There is no denying that the global pandemic figuratively known as COVID-19 has disrupted our everyday lives. Even our economies have ground to a halt. Our educational institutions have been forced to close while our healthcare systems are overstretched.
It’s like the whole world is racing against time to stem the disruptive effects of the coronavirus. The world is, indeed, trying to find ways of preserving human life, albeit in a very constrictive environment characterised by fear-mongering, infodemics, and stigmatisation and limited financial resources.
In Zimbabwe, the disruptive impact of the coronavirus has not spared our already ailing economy. It has stretched our highly informalised economy, where most ordinary people eke out a living through selling anything and everything on street pavements and dusty streets in residential areas.
That’s why even the talk of a total lockdown was not only unimaginable two weeks ago, but also impractical for too many people. But as we all know by now, the death of broadcaster Zororo Makamba jolted us in action. That was not supposed to be the case. As the old saying reminds us, “prevention is always better than cure”. Without the cure of COVID-19, we are better off investing all our resources in rolling out context-specific social and bio-medical interventions.
Soon after Makamba’s unfortunate death, the government and many other stakeholders began to make concerted efforts to refurbish the highly condemned Wilkins Infectious Diseases Hospital and other medical institutions across the country. Fuel mogul Kudakwashe Tagwirei and other corporate citizens have also pledged to upgrade St Anne’s Hospital and Rock Foundation Medical Hospital in Harare into state-of-the-art centres catering for all COVID-19 patients.
Even during his address to the nation on March 27, President Emmerson Mnangagwa underscored government’s commitment in making sure that referral centres like Parirenyatwa and Sally Mugabe (former Harare Central) hospitals are capacitated with running water, electricity and other necessary medical equipment.
While all these initiatives are welcome and must be celebrated, there is something that COVID-19 has done in Zimbabwe over the past two weeks. I may be wrong in my assessment because of my overreliance on social media platforms to gauge the public sentiment. In that regard, I am not immune to criticism that maybe levelled against me.
But I have noted with a sense of renewed hope that online conversations have begun to demonstrate some level of depolarisation as countrymen and women focus on addressing what the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has called the “people’s war”.
Most of our daily conversations are increasingly focusing on how to preserve human life. Some citizens in the diaspora, like Freeman Chari, have launched innovative crowdfunding initiatives aimed at assisting medical centres back home.
While politics has been at the centre of our incremental downfall over the last two decades, there is something that we can learn from our common fight against COVID-19. I am not suggesting that politics must cease to be a topic of choice on our street corners, dinner tables and social media conversations.
Rather, I’m highlighting that there is a lot we can learn from sober social conversations, which has the knock-on effect of promoting rational and agnostic public conversations. We must agree to disagree without resorting to name-calling, threatening bodily harm and cyber-trolling.
I have also been buoyed on by the convergence of thinking around the urgent necessity for a national lockdown. While the actual mechanics, rescue packages and the rights-based ways of doing it are always open to multiple interpretations given our ideological persuasions, it is quite reassuring to note that the major political players agree on the importance of a lockdown.
Both Mnangagwa and opposition MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa have explicitly pointed out that it is in our strategic national interest to undertake a nationwide campaign in order to flatten the curve. Such convergence of thinking at the highest level demonstrates that Zimbabweans can depolarise their intractable political views when faced with a common enemy.
It is precisely this realisation that our lives are interconnected with each other which must push us a step further to engage in constructive political dialogue that will benefit the current and future generations.
Thus, concerted efforts to fight COVID-19 present Zimbabwe with a perfect opportunity not only to rehabilitate our dilapidated healthcare institutions, but also to address the national question once and for all. I’m very much aware that what constitutes the national question is not easy to define given our polarised political spectacles.
In the last few years, it has become very apparent that local municipalities require constructive working relationships with the national government for the timeous distribution of foreign currency to buy water chemicals and roads rehabilitation equipment.
Given that the MDC Alliance runs most local councils, while Zanu PF has control over the national government by virtue of its majority in Parliament, there is need for collaborative efforts, if we are going to arrest the spread of COVID-19.
It is clear that the local and national government structures cannot afford to work in silos any more. They need each other more than ever before in order to enforce social distancing, quarantine and lockdown measures. This calls for collaborative working relationships between politicians, State and non-State actors and ordinary people in their communities.
While COVID-19 has significantly disrupted our lives in unimaginable ways, there is also something positive that we can glean from the recent events related to the reconfiguration of our political and social conversations. Here, I’m not suggesting that people are not going back to the default polarised settings after the battle against COVID-19.
Not only are social conversations shifting towards dealing with survival in the face of a pandemic, we are also realising that the coronavirus knows no political affiliation, race, class, gender and sexual orientation. In the same vein, this is an opportune moment for our leaders to provide strategic direction and political will to address the elephant in the room.
For all our interventions against COVID-19 to bear fruit, they require maximum compliance from all the relevant stakeholders. We have seen in South Africa parties like the Economic Freedom Fighters and African National Congress sharing the same podium in order to address the common challenge. The same situation can happen in Zimbabwe, especially at a time like this, where scoring cheap political points must be the last thing on our minds.
Besides COVID-19, Zimbabwe has numerous common challenges that require political will and selfless leadership to resolve. These include poverty, unemployment, deindustrialisation, inequality and deep-seated political polarisation. In many ways, the country urgently needs national healing and reconciliation so that it can forge a common vision and direction. This moment in time provides us as a country with an opportunity to find each other and work for the good of our common humanity. If we have been searching for the common ground over the last few years, then responses to COVID-19 have just presented us with that stepping stone.
While some countries are going to emerge from the aftermath of COVID-19 with battered economies, limping healthcare systems and fragile airline industries, Zimbabwe must cease the moment to leverage on depolarisation at the level of social and political conversations to build a common national vision.
It must tap into the current convergence of thinking among political leaders to build a common political dialogue platform. Such a platform can build on the Political Actors Dialogue framework, but also become more inclusive by acknowledging the input of civil society organisations, faith-based communities and student union formations. We can choose to be winners rather than losers.
There is much more that can be harnessed when a country operates on the basis of a common vision and direction. We can fight COVID-19 together and we can arrest youth unemployment, we can push back against sanctions, and we can build a more prosperous and cohesive Zimbabwe.
Admire Mare is a senior lecturer in the Department of Communication at the Namibia University of Science and Technology. He writes here in his personal capacity.