COVID-19 a learning curve

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ON May 8, 2020, I came across a COVID-19 tweet by Hillary Clinton which read “South Korea and the US had their first reported case on the same day. Today, South Korea has reduced daily cases by 90%. In the US, 70 000 Americans have died and unemployment has hit 14,7%. The difference: competent government that heeds experts.”

Come May 11, our own Information deputy minister Energy Mutodi also tweeted, accusing State-owned broadcaster, ZBC, of “gross incompetence” and abuse by his boss, Monica Mutsvangwa, and her husband Chris.

This was after ZBC had published an article in which government, through Foreign Affairs minister Sibusiso Moyo, was “distancing itself” from Mutodi’s statements mocking Tanzanian President John Magufuli’s response to COVID-19.

Clinton has served as First Lady of the United States, US senator from New York, 67th US Secretary of State and Democratic Party candidate in the 2016 presidential elections, which she lost to incumbent Donald Trump.

Mutodi is Zanu PF Member of Parliament for Goromonzi West and Information deputy minister since 2018. Both are up there in positions of power, influence, leadership and governance at very high levels in their countries and in Clinton’s case, globally.

That is why their tweets prompted me to research, reflect and write about the impact that competent governance has had and can have in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic which has infected more than four million people and claimed at least 319 000 lives globally.

Since COVID-19 became a global pandemic, all the world’s countries are implementing measures to contain it, albeit with varying degrees of success.

On one hand, there are Asian countries such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan, which undertook bold, proactive and consistent measures and policies that managed to slow the spread of COVID-19 and increased recovery.

This elicited high-profile tributes such as Clinton’s praise of South Korea, and World Economic Forum chief representative officer in China, David Aikman’s compliments of China for “a delicate balancing act of getting the economy growing again while slowing the spread of the
virus”.

On the other hand are Western nations such as the US, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy struggling to contain the pandemic.

While in the case of the US, Clinton singled out political leadership’s failure to heed expert advice as the obstacle in arresting the spread of COVID-19.

A group of three Harvard University professors posited that complacency, a lackadaisical response and policy inconsistencies enabled the pandemic to spiral out of control in Italy.

These contrasting scenarios prompted me to think about what lessons Zimbabwe can draw from both the successes of the Asian countries and the shortcomings or rather missteps of their Western counterparts.

I came up with four measures that I think can enable Zimbabwe to improve current COVID-19 responses and simultaneously enable sustainable, inclusive and equitable recovery of citizens and businesses from its crippling effects.

Firstly, there is need for clarity, consistency and contextualisation of policies formed to fight COVID-19.

Most of the policies implemented so far have been vague, erratic and sometimes contradictory to the realities of the prevailing circumstances.

For instance, the demolition of vending sites in April destroyed livelihoods of thousands of vendors whose dollar-per-day lifestyles entirely depend on informal trading.

Secondly, Statutory Instrument (SI) 99 of 2020 burdening the employer with the responsibility of paying for mandatory COVID-19 testing of all employees returning to work is both an abdication of responsibility by government, and a burden onto a business sector already crippled by the effects of the lockdown.

And the $17 million COVID-19 Youth Relief Fund announced by Youth minister Kirsty Coventry on April 24 is discriminatory as it technically excludes youth informal traders, whose businesses at undesignated workspaces were affected by the demolitions.

Government needs to ensure that COVID-19 policies are people-focused and sensitive to the needs and rights of marginalised citizens in order to avoid generating ill will, which may result in resistance and undermining of the goal of containing the pandemic.

Government can do so by combining its current top-down policy formulation style with bottom-up approaches that are broad-based, participatory and inclusive of the views and concerns of ordinary citizens and other stakeholders who will be affected.

Conventional wisdom has proved that inclusivity yields cooperation and compliance, which are critical if individual and collective responsibility and efforts as called for by President Emmerson Mnangagwa in his May 1 state of the nation address is to be secured.

Secondly, transparency and accountability should be observed in the administration of programmes put in place by government to facilitate social security of vulnerable citizens and recovery of businesses affected by COVID-19.

These relief programmes include the food hampers promised for vulnerable families at the beginning of the lockdown, the $17 million COVID-19 Youth Relief Fund and the $18 billion business stimulus package announced by Mnangagwa.

State and non-State actors such as Parliament and the civil society should be allowed to play an oversight role to ensure that deserving citizens and companies benefit. Similarly, a forensic audit is also required to ensure that every COVID-19 donation given to government is accounted for.

This will curb incidences of politicisation of COVID-19 aid reported in some areas, enable avoidance of a repeat of the Command Agriculture corruption scandal, where US$3 billion reportedly remains unaccounted for.

Thirdly, those in positions of authority and influence should set exemplary behaviour for ordinary citizens to follow in the fight against the pandemic.

So far, we have witnessed the opposite, especially with regards to communication.

In March, we had Defence minister Oppah Muchinguri claiming that coronavirus was God’s punishment of the West for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe.

We also saw a viral social media video of Buhera South MP Joseph Chinotimba claiming that coronavirus would only affect women who dress improperly.

When issued by influential people, statements of this nature trivialises the danger posed by COVID-19, cause confusion and breed complacency which ultimately undermines efforts to contain this pandemic.

Opinion leaders should desist from making such dangerously misleading statements and Mnangagwa should ensure that there are serious consequences for his subordinates who issue such reckless statements.

Soft firefighting, as was the case in Muchinguri’s case or having government merely “distancing itself” as in Mutodi’s case is not deterrent enough.

Lastly, as a country, Zimbabwe also needs to support and encourage innovation in the fight against COVID-19.

This past Friday, Singapore started a two-week trial use of a remote-controlled robot dog that enforces social distancing, reminds people against gathering and delivers medicines to COVID-19 patients at a temporary hospital.

This innovation has substantial potential to revolutionise COVID-19 responses in Singapore, one of the countries already commended for its measures to combat the pandemic.

While Zimbabwe may not be in a position to match Singapore’s level of innovation, a lot more can, and should be done to support innovations already underway at our tertiary education institutions and local companies.

Among other steps, these measures are especially critical in light of World Health Organisation regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti’s recent warning that coronavirus could “smoulder in Africa for years and take a high death toll unless governments take proactive approaches to arrest it”.

 Francis Mukora is a certified public policy analyst and advocate, journalist and award-winning governance and leadership practitioner. He writes here in his personal capacity. He can be contacted at fmukora@gmail.com

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