By Kenneth Magwada
The novel Corona virus is causing a serious upset on the world. The world, as we know it, will never be the same even after COVID-19 has been defeated. Human life has been and continues to be lost on an apocalyptic scale. More than 182 000 deaths have been recorded so far and the pace at which the mortality and new infections are coming is quite disconcerting to say the least. On the economic front, the global economy is sliding into a recession, the International Monetary Fund has forecasted a 3% contraction in 2020, a far cry from the current worst record of just 0.1% in 2009. Industries have closed and millions of jobs have already been lost, Stock markets have tumbled - the Dow and the FTSE recently saw their biggest one day declines since 1987. Medical experts are still baffled, economic experts do not know what to say of the outcome and no one really knows when and how the pandemic will end but the truth is– things will never be the same again.
Like 184 other countries afflicted by the pandemic, Zimbabwe is also reeling from the pressures placed on its health systems as well as on the socio economic arena. Already nursing a dysfunctional health system and a comatose economy, Zimbabwe’s case seems more aggravated than the rest and fears that Zimbabwe will go the Ecuadorian way are not far-fetched. Ecuador has so far recorded over 11 000 cases of the virus but it is its failure to cope with the spreading virus and the deaths that is more noticeable, the authorities have had to collect 800 bodies from homes alone and many families are now abandoning the bodies of their dead relatives in the streets. Mortuaries are failing to cope with the number of dead and burial space is shrinking.
In Zimbabwe, the pandemic has helped exposed the shortcomings in national leadership. This is not to say that the shortcomings haven’t been noticeable and neither have they been ignored in the past. Ordinary citizens, civil society and opposition political players have been pointing out the shortcomings of the government but our government has been masters of hiding behind the finger. Sadly, it had to take a pandemic to lay bare the government’s shortcomings and hypocritical approach in seeing its end of the social contract.
On the 2nd of March 2020 the country’s health minister Dr Obadiah Moyo, indicated that the country was 100% prepared to fight the pandemic. He was quoted saying “Before people come into Zimbabwe, we now have the intelligence to be able to tell from the manifest that an individual would be coming from an infested country. So our surveillance is strong," and "We have even made it better by getting the latest in technology of thermal detectors in each and every country you go. It is that determinant which is the first one to trigger off the rest of the alarms. So we are 100 percent certain that we are covered.”
Fast forward to a few weeks later, the country is aghast at the news that the country’s main COVID-19 isolation and treatment centre, Wilkins hospital is not equipped to deal with the pandemic. To confirm this, the death of Zororo Makamba, opened up a can of worms to show how ill-prepared Zimbabwe is to the pandemic. The other centre is ill-equipped Thorngrove centre in Bulawayo- making it 2 ill-prepared centres in a nation with 10 administrative provinces.
Currently, the nation is battling with securing Personal Protective Equipment for its frontline medical personnel which has seen doctors and nurses striking at one point- amid the crisis. . In addition, the country is failing to conduct robust testing, meaning cases of the Corona virus may be spreading among communities without the authorities taking note, a phenomenon too ghastly to contemplate. This has been confirmed with the death of a woman from Mhondoro who was admitted at Westend without it being detected that she was a COVID 19 patient, only to die a few hours later, having possibly infected the health care workers who were managing her.
The bitter irony of it all is that for decades, the government has been called upon to prioritise the health sector yet, its priorities were mainly in the defence and other sectors. The 2020 budget saw the health sector falling at number 3 in terms of portfolios with the most allocation. In realisation of the sorry healthcare system in Zimbabwe, and in a show of unwillingness to improve the system, the country’s executive has made China and South Africa their centres of choice when it comes to receiving healthcare. In a tacit acknowledgement of his government’s failure, the President, Emmerson Mnangagwa unashamedly admitted that the pandemic has shown him that there is no need for top government officials to seek treatment outside the country.
Around 6 million Zimbabweans live in poverty and require aid. The lockdown imposed on the 30th of March 2020 has subverted the livelihoods of many Zimbabweans, who survive on informal trading and hand to mouth. The lockdown was initiated without proper alternatives to people’s livelihoods. It is like a plan without a plan. The $600 million COVID-19 cash relief package for the 1 million vulnerable people announced by the government at the onset of the lockdown has since vanished into Mthuli Ncube’s algorithms. While the package is a far cry of the actual value needed in this inflationary environment and the number of targeted beneficiaries too low, the process needs to be excused as abuse of funds is a familiar story with this government.
A disturbing picture of Zimbabwe’s lockdown has been seen in the enforcement of the lockdown. While the President, Emmerson Mnangagwa promised the nation that the country’s security forces would enforce the lockdown with a “listening ear”, an encounter with the security forces shows that they are far from a listening ear. Indeed, it is vital for the citizens to strictly adhere to the lockdown if the pandemic is to be defeated, but at the same time, the sacrosanctity of human right remains paramount regardless of the circumstances. Zimbabwe has a poor record of human rights and the state is a major perpetrator when it comes to violations. The scepticism that greeted the president’s “listening ear” proclamation has already been vindicated by the number of recorded abuses during the lockdown.
By the 14th of March the number of assaults on citizens by state actors stood at 155, while 12 attacks on journalists were recorded. One person was killed by police in Bulawayo. These were meted out on people who are desperately trying to escape from hunger in the home at the same time staying clear of COVID-19. A joke has been doing rounds on social media whereby the number of people tested for the virus is put in juxtaposition with the number of people arrested for violating the lockdown.
Such a scenario casts a fear of martial law in Zimbabwe and given the history of state violence, the fear of this crackdown contributing to the further shrinking of the democratic space, cannot go unnoticed.
What may be a classical example of lack of seriousness in the fight against the COVID-19 are the recent High Court rulings whereby the government was ordered to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline health workers across the country to protect them against contracting CIVID-19 while attending to patients. Another one ordered the Minister of Information to provide citizens with information. Another one asked the national broadcaster not to forget the persons who are hard of hearing and the visually handicapped. Another one reminded the police that journalism is not a crime.
In addition, the same court also granted an interim order that the police army and other enforcement officers must respect human rights, dignity, and fundamental freedoms. What is laughable in this scenario is that the government is being called to order on the very basic issues it should be observing.
Our government needs to ship up and regain its citizen’s trust and confidence as one way of fighting the COVID-19 scourge. It is true that we need to unite in all fronts to fight the pandemic but where there is lack of trust we may end up fighting more than one enemy.