Coronavirus lockdown: Re-imagining the future

COVID-19 will totally alter the political landscape in Zimbabwe. It will expose incompetence, corruption, and bias as well as highlight new leadership. It will dramatise the gaps in government policies and priorities. But more importantly, the closure of Beitbridge and other critical ports will irreparably harm an already ailing economy.

Brian T Kagoro Lawyer

The country’s already parlous economy will incur debt from inactivity. The most extensive impact will be at a personal level, as families struggle to make ends meet without their usual daily income. I suspect that most people will think about their families, villages and regions even as they talk up national response.

It is absolutely important how the Zimbabwe government responds to Covid-19 in an even and equitable way across the provinces and districts. This will determine national perception and attitude towards leadership and government.

The economic fall-out from Covid-19 lockdown will have many scalps and the social consequences will reverberate all the way through to the 2023 election. I suspect that all factors being equal, the Covid-19 moment will redefine political alliances and interests.

The political, economic, social, financial and humanitarian impact of the Covid-19 pandemic will be with us long after the virus has been contained.

A global pandemic and local solutions

The coronavirus has in just under four months resulted in excess of 800 049 confirmed cases globally, 40 000 plus deaths and 148 870 recoveries (as at Wednesday morning). The global mortality rate sits at approximately 4,6%. As of March 31, 2020, the total confirmed cases in Africa were 5 368 and the total number of deaths and the total recovered were 246 people. This grim picture raises fundamental questions about the likely scenarios for Zimbabwe and the adequacy of the measures that the country has put in place to respond to Covid-19.

Ten African countries are in partial or full lockdown. Four out of 14 Sadc countries, which are the drivers of the regional economy, closed non-essential businesses between March 24-31, 2020. Most countries in Africa have adopted mitigation and preventative measures such as travel restictions; the closure of schools; banning of public worship by churches and mosques; and closure of shopping malls, restaurants and non-essential businesses.

As shops, flea markets and vending stalls close and demand falls in South Africa, Botswana and Angola which are the engine of the Sadc economy, the impact on regional and national supply chains and the millions of workers whose livelihoods depend on them will be acutely felt in the weeks and months to come.

The political response

The question is, what will be the impact of the lockdown declared by President Emmerson Mnangagwa on March 30, 2020 within the following socio-economic context?
Malnutrition and disease mean that Covid-19 could be more deadly in Zimbabwe than in South Africa;
Recent experiences with the use of the military in law enforcement raises serious concerns regarding potential human rights violations during lockdown when media coverage will be limited;

A militarised biomedical response to Covid-19 will close further what is already highly constricted civic space;
The long-standing fuel shortages and fuel queues; unreliable water and power supplies;

The long-standing health sector crisis, dilapidated and neglected infrastructure. The health system in Zimbabwe has limited capacity to absorb the pandemic;
Grand corruption and bureaucracy involved in the processes of public procurement;
The pervasive food insecurity characterised by the shortage of mealie meal and Covid-19 induced food shortages and price hikes and parallel markets, and the social discontent; and
The absence of a co-ordinated AU or Sadc response to Covid-19 and the broader ramifications of national lockdowns and border closures on freedom of movement and right to trade.

Pre-existing vulnerabilities

In 2018, UNAids estimated that about 1,3 million people were living with HIV. The HIV prevalence (i.e. the percentage of people living with HIV) amongst adults (15-49 years) was 12,7%. An estimated 740 000 women (60,83%) were living with HIV in Zimbabwe in 2017.

The UN also estimates that about 900 000 to 1,4 million people (approximately 7% of the population) have some sort of disability in Zimbabwe caused by disease, accidents, poverty and hereditary conditions. Covid-19 will affect persons living with disability and HIV and Aids disproportionately in terms of the preventive measures, social distancing as well as access to care, treatment and support. The government has not made any special provisions for this category of people.

Out of a potential workforce of 7,8 million Zimbabweans, 750 000 are economically inactive; 800 000 plus are unemployed and about 94,5% of 6,3 plus million people are working in the informal sector.

An International Monetary Fund working paper found that 60% of the Zimbabwean economy is informal , second only to Bolivia’s 62,3%. The so-called “black, lack, parallel, grey, informal or hidden economy” is the largest employer in Zimbabwe. This excludes illegal or criminal activities, do-it-yourself, or other household activities. Informality in Zimbabwe is the outcome of several historical and contemporary policy choices, not least the IMF/World Bank structural adjustment programmes (Saps); the rigidity of certain policies that cause people to prefer off-book transactions; high tax rates; the poor quality of public institutions and corruption.

Corruption drives a significant amount of the unofficial activities. A lockdown in any shape and form will exacerbate these pre-existing socio-economic fragilities.

The median age in Zimbabwe is 19 years. Although the majority of Zimbabweans are young, the evolution of the virus in the context of the above economic and social crisis in Zimbabwe will disproportionately affect women and youth.
Misplaced priorities
Part of the tragicomedy that is our politics was dramatised by the First Lady Auxillia Mnangagwa and the president himself parading recently purchased Zupco buses through the streets of Harare at a time when health workers, public servants, police, transport workers and the retail and service sectors were raising concerns about their poor conditions of service and remuneration. These workers are at the coalface of the fight against Covid-19 and they are likely to be hardest hit by the pandemic due to their risk of exposure as well as a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE).

As part of its Covid-19 response, the Zimbabwean government has promised to provide bailout funds for business and not minimum wage earners, informal sector traders and cottage industries. It has suggested that all drivers coming into Zimbabwe from South Africa will be quarantined for 14 days? What if they are bringing much-needed food or Covid-19 protective clothing? It is doubtful that the provisions proposed for SME sector bailouts will suffice to address the extent of the need.

The early responses of the government are inadequate. They offer no meaningful relief to informal economy workers, SMME’s and the self-employed. Zimbabwe’s economy was already in significant crisis with a ballooning domestic and foreign debt, food inflation, food insecurity and hyper-inflation. Regional trading partners of Zimbabwe have closed their borders for 21 days, thus affecting the ability of cross-border traders to travel to order goods for resale. This has serious socio-economic consequences for the livelihoods of families dependent on these hardworking citizens.

Factory workers will suffer as production is being cancelled or postponed and there is a likelihood of wage cuts. This government must put in place measures to cushion all workers and income provisions which maintain formal and informal sector jobs beyond the Covid-19 pandemic.

This may even include the possibility of income support and cash payments options to avert a humanitarian disaster. Frankly, how does the government do this when so much is looted, syphoned by cartels or simply wasted on misplaced priorities? So, the biggest challenges facing Zimbabwe now is to keep the economy booting whilst effectively responding to Covid-19 .

The response by the private sector whilst commendable would need to be re-oriented towards a more holistic and transformative approach that leverages the expertise of humanitarian emergency and medical experts more. The national context requires that economic and social policy be treated as intertwined and equally important.

What to do?

What more can the government do to strengthen its Covid-19 response?
Put in place a strategy for stimulating local production in response to Covid-19;
Put in place a long-term strategy for economic structural transformation and comprehensive State reforms;
Strengthen social dialogue and inclusive approaches to fighting the virus;
Ensure that any restrictions on democratic rights and freedoms as a result of government actions are those that are reasonably desirable in a democratic society for the maintenance of law, order, and public health;
Where technology or surveillance apps are used to monitor individuals and the spread of the virus, this must be done without violating the constitution of Zimbabwe;

Stop corruption and theft of humanitarian donations and state funds; and
Provide effective alternatives for continued schooling for students at all levels.

Social distancing

Many Zimbabweans live in townships and semi-formal and informal settlements where the standard social distancing standards are simply not practical. The measures proposed for slowing down the spread of the virus need to be reviewed or improved as follows:

Ensuring that when police officers and soldiers that are being deployed to enforce the lockdown are being transported they are not crowded in trucks;
Providing facilities for self-isolation of low income individuals and households showing symptoms of the virus; and
Introduce mobile testing units and expand isolation centres by looking at school halls and church auditoria as options.
Economic welfare, social protection
The government should strengthen its response to economic impact of the virus by:
Offering additional funding for the public health care system, including for refurbishing existing health care facilities;
Recalling and reinstating dismissed healthcare workers ,and increasing testing for health workers;
Providing free health care to poor households and all that require attention;
Providing employment protection for those self-isolating;
Offering tax relief for individuals below a certain income bracket, SME’s and businesses hardest hit by the lockdown;
Paid sick leave for a period of self-isolation;
Bailout funds for business or sectors of the economy must be independently and transparently assessed; and
Having a comprehensive dialogue with the private sector and other employers.
Conclusion
Zimbabwe needs economic transformation to address years of economic decline, mismanagement and international isolation. This calls for inclusive ways of doing politics based on consent, consensus and dialogue.
Imagining, defining and building consensus around the critical national response priorities based on the values requires a leadership that is future-focused and inclusive.
In order to change the course of the virulent Covid-19 virus, African countries must pool their resources, expertise and capabilities.
Kagoro is a lawyer and political analyst. — Twitter: @TamukaKagoro77.