The COVID-19 global pandemic poses serious challenges to fragile countries such as Zimbabwe, which have weak health systems and constrained social assistance programmes. Such countries must formulate and implement measures to tackle the unfolding public health crisis without plunging millions of people into starvation. This is the challenge which Zimbabwe faces today — how can the country curb the spread of COVID-19 without disrupting food supply for its citizens, especially the vulnerable?
On March 30, 2020, Zimbabwe, like many countries, ordered a nationwide lockdown to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The lockdown confined millions of people dependent on informal economic activities to their homes. The government did not provide meaningful social assistance programmes to provide for their survival needs. A national lockdown is effective if it is enforced, not only through the law, but also through ensuring that the government discharges its obligation to provide food and water and health services to vulnerable members of its community.
Lockdown templates used by developed countries with formal food supply systems, and with the capacity to expand social assistance programmes are bound to be problematic if they are adopted by poorer countries like Zimbabwe without being adapted to local contexts.
Zimbabwe has the largest informal economy in Africa as a percentage to its economy, which, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is 60,6%. This makes it the second largest informal economy in the world after Bolivia. This might as well be defined as the new economy. Nothing suggests this is reversible in the next ten years or so. How can the government lock down the informal sector without destroying the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on it?
Government statistics show that 76,9% of the rural households are poor. Within that context, extreme household poverty in rural increased from 22,9% in 2012 to 31,9% of households in 2017, well before coronavirus outbreak.
Again, nothing shows a reversal of this trend. In addition, Zimbabwe is facing a severe hunger crisis in 2020.
According to the United Nations, 7,7 million people (60% of the population) are food insecure. Around 5,5 million of these people live in the rural areas and 2,2 million in urban areas. These people needed assistance even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and the national lockdown will likely worsen their food insecurity situation.
The lockdown will have far-reaching impacts on the farming sector in Zimbabwe. The restrictions on the movement of goods, people and services will likely affect food supply systems in significant ways. The family farm sector, dominated by women, produces 70% of staple foods but it is highly vulnerable to external shocks such as the lockdown measures. The farmers do not produce in isolation. They rely on kin and social relationships to mobilise labour, inputs, among other things. Of importance is that most of these family farmers in the countryside source their food from subsistence farming. Therefore, they are critical to household food security. Not only that, they occasionally sell surplus. They sell by the homestead veranda, under a tree, or by the roadside. In the farming areas, along the highway one can see farmers selling tomatoes, cabbages, onions, carrots, honey, milk, green maize, beans and a variety of fruits depending on the season. If one stops a car, they flock with dishes of fresh and organic vegetables. The prices are cheaper compared to big supermarkets. The carbon footprint is almost zero.
Given their critical role in providing the rural population and urban areas with food, the government cannot simply lock them down.
The well-to-do family farmers are connected in the loose urban value chains through informal agreements of exchange with supermarkets in urban areas and growth points. Those supermarkets are certified to remain open during the lockdown. They also feed the urban population through informal markets and street vending. As early as 3am, the Mbare Musika market in Harare is buzzing with farmers from Chihota, Mutoko, Mrewa, Goromonzi and surrounding farming communities.
Other farmers sell to the informal traders who own and control the markets at Mbare Musika. The same applies to many cities. The products are packaged in different sizes to fit different needs for different households. These supplies work for the urban poor who live from hand to mouth. They hustle in the day to buy a meal for the night.
Unlike the rich, they cannot stock food supplies to last 21 days. Here one can buy a cup of mealie-meal, one piece of chicken, a teaspoon of salt, a small cup of cooking oil and make a meal for the day. Our trip to Epworth, a peri-urban informal settlement south east of Harare, showed that they called these small packages an emergency “katsaona”. However, “katsaona” is no longer an emergency, but a way of life for many. To lock down the informal food traders is to let poor households die in the margins of the city.
The heavy-handed enforcement of the lockdown by the police and army raises questions on whether the government is fully aware of the adverse impacts of its COVID-19 response on food security. For instance, three days into the lockdown, the police raided the informal food traders at Sakubva Musika market in Mutare city, in the east of the country.
Despite the majority struggling with access to food, the police confiscated and destroyed tonnes of fresh fruit and vegetables. There is little hope for the majority facing starvation. People talk of death, either from hunger or from the coronavirus. Debrah Mukasa, an informal trader (a member of Bulawayo Vendors and Traders Association), told us that in Bulawayo, the country’s second largest city, many informal traders living from hand to mouth were caught unprepared when the lockdown was announced amid severe maize meal shortages. In the early days of the shutdown, most informal traders in Bulawayo opened vending stalls at home placing them at risk of police brutality and getting the coronavirus.
Though the government promised small and medium enterprises a grant to cushion them during the lockdown, the process has been very slow, halfway through the shutdown informal traders in Bulawayo still have not received any funds.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government should ensure that their COVID-19 responses are rights-respecting and guarantee access to basic necessities for the vulnerable. He has said that all the farmers and traders should continue to operate without disturbances. But he did not say how this can be done during these difficult times. We submit five recommendations:
The government, with support from the private sector and international donors, should ensure that the smallholder farmers and informal food traders (including street food vendors) have protective equipment and sanitisers as recommended by medical experts so that they can safely continue to produce, distribute and sell food. Civil society can help in distribution.
The State, private institutions and supermarkets should prioritise buying food from smallholder producers. They should relax the regulations that exclude the smallholder producers. Supermarkets can go an extra mile to guarantee shelf-space for their smallholder suppliers.
The government should assist with transport for smallholder farmers to ferry their produce to markets. Public transport is hardly available during the lockdown. In each district, farmers can organise to ferry their products to a central place where government provides transport to different designated markets within a reasonable distance. The transport logistics and delivery should ensure social distancing.
Local authorities should set up new markets to prevent informal food traders over-crowding and ensure social distancing in traditional marketplaces like Mbare and Sakubva. Community halls and sports fields that are near residential areas can be used as food markets. Those urban poor who live on hand to mouth need to gain access to food in nearby spaces. One can see a similar recommendation in South Africa by PLAAS (2020).
The government needs to speedily compensate farmers and informal traders whose produce was confiscated and destroyed by police during the lockdown.
This will enable the farmers to rebuild their livelihoods, feed families and other citizens. On the other hand, the municipalities should waiver tax for the registered informal food traders during the lockdown period.
Our recommendations are a foundation to inspire national debate about how the government of Zimbabwe can help ensure access to food for all people during the COVID-19 lockdown. This becomes more important in a context where most countries have closed their borders, making it difficult for the poor to import food. Zimbabwe should consider and implement measures to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on the poor. Solutions to combat the coronavirus should be calibrated to ensure that all citizens always have access to food as a fundamental human right and are able to maintain a healthy and coronavirus-free active life.
This article was co-authored by Phillan Zamchiya (PLAAS), Dewa Mavhinga (Human Rights Watch), Thando Gwinji (Youth for Innovation Trust), Arnold Chamunogwa (Oxfam) and Claris Madhuku (Platform for Youth and Community Development).
The views in the article are of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the organisations they are associated with.