Crunch moment for Zim

ZIMBABWE will decide next week whether to extend its 21-day lockdown, which expires on Sunday. President Emmerson Mnangagwa indicated this week that Cabinet will sit on Monday to review the situation.

Editor’s Memo Faith Zaba

Mnangagwa is caught between a rock and hard place—to extend the lockdown and preserve lives or to extend the lockdown and destroy businesses and jobs?
The President said a fortnight ago that: “I wouldn’t want to prejudge our decision. We are going to review the situation. If we think that it is containable, we may go back because it has its own socio-economic impact. So, we have to weigh the possibilities of relaxing or continuing at the end of 21 days.”
Since then, there has been mounting pressure from business leaders for him not to extend the lockdown beyond the 21 days to avert a total collapse of the economy.

Former Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries president and United Refineries chief executive Busisa Moyo says industry will grind to a halt if government extends the lockdown. He says 82% of companies are unable to pay salaries beyond a month. Moyo warned government against extending the lockdown in the absence of rescue measures, including a bailout package to assist the ailing industry, which is already reeling from economic pressures.

The Zimbabwe Chamber of Commerce (ZNCC), in a report titled Sustainable and Flexible Economic Interventions to Address Covid-19, proposed a partial lockdown, entailing continued monitoring and restricted working hours from 5am to 7pm. It also recommends that movement be allowed only within cities, while barring movement between towns and cities.

The advantages of a partial lockdown, the ZNCC said, include allowing the production of goods by business to meet domestic needs and retention of the workforce.

While it is important to ensure there is no total economic collapse, let us not be short-sighted. It would be pointless to have an economy with a sick and dying population. Companies will lose employees.

The globe is replete with many examples of countries which were in denial or just too relaxed when the pandemic hit cities outside Wuhan in China, where the virus originated. The disease has hit several countries hard, among them the United States, Britain, Italy and Spain.

Italy now has 165 155 infections and 21 645 deaths, while the US has recorded 644 746 Covid-19 cases and 28 593 deaths.Zimbabwe’s poor healthcare would not be able to handle such outbreaks. We need to be cautious.

It is way too early for Zimbabwe, whose infections are slowly rising, with 23 recorded Covid-19 cases and three deaths, to relax the lockdown restrictions. The country is also starting to record community transmission of the virus.

The level of testing is very low in Zimbabwe when compared to other regions, meaning unreported cases are increasing exponentially. We are just waiting for an explosion of cases, which authorities will fail to suppress.

Zimbabwe has only tested about 700 suspected cases since the outbreak, while South Africa, which has a potential to conduct 25 000 daily tests, is testing between 1 000 and 5 000 a day. We have not even adequately decentralised testing to provincial laboratories.

As a country, we have not even done any projections based on scientific research to understand how the disease is spreading.Government needs to swallow its pride and seek help from the World Health Organisation. Currently, we do not have the financial and technical capacity to deal with this pandemic.

Honestly, instead of relaxing the restrictions, there should be tighter enforcement because at the moment, as a country, we are not serious about adhering to this lockdown, which medical experts worldwide have said is the only answer to contain the virus. We have to contain it before the winter season, because by then, it will be too late to address the crisis. But for a total lockdown to work, government must provide safety nets for the vulnerable members of our society.

Mnangagwa put it right when he said on Tuesday: “We, however, have to do our best to preserve life, which is the most precious. If a life is lost, that is the end of it, but we can always reconstruct our economy.”

Zimbabwe is truly in a catch-22. But I am sure we all agree on what is preferable: dead bodies or a dead economy?