How COVID-19 stole the festive dream

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BY SHAME MAKOSHORI

WHEN the pandemic broke out in China this time last year, very few, including some of the world’s most accomplished scientists projected that it would mutate into a deadly phenomenon, which would threaten to wipe out humanity.

Sadly, indeed, for 12 months, the world struggled to find the right concoction to keep COVID-19 at bay, until very recently, when a promising vaccine emerged in the United States of America.

Still, it is no guarantee that the near genocide that had been inflicted on humanity will subside soon.

For many of the world’s poor economies, lives may continue to be lost for months ahead, until global corporations manufacture enough stocks to trickle down to African villages.

The temptation was to think that like the H1N1 virus a decade ago, Beijing would invoke its economic mighty and crack down of COVID-19 before it spiralled out of control.

Soon, it emerged that this was a different ball game altogether. By Tuesday this week, 1,7 million people had sadly lost their lives in 77,4 million cases reported worldwide, the second most lethal outbreak since 1920/21 Spanish influenza outbreak that cost 50 million lives. During the same week, about 320 people had passed on in 12 400 cases reported in Zimbabwe since March.

Journalist, Zororo Makamba became the first known victim of the virus, which forced President Emmerson Mnangagwa to declare it a national disaster, immediately rolling out a painful lockdown which closed down a fragile economy and sent thousands of informal traders home.

The sad thing was, while governments worldwide provided trillions of dollars in industrial bailouts to stuttering firms as the pandemic spread, Zimbabwe was a completely a different case.

The industries were on their own — hence the bloodbath that has been clearly pronounced at the year comes to an end.

What followed were 21 days of anger and frustration as food supplies ran out for most families while incomes were lost as companies struggled to pay workers without production.

On Monday, the President possibly knew that there was no “Merry Christmas” to talk about when he addressed the nation to mark the Unity Day holiday.

“I wish you all Happy Unity Day as well as a Merry Christmas and a prosperous new year,” he said.

What was clear is Mnangagwa was aware that the pandemic was still wreaking havoc in Zimbabwe, just as in other countries.

He dutifully warned people against complacency.

This is where all the good news ended.

This has been a very difficult year for the economy.

Hamstrung by a range of nagging challenges mostly stemming from the pandemic, the economy is seen contracting by about 4,5% this year, after industries struggled  to produce under the gruelling lockdown regimes.

One only needs to review corporate data to see why this year’s Christmas will be bleak for millions.

At the heart of the crisis are continuing forex shortages, declining buying power and fuel and power supply bottlenecks, which have been compounded by the COVID-19 scourge.

Government had promised to intervene by injecting up to $18 billion to help firms pull through.

But it reneged on the pledge, leaving hundreds of manufacturers in the red.

Employers responded by throwing one million workers out of jobs, with the tourism industry retrenching 25% of its staff, according to the Zimbabwe National Chamber of Commerce.

The cash spinning tourism sector had been promised $500 million in State bailouts, but it may contract by 98% after government again failed to honour its promise. At least $1 billion has been wiped out of the sector since the COVID-19-induced lockdown came into force, according to the Hospitality Association of Zimbabwe.

Investment analyst, Tapiwa Sibanda says the virus compounded a dire economic crisis in Zimbabwe, which is now showing itself through immense suffering.

“It is a bleak holiday,” Sibanda said in an interview with our sister paper Weekly Digest.

You only need to look at the numbers coming out of the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency and the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) to see that very few will enjoy their Christmas. It is so bad on both sides, the companies that produce food and the consumers because demand is just not there and the threat of suffering lingers on,” he said.

He spoke as the CCZ said on Monday that for a family of six, the cost of living had widen in November to $22 976, from $21 745 a month earlier.

In sharp constrast to rocketing prices, very few in Zimbabwe earn above the $14 000 basic salary set for civil servants by government last month.

“The increase in the total figure of the basket is attributed to the price adjustments… especially on the basic food items, due to inflation; influence of the exchange rate and in exceptional cases, the parallel market,” the CCZ said.

In Harare, the epicentre of economic activity in Zimbabwe, the blame game has already started as tempers flare over the crisis.

While companies say they have been pushed to the brink, the CCZ sees things differently.

For them, business is profiteering.

Rose Mpofu, deputy director at CCZ, said business should ensure that prices are realistic, especially compared to what is obtaining in neighbouring countries.

“We appreciate very much all the information that we are getting about the stabilisation and also particularly inflation, which is going down, especially the month-on-month. However, we continue to realise that in fact prices are not really going down. In fact, sometimes prices are going up,” Mpofu says.

“At what point are we going to realise prices that are realistic especially when we compare with other countries in the region? Sentiments we are getting from business when we interact with them is that they complain about raw materials and that they are fighting problems of high taxes for those raw materials,” she says.

Her sentiments put Zimbabwe in a complex vicious cycle of problems.

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor John Mangudya is also unhappy.

He says businesses are using different foreign currency exchange rates when pricing goods, resulting in market distortions.

“Others (businesses) use $90, $95 and $100 (exchange rates against the United States dollar), again as stated, this is non-compliance (with policies). It is nothing else besides non-compliance,” Mangudya says.

Zimbabwe was already fighting a protracted economic crisis when the virus hit the African shores in March. But what is clear is that as the year draws to an end, its impact and rage will be felt far and wide, with those at the lower end of the social strata among the biggest victims of a crisis that nobody knows how and when it will end.

˜ This story was taken from the Weekly Digest, an AMH publication

˜ Follow Shame on Twitter @ShameMakoshori