PRESIDENT EMMERSON Mnangagwa is due to announce a review of the lockdown Level 2 regulations this weekend after extending indefinitely the country’s coronavirus measures, which include travel restrictions and a ban on public gatherings.
Mnangagwa extended the nationwide lockdown meant to slow the spread of Covid-19, though the restrictions will be reviewed every two weeks. He said informal markets, where millions of Zimbabweans eke out a living from, would remain closed, with the exception of certain food and fuel vendors, as well as health-related facilities. Mnangagwa said government would also consult health specialists on how to re-open the markets safely. People are now required to wear face masks in public.
Mnangagwa, however, said businesses such as manufacturers, supermarkets and banks, which have been allowed to continue operating, will see their operating hours extended from a maximum of six hours to more than eight hours, between 8am and 4:30pm. Returning residents will have to undergo a 21-day quarantine in school and college buildings set aside for the purpose.
Government also announced that schools would re-open in mid-June after a three-month break due to the deadly coronavirus pandemic. State universities were also set to reopen on June 1 and Zimbabwe Schools Examination Council exams would be written between June 29 and July 22.
However, concerns have been raised by teachers, organisations in the health sector and civil society that government’s decision to gradually ease the restrictions was premature. It would be unwise for Mnangagwa to further ease the restrictions this weekend in view of the sharp increase of new infections recorded on Wednesday and yesterday. Zimbabwe has recorded 149 infections and four deaths.
The pandemic is still unfolding in Zimbabwe. There has to be some systematic strategy in opening up the economy. The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) this week warned countries against prematurely ending Covid-19 lockdowns without strategies to guard against infections spiralling out of control.
Zimbabwe has not even met the six conditions set out by the World Health Organisation, which also warned on Wednesday that countries must proceed “extremely carefully” or risk rapid rise in new cases.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said countries needed to ensure that they have put in place adequate measures to control the spread of the Covid-19 respiratory disease, such as tracking systems and quarantine provision.
“The risk of retuning to lockdown remains very real if countries do not manage the transition extremely carefully and in a phased approach,” he said at a virtual briefing in Geneva.
WHO Epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove supported his concerns about the disease, which has infected more than 3,71 million globally and killed over 258 000 people.
“If lockdown measures are lifted too quickly, the virus can take off,” Van Kerkhove warned.That is the greatest fear in Zimbabwe, which has deplorable quarantine facilities and poor health facilities.
Government is failing to manage the hundreds of returnees in quarantine centres. More than 100 people have escaped from quarantine and isolation centres countrywide, afraid of getting infected with the virus. Returnees at the centres have said social distancing is not observed and they are sharing rooms.
They also complained of poor quality food and a general lack of hygiene which they said was further exposing them to infection.
Government cannot even cope with demands for tests. It is taking more than two weeks for returnees to get their test results back. Zimbabwe has conducted only 40 847 tests, finally meeting its April target of 40 000 tests yesterday.
We cannot even talk about easing the lockdown when we do not know the extent of the problem in the country. The country has not conducted sufficient tests and contact tracing to warrant further relaxing of the restrictions.We have a very weak health system and fragile infrastructure.
Do we even have a strategy to deal with the spread and impact of the disease? In the interest of public health and safety, and more importantly, to protect our children at schools and tertiary institutions, the government should not further relax lockdown restrictions. It should only consider doing so after it has met the six preconditions set by the WHO, which include disease transmission being under control and schools, workplaces and other essential places having established preventive measures.
I will end with a quote from Amalgamated Rural Teachers Union of Zimbabwe president Obert Masaraure who said: “There is no rush really. We do not want to lose lives; we should not force premature reopening of schools.”