Social distancing a mere formality for Mbare flats

ZIMBABWE does not have time.The government has to do many things in the shortest possible time — before the effects of the rampaging Covid-19 epidemic become insurmountable.

From setting up a cushioning grant, securing medical supplies, ensuring that essential services are maintained to refurbishing hospitals that for decades have been left to dilapidate. It is a jujitsu moment — one in which the government’s inefficiency and lack of planning is called into question, and the weak social protection scheme has been exposed.

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This is the situation in many other countries that are characterised by high levels of inequality — those that had a last-minute jolt to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, and have for years, neglected broad-based, inclusive development.

The Zimbabwean government, given its usual poor disaster planning and preparedness, once again, put the cart before the horse by implementing the Public Health (Covid-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) Order, 2020 without a proper disaster plan.
Riled by this inefficiency, health workers have either filed complaints with the courts or are threatening to down tools. It is a crisis moment. But while that is urgent, the effects of the lockdown, are becoming an albatross around the necks of the poor and vulnerable as government continues to dither on social protection schemes.

Social distancing: Mbare case

Although the country has been successful in enforcing the lockdown, there has been a headache — enforcing social distancing in high density suburbs, informal settlements as well as at boreholes and shopping centres.

For Mbare hostels, for example, locking down is more like running away from the threat of Covid-19 on the streets to huddle in similarly high risk congested rooms.

Flats in Mbare — Zimbabwe’s oldest high-density suburb established in 1907 – are not only overcrowded, filthy and high risk during such pandemics, but also have broken taps, shared bathrooms and have been repeatedly declared unfit for human habitation by human rights groups.

Thirty-year-old Patience Mutoya, a mother of two infants shares a small room with another family with a mother and a child.

But since Covid-19 hit Zimbabwe, they now share the room with two other relatives, who needed shelter.

This brings the number of occupants to seven inside a 24,5m² room, small enough to be a kitchen for the opulent. Like other citizens, they are expected to observe social distancing so that they do not expose their loved ones and others to danger. But they are trapped. Social distancing is a privilege they have never enjoyed and cannot enjoy now because Covid-19 has reared its head.

“There is nowhere we can put them,” Mutoya says.
“We cannot even think about social distancing in these crowded places.”
At Matererini flats, two families share a 5 x 9 metre-room.
Jonas Mutambi in his 40s lives with his wife and two children. The room, which he shares with his family, measures 5 x 4,5 metres.

“The room is small for us. We sleep in the same house, share the same utensils and cannot afford sanitizers,” he said.
The hostels, built by the colonial government, were initially designed to accommodate a maximum of three bachelors per room. Others were built to accommodate a single person.

“The flats were used by companies such as Coca Cola, Swift, Zimbabwe Republic Police and the municipal police. There were janitors responsible for sanitary purposes before 1980,” Silas Mutuma, 46, a resident of Mbare National, said.

“During those days, the hostels population would be regularly checked. However, when Zimbabwe got independent in 1980, families started trickling into the flats.”

According to a Harare Residents Trust 2010 report, Matapi with 14 blocks of flats, had an estimated population of 9 120, Nyenyere with 13 blocks had 7 644 people and Shawasha with 12 blocks had about 7 056.

“If a single person with Covid-19 enters the hostels, the death toll will be catastrophic,” Mutuma said.

“By now we should have had health worker teams testing and educating people. There is no one to monitor social distancing.”

The problem of overcrowding at Mbare hostels has a long history and for the past four decades authorities have failed to address it.

“We have 58 hostels with a total of 5 622 rooms,” says Addmore Nhekairo, director of Housing and Community Services for the City of Harare.

“The total population or occupancy of these rooms stands at about 45 000. Each block has between 96-100 rooms with an average occupancy of eight per room.”
Practicality

Such living conditions make social distancing an impossible task. Parirenyatwa Orthopedics doctor, Kudakwashe Matsenga says maintaining social distance in places where two to four families share the same room is difficult.

He says whilst evidence is still evolving, the measure of Covid-19’s infectiousness is quoted as 2-2,5.

“This means on average, an infected individual can pass the virus to two other individuals who are in danger,” Matsenga says. This raises fear of a catastrophe if one family is infected in these overcrowded flats.

Former Ward 3 Councilor, Innocent Maseko says maintaining social distance and locking down in the hostels is very difficult.

“Most residents survive from hand to mouth,” Maseko says. “This has made people continue with their daily activities making the lockdown difficult to enforce.”
This area, located south of the Harare’s central business district, is home to the country’s largest produce market — Mbare Musika, Mupedzanhamo flea market, a long-distance bus terminus and Siyaso home industry — the source of livelihood for many low-income urban families living in Harare’ western and southern suburbs.

These hubs make Mbare an area of concern in Zimbabwe’s struggle to fend off the effects of Covid-19 and ring-fence its citizenry.
Since President Emmerson Mnangagwa ordered that farmers be allowed to bring their produce, hordes of people are trooping to Mbare Musika sparking fears of a potential outbreak of Covid-19.

By day six of the lockdown, state broadcaster ZBC News reported that police had arrested over 1 000 people for different crimes including illegal vending.
“If I stop selling, I have no other alternative. I have just moved my market to my hostel,” says a Mbare woman who asked not to be named.

At the end of the lockdown many vendors will not find the stalls they left behind.The Harare City Council has been destroying vending stalls in Mbare and other high-density suburbs.

About 90% of Zimbabweans are employed in the informal sector. Mbare residents, already reeling from the effects of lockdown, are heartbroken.
“I do not know how I will raise school fees money for my children since my stall was demolished by council,” a distraught Tsitsi Moyo says.
She has been a vendor for the past 10 years and has never been formally employed. A mother of four, Tsitsi has over the years raised her children from money raised from vending. But she faces an uncertain future.

The demolitions have worsened her plight — It is a double tragedy! While the coronavirus has confined her to a room she shares with other families, the government has robbed her of her only source of income.

Economist John Masimba Manyanya says the move is “predatory and unwise” and the government is being “crude, clueless and irresponsible” — at a time when it needs to “climb down the authoritarian ladder and meet the people on the streets” to find solutions to the country’s problems.

Manyanya warns that if the government wants to irreparable damage the economy “it must go after the informal sector”.

Samuel Wadzai, executive director of Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation says they were not “consulted” before the decision was made.
“We were shocked by the decision taken by the council through a directive from government. We had expected that councils will consult us,” Wadzai said.
He believes there was a sinister motive behind the operation.

“Why does the government take advantage of a health crisis to descend on the lives of people?” he queries.Political commentator Blessing Vava also has no kind words for Mnangagwa’s government.

“The demolitions are barbaric, inhuman and exhibit a heartless government,” Vava said. “Our government is not a government of the poor but is there to support private capital and this could be another way of protecting formal businesses by our government given to neoliberal agendas.”

Mbare has a history of poor sanitation. Government may have finally decided to act, but in the process, it has condemned hordes of people to a possible destitute life.

Available alternatives

The City of Harare Special Committee on Management of Council Markets 2019 Report revealed that Mbare Farmers Market neither has running water or functional toilets. As a result, there have been calls to decentralise markets or move farmers to a better place but there are still challenges to the proposal.
“The facility at Coca Cola has not yet been finished,” says Councilor Anthony Shingadeya who chairs the Small to Medium Enterprises committee for the City of Harare.

“If the facility can be finished, we can move half of the retailers to it in order to promote social distancing.”

Water problems have also exposed the impracticality of social distancing. Since tap water was condemned as unfit for drinking many families now rely on borehole water.

At dusk, Mbare residents, mainly children and women queue at local boreholes to fetch water. There are always huge crowds at the boreholes.
Knox Mujaji has decided not to use the communal boreholes, choosing instead to collect water from a nearby mosque, where he pays ZW$2 for every 20 litre bucket.

“The facility (borehole) is used by a lot of people,” Knox says. “Hygiene levels are low. People have requested for sanitizers at the boreholes, but they are yet to be availed.”

Changing lifestyle has not been easy for Mbare residents.

In the Majubheki area, for example, Mbare Number 5 grounds, hosted an amateur soccer match, on day six of the lockdown.

But, for now, the greatest fear for residents is whether they will emerge from the lockdown to continue with their normal lives when the government is clandestinely elbowing the majority out of their only source of livelihood.