INFORMAL traders have defied President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s lockdown regulations and are now back in full force, operating openly in the high-density areas at a time the country is recording a surge in coronavirus cases.
BY BLESSED MHLANGA/ MOSES MATENGA/MOSES MUGUGUNYEKI
A survey carried by NewsDay Weekender in and around central Harare yesterday showed that a number of people, especially those in the informal sector, were back in business.
Government recently partly eased a one-and-half-month-long COVID-19 lockdown to “restart certain sectors of the economy,” but kept the informal sector under lockdown.
Fruit and vegetable vendors, clothing and shoe traders have opened their businesses, saying they would rather die of COVID-19 than starve to death under lockdown.
At the popular informal business hubs Siya-So and Magaba, in Mbare, it was business as usual yesterday.
“We have no choice, but to come and work because there is nothing to eat at home,” Mairos Mwale, a tinker, said.
“At times, the police try to disburse us, but it is difficult to go home without anything to feed the family.”
Experts said the easing of regulations might reach dangerous proportions, considering the recent spike in COVID-19 cases.
On Wednesday, 76 new infections were detected, mainly among citizens returning from South Africa and Botswana.
“All of a sudden, we hear a spike in COVID-19 cases and there is need to plug the holes, even if it means to re-implement lockdown measures,” public health expert Johannes Marisa said.
“This outbreak can get out of control if people continue to breach these regulations left, right and centre. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that we have returnees who have skipped the borders and ran away from quarantine centres. These people are dangerous.”
More than 40 000 people have been arrested countrywide for flouting provisions of the lockdown directive.
Zimbabwe initially imposed a nationwide 21-day lockdown on March 30 to stem the spread of the coronavirus and it was later extended by two weeks until recently when the measures were relaxed, with the restrictions being reviewed every two weeks.
Samuel Wadzai, director for the Vendors Initiative for Social and Economic Transformation, said government was being unfair to the informal sector, which constitutes more than 95% of the country’s working population, while opening up for industry and commerce.
“It doesn’t make sense to have government partially opening industry and commerce while shutting out informal traders. How do they expect people to survive? There are no jobs and people rely on vending. Government is yet to disburse the cushioning allowances to the vulnerable and honestly, how do they expect people to survive?” he asked rhetorically.
Government had promised $200 to the vulnerable, including those in the informal sector, to cushion them from the effects of the national lockdown which has gone for over two months.
Vendors who spoke to NewsDay Weekender said they were finding life tough, especially after two months without any sources of income, a situation MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa described as “cruel”.
“We have no protection whatsoever. As regards our welfare, government promised that they would give us money to cover for the time we are not allowed to move around and work.
“The $200 they promised us, we are yet to see it. So the question is: Do I sit at home and watch my children starve or do I work to provide food for them?” one of the vendors said.
The COVID-19 outbreak might get out of control following the relaxing of lockdown measures, which has seen large-scale movement of people in and around Harare.
Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions president Peter Mutasa noted that the informal sector was not fully operational, but was risking the health of many because it was now operating underground.
“We have always said the lack of social safety nets was an issue of concern. In other countries informal traders, the unemployed and workers of industries forced to close because of COVID-19 are receiving unemployment benefits and money from their governments. How do you ask someone to stay at home when you are not giving them anything to ensure their survival?” Mutasa asked.
This comes as government insisted that the lockdown was still in operation and for any movements, exemption letters remained mandatory.
“Government emphasises that the country is still under lockdown and, as such, exemption letters for essential services are still required for movement of those concerned. Furthermore, failure to wear a face mask in public is an offence which is liable to a fine or imprisonment,” Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa said in a post-Cabinet briefing on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Bulawayo City Council said it will descend on illegal vendors who are causing congestion in the central business district in violation of the COVID-19 lockdown order
Mayor Solomon Mguni made the remarks early this week while receiving 20 beds and personal protective equipment from Ezra Sibanda and Friends Initiative on behalf of the Thorngrove Isolation Centre.
“During this week we have actually witnessed the re-emergence of unauthorised informal trading which has resulted in congestion in certain areas of the CBD. This is of great concern to us and our council is seized with this matter,” he said.
“We shall be scaling up enforcement efforts along former 5th Avenue, market area, and all illegal vending sites that are now sprouting in the city as people seek survival methods.” —Additional reporting by Patricia Sibanda