldiers for loitering during the lockdown. There have been several reported incidents in which journalists were attacked by police and soldiers for carrying out their duties, despite being accredited to do so. Workers in the informal economy, including farmers and market vendors, have also been impacted by police and army overreach.

Most informal workers need to work every day to earn their living and pay for basic household necessities. This is something Colleta Moyosvii has not been able to do. She is a small scale farmer that grows vegetables in the rural town of Macheke, for resale in the city of Marondera, 23 kilometres away. But her livelihood is now threatened by coronavirus related militarization.

Colleta Moyosvii in her maize field, which will be ready for harvest in June. Photo: Chipa Gonditii for Toward Freedom.

“I am a small scale farmer, I grow vegetables, mainly butternut, tomatoes and covo (relish vegetable) which I then go to sell in the farmers market in the city,” she said in an interview in Macheke. “This is my source of livelihood and the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented me from making some money because I am not able to go and buy inputs such as fertilizers and seeds.” 

Crops such as tomatoes and butternut are grown throughout the year, usually for resale in the city, where such commodities are scarce. However, they are not important as maize, which is the staple food in the country. The harvesting of maize will commence in June.

Local media has reported that in the eastern part of the country, police confiscated and destroyed several tons of fresh fruit and vegetables by setting fire to them because the vendors had broken coronavirus related travel restrictions. In a country plagued by malnutrition and hunger such a move has also made farmers like Moyosvii reluctant to send their crops to the markets out of fear.

“I heard about the vendors who had their crops destroyed in Mutare, I actually knew some of them. This is so sad because this is the sources of livelihood for these people and considering that there are a lot of poor and hungry people in the country, the police should have just donated those vegetables,” Moyosvii said. “This cruel act by the police has made us as small holder providers scared of them, really.”

In a recent report, the World Food Program (WFP) classified Zimbabwe as one of 18 countries in the world that will likely come out of the coronavirus pandemic in a worse off situation with regards to nutrition. The country is still reeling from the effects of its worst drought in a decade.

According to the WFP, donor support is needed now for Zimbabwe and other countries affected by political instability as they confront the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Zimbabwe’s worst drought in a decade has compounded the crisis engulfing the country, as economic collapse and political instability fuel political protests and social unrest, which may worsen in the coming months, farmers are struggling to access agricultural materials, bringing fears of another poor harvest,” reads the WFP report.

In its humanitarian plan for 2020, released in April, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said seven million people in urban and rural areas in Zimbabwe were in urgent need of humanitarian assistance compared to 5.5 million in August of last year.

In a domestic and international humanitarian assistance appeal for April 2020-2021, the Zimbabwean government made a plea for US$2.2 billion, so that they can provide aid in the short to medium term. 

Food security remains a major concern as a large proportion of poor households have exhausted their food stocks during the lockdown and are currently in need of food assistance. The provinces of Manicaland, Masvingo, Matabeleland North and Matabeleland South are the most affected

The government of Emmerson Mnangagwa created a ZWL$600 million (US$13.33 million) fund to mitigate the effects of Covid-19. One million beneficiaries (out of a population of 16 million) are slated to receive ZWL$180 (US$4) per month.

This paltry amount was justified by Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube, who claimed that the government used a “sophisticated algorithm” to select beneficiaries of ZWL$180 Covid-19 kitty. He claimed they looked at how much money is in your bank account, mobile wallet and using your cell phone number, figured out your residence in order to calculate need.

Despite a family of four needing about ZWL$7000 (US$156) per month in order to survive, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare Paul Mavima continues to insist that giving about one million people ZWL$180 each is proof that government still had their best interests at heart.

“We never stopped helping rural folks. We are still offering drought relief and cash transfers to the poorest districts. The WFP is also helping with cereals and pulses,” said Mavima in an interview with Toward Freedom.

One of the $4 beneficiaries who refused to be named out of fear of state security agents said the cash was not enough to buy food for her family.

“I do not know what the government is thinking by giving us this lousy amount, it is not enough to buy groceries for my family because with [four dollars] l can only buy a two kilograms  packet of sugar which goes for [two dollars] and a two litre bottle of cooking oil which costs [three dollars] depending on where you buy it,” she said. “I do not think my family can survive on this and I hope God will be with me through this ordeal.”

Over the past decades, Zimbabwe suffered the second most severe episode of hyperinflation in recorded history. The annual inflation rate peaked in November 2008, reaching 89.7 sextillion (21 zeros) per cent. Gross economic mismanagement and political instability resulted in terrible hunger and death, as food quickly disappeared from the shops due to lack of production in the country. 

In some instances people would queue in shops for simple things like a box of matches. In addition, Zimbabwe’s health care system has seriously deteriorated. Government officials and local elites seek treatment from abroad using taxpayers money. 

Doctors and nurses have long been engaging in strikes to press for better wages and working conditions amid serious shortages in drugs, equipment and basic kit such as syringes and gloves. Last year it took the intervention of billionaire businessman Strive Masiiwa for doctors to end a four month strike after he set up a ZWL$100million fund for them.

Alongside efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, Zimbabwe is also in the midst of another wave of illness: more than 226 people have died from a malaria outbreak since January 2020. This figure is expected to rise across the country, although the true number of malaria deaths may well be masked by families being unable to access clinics or failing to report cases. 

In addition, Zimbabwe has over 1.3 million people living with HIV. Thirteen percent of adults between the ages of 15 and 49 have the disease. 

With pressure mounting on an already broken healthcare system, persons living with HIV are struggling to get access to medication under the lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the rampaging virus. 

Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 patients in critical care are currently being treated at the recently renovated Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital, which has a capacity of around 60 COVID-19 patients. There are 10 beds designated for the facility’s Intensive Care Unit. Before  the expansion, the hospital could only accommodate 35 COVID-19 patients.

According to the Ministry of Health and Childcare, as of May 5th the country had 34 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including four deaths and two recoveries.

The capital Harare has the highest number of positive cases at 13, followed by Bulawayo with 12, Mashonaland East with five, Mashonaland West with three, and Matabeleland North with a single case. 

Author Bio:

Chipa Gonditii is a journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. He writes on political, social and economic issues in Zimbabwe, and can be contacted at chipagonditii@gmail.com or via Twitter @chipagonditii.