PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa disregarded the advice of health experts who recommended a 21-day Covid-19 lockdown extension, preferring instead to listen to his Zanu PF and Cabinet colleagues who argued that a prolonged shutdown could spark civil unrest, it has emerged.
Mnangagwa on Sunday announced his administration had, after wide consultation, decided to extend the lockdown by 14 days to May 3.It has since emerged that Mnangagwa, who claimed his administration made the “hard but necessary” decision after broad consultation, initially wanted the lockdown to be extended by a further 21 days, but changed his mind after he was convinced by Zanu PF and government officials to settle for 14 days.
Government sources said the matter was the subject of heated debate in Cabinet last week as ministers were sharply divided on the way forward, given the divergent views. The crux of the matter was all about balancing the pressing needs of an already troubled economy with the considerations of a public health emergency.
A source said Mnangagwa only settled for the 14-day extension “just hours” before his 4:30pm Sunday announcement.In off-the-record briefings with the Zimbabwe Independent this week, senior officials revealed that ministers presented divergent opinions during the meeting, which ended inconclusively as a result.
“There were vibrant deliberations in Cabinet over the duration by which the lockdown should be extended. Everyone agreed that the situation on the ground surely merited an extension as it would be unwise to bring it to an end at a time when
the Covid-19 crisis is deepening. However, there was no agreement on the duration as some thought it should be extended by 21 days while others thought 14 days were enough,” a source said.
According to sources, the gravest concerns came from Finance minister Mthuli Ncube, Industry and Commerce minister Sekai Nzenza, State Security minister Owen Ncube and Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri who all argued against extending the lockdown by 21 days.
Ncube and Nzenza, who preside over key economic portfolios, argued for a 14-day extension with eased conditions for financial services and the manufacturing sector.
They also got support from Mines and Mining development minister Winston Chitando who argued that the lockdown had virtually crippled the extractives sector.
Mnangagwa, initially in favour of a 21-day extension, was supported by his two deputies Constantino Chiwenga and Kembo Mohadi as well as Health and Child Care minister Obadiah Moyo.
“Basically, the debate centred around the issue of the duration of the lockdown extension. The President first proposed 21 days and got support from the two vice-presidents and Dr (Obadiah) Moyo. However, other ministers felt 21 days were too long and proposed 14 days with less restrictions,” a Cabinet source said.
“For instance, the Finance minister said from his consultations with Zimra (Zimbabwe Revenue Authority), he had come to realise that revenue inflows had reached unsustainably low levels. The financial services sector was also in severe distress. Nzenza agitated for the manufacturing sector to be allowed to re-open with skeletal staff and this was also supported by Chitando,” the source said.
“Mudha (Owen Ncube) and Muchinguri-Kashiri supported the idea albeit for different reasons. They were basically worried by the situation reports they are getting on the security front and said they favoured a little bit of a relaxation to prevent the likelihood of civil unrest,” the source further said.
However, Chiwenga remained adamant that the lockdown should be extended by a further 21 days and was backed by Mohadi who chairs the Covid-19 taskforce.
“Their biggest supporter was Obadiah Moyo, who said that during his consultations with health sector representatives, it had emerged that they favoured a 21-day lockdown extension on the basis that it would give more time to respond to the calamity since the country was only starting to feel the full effects of the disease.
“It appeared to make sense since these people are the ones on the frontline. But again, there are issues about the economy which is in very bad shape. Some countries can afford prolonged lockdown periods because they have strong social support systems and have been coming up with robust strategies to rebut the economic onslaught. So, it basically became a catch-22 situation, whereby negative effects could be felt from either decision.
“The meeting therefore ended without a final decision and the President said he would be making further consultations before making an announcement on the way forward. I think the decision was made not more than 24 hours before the announcement was made on Sunday because even his speech was only prepared on Saturday evening,” the official added.
A Zanu PF source said: “We were indeed consulted and we counselled that there was a possibility of an uprising if the stringent lockdown persists for too long. It would be folly to assume that with the economy in this state and people running out of food at home, the opposition is just sitting there dormant and not seeking to capitalise on the situation. So the party told the President that it was wiser to ease on the lockdown and give the people breathing space while thinking of other measures to contain the virus.”
Zanu PF spokesperson Simon Khaya Moyo could not be reached for comment as he was unreachable on mobile phone.In his address on Sunday, Mnangagwa allowed mines and manufacturing companies to re-open.
Covid-19 has so far infected more than 2,6 million and killed 180 000 across the world. As of Wednesday night, Zimbabwe had recorded 28 cases and four deaths.
With the virus showing no signs of abating, most countries are extending lockdown periods by up to 21 days, while a few have begun easing the measures, albeit cautiously.
In the United States, there have been mass street protests against stringent lockdown measures.