SINCE Covid-19 started ravaging the world in late 2019, business has been turned upside down. Besides the health implications of the disease, which has a mortality rate in excess of 3%, according to the World Health Organisation, the outbreak has led to global lockdowns causing havoc on the global economy.
The International Labour Organisation initially estimated that up to 25 million jobs could be lost worldwide due to the pandemic, pushing millions of people into unemployment, underemployment and working poverty. These figures have since gone up to 195 million job losses globally. Experts have predicted unprecedented global famine due to a lack of production on farms and lack of supplies for farmers due to industrial lockdown.
While Zimbabwe’s economy rests mainly on the informal sector, the country has not been spared the havoc as informal markets have been closed. The situation in Zimbabwe is worsened by the fact that the government, known for its predatory tendencies, has come in full force against the informal market, destroying livelihoods.
Community views from local markets
In week six of the lockdown, ZimRights, working in communities, has interacted with local businesses and community markets actors on how they are experiencing Covid-19 and its impact.
ZimRights spoke to Samuel Wadzai Mangoma, the director of Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation (Viset), who narrated the impact of Covid-19 on the sector.
In Mashonaland West, ZimRights national chairperson Takesure Musiiwa has been working with informal traders who recently received threats from the police that their merchandise would be destroyed.
Covid-19 impact on rural economies
Although the government has allowed farmers to continue with production, rural farmers have faced challenges. As part of the measures to combat Covid-19, the government has decentralised the tobacco auction floors to the provinces. Where farmers usually carry their tobacco to Harare, they are now supposed to go to local provincial market. It would appear this measure would reduce congestion and allow farmers to save on transport. In practice, this is not the case.
“Decentralisation of tobacco auction floors has affected the price of the products as there is less competition locally,” one ZimRights member from Hurungwe reported.
He said Hurungwe tobacco is usually high grade and fetches more money in Harare. The decentralisation from Harare means the local farmers are competing against themselves, leading to buyers short-changing them. Many people are now taking advantage of the crisis to offer very low prices for the “golden leaf”.
Increases in prices of basics
As the Covid-19 pandemic pummels the economy, many businesses seem to have seen an opportunity to capitalise. A snap survey by ZimRights in the cities around the country showed that prices have significantly gone up since Covid-19 erupted. ZimRights members spoke about the rent-seeking behaviour in businesses.
“The price increases are troubling us because, already, we have not been working and, for some of us, salaries have been cut by 50%, leaving us unable to afford the basics,” a resident of Glen Norah suburb in Harare said.
Who carries cost of doing business?
With the kicking in of Level 2 lockdown, the government directed that there be mandatory Covid-19 testing for all workers. It further made the wearing of face masks mandatory for all public places. This caused a number of challenges as companies that were supposed to open could not because of the confusion around the testing centres and the cost.
At US$25 per testing kit, companies, which were already struggling after five weeks of not operating, could not afford the cost.However, the scenario created a dilemma for companies because according to Section 6 of the Labour Act, no employer shall (d) require any employee to work under any conditions or situations which are below those prescribed by law or by the conventional practice of the occupation for the protection of such employee’s health or safety.
Section 12A (2) further states that: “Remuneration may be payable in kind only in industries or occupations where such payment is customary, and shall be subject to the following conditions (c) equipment or clothing required to protect the health and safety of the employee shall not be computed as part of the remuneration of the employee.”
However, the Constitution of Zimbabwe Chapter 29 places the right to provision of health services on the government’s shoulders.
It states that:
The state must take all practical measures to ensure the provision of basic, accessible and adequate health services throughout Zimbabwe …
The state must take all preventive measures within the limits of the resources available to it, including education and public awareness programmes, against the spread of disease.
Following a meeting between the Confederation of Zimbabwean Industries (CZI) and the government, the order to test was reversed.
The hazard of masks
Many communities struggled to deal with the requirement for masks in public places. Supermarkets started blocking people without masks from entering. In Masvingo, ZimRights members reported that people were now exchanging masks at the entrance, creating a hazard.
On May 3, 2020, the NewsDay reported that there were people retrieving masks from garbage and selling them. This prompted the Ministry of Health to issue a statement asking people to destroy their masks before disposal.
ZimRights members weighed in and recommended that there is need for the government to provide free masks for those who could not afford.
“During elections, they distribute free T-shirts,” one member from Bulawayo said. “Why can’t they do the same with masks?”
Other members recommended that businesses like supermarkets share the burden with the public and provide masks on entrance into the shops so that people do not have to choose between buying bread and masks.
Some business owners spoke to ZimRights on their social responsibility in responding to Covid-19.
The plight of workers
While Zimbabwe has a high unemployment rate, the remaining workers have been seriously affected by Covid-19 as their businesses also depend on the active informal markets to drive their products.
Behind the dying economy in Zimbabwe, there is a resilient workforce that over the years has kept the remnants of industry afloat with poverty wages, dangerous and unsafe working conditions and very few, if any, social safety nets.
The government has the primary responsibility to provide healthcare to its citizens. However, employers also have an obligation to ensure that they do not compel their workers to operate under an unhealthy environment.
In light of this, it is recommended that the Tripartite Negotiating Forum be kept alive and also actively include informal and small businesses in order to find a win-win situation for the health benefit of citizens and workers.
The government should also ensure the availability of adequate test kits as more businesses continue to open and there should be increased awareness-raising as the movement of people grows.
This is an excerpt from the ZimRights weekly report, Their Voices Matter, which seeks to give communities a voice in ongoing conversations on Covid-19.