/ 18 March 2020

Zimbabwe’s collapsing economy trumps coronavirus concerns

Zimbabwe’s Civic Services On The Edge
Fair pay: Disgruntled Zimbabwean civil servants have demanded that their salaries be paid in United States dollars so that they can meet their basic cost of living. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP)

When Arnold Muchenje* (44) disembarked from the bus in Harare, he felt as if he was entering a different world. He had travelled from Johannesburg which had recorded 116 positive coronavirus cases as of Wednesday afternoon. But those he met upon his arrival in Zimbabwe seemed more worried about the country’s economic crisis than about the pandemic.

Zimbabwe has yet to record a single coronavirus case.

In Harare’s Central Business District, no one is wearing masks or covering their mouths. People are still hugging, shaking hands and kissing each other on the cheek. Rarely is hand sanitiser provided within any of the city’s offices and public facilities. Life continues exactly as it did before the coronavirus outbreak began.

Muchenje said there was no trace of nervousness he had felt in some parts of South Africa over the outbreak of the virus. “In Johannesburg, I saw people who were nervous. The situation is different here. It is as if this corona is a foreign disease which will not reach these shores,” he said.

He added that he believes it is a matter of time before the virus enters Zimbabwe.

“With all the people coming from South Africa and other places freely, the virus will surely come. I think people here have not enough information. If the virus is to come, they won’t know what will have hit them,” he said, as he passed vendors selling their wares near the city’s Copacabana taxi rank.

One vendor, Dorcas Mlambo (29) said she had heard about Covid-19, but that the virus was not her immediate worry. The thing uppermost in her mind is providing for her family.

“Even if this virus is to come. I will continue coming to town to sell. If I stay home what will my children eat? As you can see, things are getting worse under Mnangagwa. Mugabe was better,” she said.

Mlambo’s economic worries come amid moves by the Zimbabwean government to lift restrictions on forex changing. The new policy has resulted in price hikes as the local currency, the new Zimbabwean dollar, rapidly depreciated. 

Zimbabwe’s government has been more proactive in dealing with the coronavirus threat than some other governments in the region, however.

On Tuesday, Mnangagwa declared a National Disaster, and postponed major social events including the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair and the 40th Independence Day celebrations. He also said that all sporting fixtures had been suspended, and banned public gatherings of more than 100 people, including for religious purposes and weddings, for the next 60 days. Schools will be allowed to finish the remaining two weeks of the current term.

On Wednesday, just a day after announcing the ban on public gatherings, Mnangagwa addressed a Zanu-PF rally in Manicaland that was attended by hundreds of people and several cabinet ministers.

Last week, opposition MP Tichinani Matevera — who is also a medical doctor — told Parliament that the government’s claim that Zimbabwe was prepared for Covid-19 was questionable.

“Our central hospital at Parirenyatwa ICU for the whole of this region has got four working ventilators and those people will need life support. I think when we talk about prevention and readiness, we have to be comprehensive but I do not think we are ready. We are only ready in terms of saying it has not come but when it comes it will be a disaster. The health workers will run away and that is actually what they are saying,” he said.

Matevera said some health personnel had not been adequately trained and that Zimbabwe did not have the equipment necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.

“We need to improve on our screening tools. Our screening tool which we are using at our port of entry is not sensitive enough to pick all the potential people who are going to bring in infection into Zimbabwe.”

Precious Shumba, the director of Harare Residents Trust, said that the government’s recommendation to wash hands regularly may be difficult to implement in some parts of the city.

“The requirement to wash hands regularly as a preventive measure is good but in most communities there is no water,” Shumba said.

*Name changed at interviewee’s request