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COVID 19 and the Rise of Transformative Activism in Zimbabwe: How Communities Are Innovating to Stay Safe

By Onward Ushe Matizha
The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic caught the Zimbabwean government unprepared to tackle this global threat.

In some rural communities little was known about what actions were taken as part of the efforts to combat the disease and this was made worse by the lack of information on the disease. Government continued to maintain monopoly on information dissemination despite its lack of capacity to adequately raise awareness to all communities far and wide.

About 180 000 of the 250 000 ZimRights members live in rural areas, where government has not done enough to inform citizens on COVID-19. It had to take the Media Institute for Southern Africa – Zimbabwe to go to court to force the government to disseminate information in local languages. Even so, information remained concentrated on social media.

This has, in some way, awakened ZimRights members in the grassroots to still do their work through local innovations.

Realising the importance of information, members have assumed a proactive role in the dissemination of key information on COVID-19 in their respective communities.

During the distribution of hygiene packs in Harare, Midlands and Mashonaland ZimRights members have indicated that they now use information to keep fellow members within their communities updated on how they can prevent the spread of COVID-19. Local Whats App groups have come up where communities are sharing information on COVID 19. In some cases like in Masvingo, members noted that the government was unwilling to give accurate information on COVID 19 and they were the once in danger.

They started creating their own information hubs, supported by local citizen journalists, thanks to Tell Zim which the prior year had rolled a series of training sessions for communities to use social media to monitor their surroundings.

In Chiredzi, when a suspected COVID-19 patient was admitted with government not acknowledging the case, word moved like veld fire across villages, alerting local authorities to be alert.

When lockdown level 2 was introduced, no attention was paid by the government on how poor communities where going to source face masks. In response some ZimRights members have used their creativity to produce their own face masks. In communities where people cannot afford soap and sanitisers, they resorted to traditional herbs that are known to be effective in sanitisation.

These included use of ashes and ruredzo to clean their hands as sanitizers are not available for them.

All this is happening without the help from government.

To some, this is an eye opener on how communities should tap from what they already have to respond to challenges that come in their lives than always to rely on external help. Dissemination of information to educate the people is as important as distributing protective clothing and producing sanitizers.

But one institution or sector of society cannot do all that alone.

On 14 April 2020, UN expert on the rights to freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association, Mr. Clément Voule stated that no country or government can solve the crisis alone; civil society organizations should be seen as strategic partners in the fight against the pandemic. Because of their close proximity to communities, civil society organisation have the potential to do more than government in unlocking local creativity in combatting COVID 19. This is even more so when we consider the rising levels of mistrust in government. In a recent survey by ZimRights, over 86% of respondents said they do not trust the information they received from government. With government unleashing hooligans on struggling communities to torture young women demanding food and destroy market stalls for informal traders, it is not surprising that communities feel they only have themselves to depend on.

Defeating COVID 19 and other pandemics requires building trust with communities and tapping into local social fabric. To achieve this, we must not be blind to the day to day social and economic challenges confronting the majority of citizens including water shortages in most suburbs and short supply of subsidized mealie-meal in small retail stores.

While not all of us are on the frontline against Covid 19, these essential services remain more important to be taken care of since their availability or shortage impacts on the spread or the prevention of the pandemic.

Communities, trade unions, community based organisations, Non-Governmental Organisations, civil society oganisations, churches, business fraternity, media and the government are all called to more research on intervention approaches that ensure the nation progresses in fighting the pandemic.

In the end, we all need to realise that in this fight against COVID-19, we are all in this together, and it will take a government that recognises community initiatives to understand that and be inclusive in the approach to fighting this global pandemic.

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Onward Ushe Matizha leads ZimRights COVID 19 humanitarian response efforts. Comments on this article can be send to onward@zimrights.org.zw

Onward Ushe Matizha