In the development and humanitarian world, we often say that emergencies present opportunities for change; policy change, redress of injustices or inequalities, behaviour, culture, and values change. The possibilities are many.
The two of us strongly believe this. Collectively, we have witnessed change in many of the 46 countries across the world in which we work.
It is a well-known fact that Zimbabwe’s current government, led by Emmerson Mnangagwa and his party Zanu PF, have been presiding over a country whose economic, social, and even cultural values are in tatters. Systemic and systematic civil and political rights violations, coupled with and built on a strong foundation of political misrule and governance failures, have decimated most, if not all, fundamental human rights of its citizens.
Enter COVID-19. Zimbabwe has had two months to prepare for the pandemic. Given Zanu PF’s links with the Chinese government, and since it can be safely assumed most government officials watch cable news channels, the government had ample time to put some measures in place to contain and manage the pandemic. But this time was wasted; no radio jingles, no analysis in the State-owned newspapers, and no public conversation.
Both of us lived through the early years of HIV and Aids. In our opinion, Zanu PF is doing exactly the same thing that it did back then, DENY, and LIE. We do not believe that the nation is being told the truth about the numbers of infected persons.
If we consider the rates of HIV infection, close to one in every three persons, and the fact that our public healthcare system has been barely functioning for more than five years, we find the negligible numbers the Health ministry is putting out barely credible.
We do not mean to be alarmist, but the ruling party is not known for transparency and honesty. If we ever needed an indicator of how bad the public health system is, the death of young broadcaster Zororo Makamba (may his soul rest in peace) is that stark indicator.
The journalist, who passed away on March 23, after he tested positive for COVID-19, came from a relatively privileged family. What more of Zandile, a single young woman from Makokoba township in Bulawayo, selling bubble-gum to survive, living in two rooms with two other young women, each with two children? Given that the public health system has not been functional for years, most Zimbabweans barely use it, unless one has a real emergency.
The way the government’s COVID-19 response (a generous description) has unfolded so far, does not give citizens much confidence. In the very first week of the response, the President himself brazenly broke his own rules. He and his ministers continued to hold and attend big gatherings, and life continued as normal.
Only after Zororo’s tragic death and, dare we say, the consignment of masks and protective equipment donated by Jack Ma arrived, did this change. As the week ended, it was announced that the Vice-Presidency would lead the response. We can assume that the presumption is: the military is the only institution capable of enforcing a lockdown, and run the country with its much-feared precision.
COVID-19 presents the gravest challenge that the people of Zimbabwe have faced in modern history. As we have seen with other health crises like Ebola and or Aids, COVID-19 is not just a health issue, and therefore the responses required are not just medical ones.
COVID-19 comes on the back of a range of existing social, economic and cultural challenges affecting over 80% of the population.
In our opinion, Mnangagwa’s government must address the following five critical areas simultaneously:
Revive universal public health services
This is the most immediate need. Most Zimbabweans rely on public clinics and hospitals. There is need to increase COVID-19 testing facilities, quarantine facilities, and well-equipped public hospitals where people can be treated back to health. The same health facilities must be upgraded, refurbished and well-equipped to provide care to pregnant women, people living with HIV, and the elderly.
The arrival of COVID-19 does not mean that other health conditions come to a standstill. Government must provide protective clothing, all the necessary equipment and tools, as well as decent salaries and working conditions for all medical personnel.
We also say, categorically, well-equipped private hospitals are not going to serve the majority and those most in need. If the President and his party have a tiny sliver of care for the people, they must immediately halt any plans to open such a private facility, as has been reported in the media, and use any resources at its disposal, including donations from corporates, to fully equip and resource a large public health facility in every province to treat COVID-19.
Provide adequate, clean, and free water to all urban areas
It is almost laughable to see government and ruling party officials insisting on people washing their hands. But this is no laughing matter. The question has been asked far too many times – with what water? Is it clean?
The nation’s capital, Harare, does not have regular, clean water supplies.
Smaller towns are in the same crisis. Women and girls are often seen queuing up for water at boreholes and water wells in the middle of cities. The least the State can do in this moment is to provide clean water as a preventative measure.
Eliminate hunger; provide food to the poor
Zimbabwe was already in the throes of hunger, brought on by the drought currently affecting most of southern Africa. According to the United Nations, some 7,7 million Zimbabweans are in need of food aid as we write this.
The numbers are likely to increase as the lean season fully sets in from April until the rains come (if they do). Rain-fed agriculture, which the country has largely depended on in the past, is no longer reliable, as climate change has shortened the agricultural season and dramatically reduced yields for poor, smallholder farmers — the majority of whom are women, residing in rural areas. With unemployment estimated to be as high as 80%, and the majority of people now earning their livelihoods in the informal sector, and, therefore, living from hand to mouth, a 21-day lockdown (which may well be extended) is going to be devastating.
The government must announce measures they are putting in place to support all the people whose livelihoods will be completely shut down during this period, the effects of which will continue far beyond lockdown.
Recognise and reduce women’s care and domestic work burdens
We know already from our experience during the height of the Aids pandemic, and we continue to see it during any emergency such as Cyclone Idai or lean seasons; women and girls disproportionately bear the unpaid care and domestic work burden.
From caring for the sick inside their homes, to community care and support, to fetching water, finding food for the family, and being on the frontline of prevention measures, we know that the same will be repeated during lockdown and throughout the COVID-19 epidemic.
Government must involve women in all decision-making processes at all levels, as prevention and mitigation programs are rolled-out.
All State programmes must be guided by clear gender analysis and must be led by what women say they need in this moment.
Provision of water, and public healthcare as outlined above, will ensure that these burdens are not passed onto women, who would have to carry them out, in addition to their other productive roles in the formal sector, or in paid employment.
In addition, government must provide material and financial support to nurses, and other female public sector health workers, who are often the ones working long hours, in direct contact with patients, and do the heavy-lifting.
Uphold civil and political rights
The COVID-19 pandemic appears tailor made for demagogues and undemocratic governments. From lockdowns, where civil and political rights get suspended, to the increased role of the military and police, to the shutting down of public space as people are confined to their homes. It is a recipe for oppression.
The government of Zimbabwe must know that all eyes are upon it. The lockdown will be a test of whether this regime is capable of ruling the country without violating the human rights of ordinary citizens, the opposition, or anyone who questions their decisions. Zimbabweans are not an unreasonable people.
If the government involves them in any decisions that it will make, and openly and honestly accounts for all its actions and the resources entrusted to it, the people will have no reason to complain.
Gaining and regaining the trust of the majority of Zimbabweans, at home and abroad will be a huge mountain to climb for Mnangagwa and Zanu PF. Through its own actions, since it was elected in 2018, the government has done little to endear itself to the people.
COVID-19 can be a point of redemption, or this government will once again and forever, be regarded as a failure and a disappointment. It is a choice only they can make.
Everjoice J Win is a feminist, and Joy Mabenge is a development expert. They wrote this in their personal capacities.