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Zimbabwe hit by lack of testing and double-edged sword of lockdown

30 April 2020

Sarah McCan, Trócaire Country Director for Zimbabwe, details how COVID-19 is affecting a country where 80% of the economy is informal business

A young Zimbabwean girl goes to fetch water. Hopes that elections in Zimbabwe would provide a political breakthrough to relieve the country's economic crisis are in doubt after violence following the elections.  Photo: Isabel Corthier

The COVID-19 lockdown has affected many rural Zimbabweans, who earn small amounts of money from cross-border trading, small-scale farming and domestic work. Photo: Isabel Corthier

In a country where hustle and bustle are a part of everyday life, people are now living through a very strange, new ‘normal’.

Zimbabwe, where I have lived and worked for the past four years, has had a lockdown in place since March 30th in an effort to curtail the spread of Covid-19.

This led many to question how a country already devastated by economic, climatic and political crises can survive yet another crisis.

Lack of testing

The first case of Covid-19 was detected on March 20th and, as I write this blog, there are 40 confirmed cases. However, a lack of testing likely hides a much higher ‘real’ figure.

Out of a population of 15million, as of late April, approximately 6,000 people had been tested. This is expected to increase to around 10,000 tests at best by early May.

Against this backdrop of a huge lack of testing and tracing capacity, and very run-down medical facilities, the Government decided to implement a strict lockdown on March 30th.

A devastating lockdown

While there is speculation that the lockdown may soon be lifted, at present it restricts all movement and only allows activities deemed ‘essential’ to take place. All land borders are effectively closed and all flights, bar one weekly one, have been stopped.

This has had a devastating impact in a country where over 80% of the economy is informal.

In Zimbabwe, people make a living from odd jobs such as selling goods from door to door or at market stalls. People earn small amounts of money from cross-border trading, small-scale farming and domestic work.

Like most other people, I buy fruit, vegetables and lots of other things on the street from local venders. Already people earn barely enough to get them through each day. There is no doubt this has had an enormous impact on their livelihoods and incomes.

Economic collapse

The country is already reeling from near total economic collapse. By the end of 2019, it had an inflation rate of over 500%.

To put that into context, a junior doctor here was earning approximately $100 a month while a loaf of bread cost $1.

Zimbabwe is also facing a massive food shortage this year with over 7million people in need of food aid to feed their families.

A struggle to survive

The communities Trócaire works with are the poor and marginalised.

We work with rural farmers, who feed their families off little more than one acre of land. To make ends meet beyond what they can eat and sell from the land most people have part-time jobs, working as labourers or in mines.

Most families, particularly in the south, send their grown-up children to neighbouring South Africa and Botswana to work. Now that these countries are in lockdown, this means young Zimbabweans are now isolated and out of work.

A double-edged sword

One of our local partners in Matobo district, Masakhaneni, do incredible work in the south and they are rolling out Covid 19 information to far-flung communities with Trócaire support.

The director of Masakhaneni painted a dire picture when we spoke: “People are extremely vulnerable to limited information, poverty and hunger. The closed borders also exacerbate the acute food shortages.”

His comments sum up the double-edged sword of what a lockdown entails: you protect an already vulnerable population from the virus, but do you make them more vulnerable by increasing poverty? 

Additionally, considering Zimbabwe’s human rights record is questionable at the best of times, there are risks associated the potential abuse of power by security forces.

Trócaire’s partners produce daily monitoring reports to hold those in power accountable. To date, we have recorded 207 incidents of assault, 12 attacks on journalists, 269 arrests and damage to property during the lockdown.

Raising awareness

Another other dilemma is how can a lockdown be lifted when there is so little testing and tracing.

A huge number of people cannot practice social distancing due to the confined nature of where they live. These vulnerable people struggle to maintain stringent hygiene practices as they simply do not have access to running water or soap at home.

Trócaire is doing its best to provide information to communities where we work, but it is a real challenge to do this during a lockdown.

Solutions need to come from local communities to enable them to overcome this crisis.

Our partners are incredible and they have the trust of the communities they work. The important prevention messages they convey will be believed. They can counter fake news. They can support communities, not just through this lockdown period but also through the long-term impacts. Trócaire will, of course, be on this journey with them, every step of the way.

You can donate online or by phoning:
1850 408 408 (Republic of Ireland)
0800 912 1200 (Northern Ireland).

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