‘Recovery from Covid-19 impact needs cooperation’

THE Covid-19 pandemic, which first broke out in China, has been sweeping across the world at a furious pace. It has infected more than 1,3 million people worldwide (as of Wednesday), with over 83 500 deaths and Zimbabwe has not been spared the devastating disease.

The country has so far recorded 11 cases and two deaths, but fears of an explosion in a country reeling from a collapsed economy, crippled health sector and extreme poverty remain. Government, international humanitarian organisations, civil society, churches and the private sector have joined forces to fight the rampant pandemic. This week, the Zimbabwe Independent (ZI) spoke to George Chirwa (GC), executive director of Access Forex, a foreign-currency remittance platform run by local financial services company Access Finance, about the Feed-a-Million Challenge campaign meant to help vulnerable communities under siege from the pandemic, which is as much a health crisis as it is a socio-economic catastrophe. Find excerpts of the interview below:

ZI: First tell us about your operations in Zimbabwe? What do you do, and how have been your operations in this hyperinflationary and unpredictable environment?
GC: Like many countries, Zimbabwe is having its fair share of problems, politically and economically. Yes, we do have our fair share of challenges as a country, but we believe in this country and the resilience of its people. It is heartening to see that the spirit of creativity is what has kept the country going.

Zimbabweans are always finding solutions to their problems in whatever form. We are a forex remittance platform connecting the diaspora and those in Zimbabwe and so we believe our operation is part of solutions that are driving this country forward. We also think our #feedamillion initiative is part of a set of mitigatory measures designed to help this country pull through this tough time.

ZI: Zimbabwe, like many other countries around the world, is battling to contain Covid-19’s rate of infection and mortality. How prepared do you think we are in combating this disease as a country?

GC: Not one country was prepared for this virus or its effects and that can be borne by what is happening in Italy, United Kingdom, Spain and the United States, among the many countries that were slow in responding to the threat.

Despite having excellent health facilities, they are battling to cope with their situations. That is why everyone must play their part in this fight: government, opposition, the private sector or business and the rest of the citizenry individually or as part of a collective. We are all for one and one for all in this.

ZI: While Zimbabwe does not have a robust healthcare system, it has so far registered a relatively low rate of infection and fatality. Officially, so far there are 11 confirmed cases and two deaths. What do you think is the reason?

GC: Very few African countries actually have a robust healthcare system in the best of times, and even in the West, the coronavirus epidemic has shown that they too do not have stout healthcare systems, but because they have resources that we do not possess, they are able to respond faster than African countries. It is early days yet for us to be complacent around the current low figures.

We need to be extra vigilant and prepare for worst-case scenarios, to protect our beloved nation.

ZI: Do you think Zimbabwe will manage to flatten the curve and avoid large-scale infections and mortality?

GC: I think what Zimbabwe has done, implementing the lockdown so early before Covid-19 became widespread and a full-blown crisis, is a proven way of not only containing the possible spread, but eliminating it or keeping the curve low and flat, as the example of New Zealand shows.

They closed their borders early and imposed tight restrictions and their numbers compared to the rest of the world are pretty amazing. They engendered a sense of collective purpose that had everyone pulling in one direction and here in Zimbabwe we are trying to do the same.

ZI: Covid-19 is primarily a health crisis, but it is also an economic issue. What do you think will be its impact on the health sector in Zimbabwe given its well-documented failings? And what would be its economic impact?

GC: It goes without saying that Covid-19 pandemic has pushed the world into a global recession and, according to the International Monetary Fund, for 2020, it will be worse than the global financial crisis of 2008.

The economic damage the crisis is causing is mounting across all countries and in all forms: job losses, company closures which will hit the poor hard. A country that put in viable mitigatory measures will come out of the crisis stronger, which they can use to advance national agendas that will enable them to recover economically.

ZI: Is Covid-19 the wake-up call for the authorities to do more to improve the health delivery system?

GC: Ours is not to pass political judgements or self-aggrandisement. We have a situation that demands the all-hands-on-deck approach and we are putting ours up. We believe business leaders in this county are doing the same. So, any developments or improvements in health, economy and otherwise are going to require a similar approach. A spirit of cooperation and togetherness.

ZI: Some people around the world say a crisis on this scale is bound to re-order society in deeper, more fundamental and far-reaching ways than imagined. What do you think will be the overall impact of Covid-19 on the world?

GC: Clearly, the world cannot return to the old “business as usual” model or “us against them” because, as this crisis has shown, there is strength in cooperation and that globalisation is not a distant theory. We are living it. Economic recovery, individually as a country and globally, will similarly require cooperation and realisation that we need each other, even more so now. Our initiative is part of this realisation, to rally the collective to defeat a common enemy at our door step. We are also witnessing a huge surge in digitisation of services globally, we have to be on the fore front of this wave.

To that end, we are offering our diaspora clients the ability to purchase value-added services for their loved ones in Zimbabwe, such as groceries and other essentials.

ZI: The Zimbabwean government, international humanitarian organisations, civil society, churches and individuals have joined forces to fight the disease. For instance, government has launched a US$2,2 billion humanitarian appeal to combat the pandemic and address other issues. Treasury has provided ZW$500 million to fight the virus. What role can the private sector play and what has your company specifically done to help tackle the disease and alleviate humanitarian suffering?

GC: This speaks to what we, through the Feed-a-Million Challenge initiative, are doing and inviting other corporates to be part of. We have committed a seed of
US$200 000 towards a target fund of US$1 million, which will provide food aid to the vulnerable communities specifically child-headed homes, orphans and the elderly. The proposed food hampers that will be distributed include rice, maize meal, cooking oil, flour, pasta and salt. The food aid will initially be given to communities in Harare, Bulawayo and Victoria Falls, then eventually rolled out across the country.

ZI: After the Covid-19 outbreak, there were lockdowns around the world, including in Zimbabwe, in a bid to contain the disease by limiting movement and interaction. However, in countries like Zimbabwe with highly informalised economies, it is widely acknowledged 90% of locals do not have formal employment and survive from hand-to-mouth. What should be done to help these vulnerable communities?

GC: Our initial steps are what I have described above, we need to alleviate the immediate problem of hunger and for as long as it takes. But how we go from there is a collective decision we have to make as a country and we have shown that we are ready and committed to do our part to take this country forward. Our Feed-a-Million Challenge is just the start. With business and Zimbabweans here and in the diaspora contributing, we will overcome this challenge.