‘I need to be in the streets so I don’t go hungry’: Zimbabwe’s lockdown tests shaky economy

Zimbabwe's lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus looks set to damage an already-battered economy and poses serious problems for impoverished traders


On 30 March, Zimbabwe began a three-week lockdown to halt the spread of coronavirus. The measure looks set to damage an already-battered economy and poses serious problems for impoverished traders. Tendai Marima reports from Bulawayo. 

Zimbabwe’s 21-day lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus started on a relatively calm note with minimal activity in the country’s main city centres, but the risky measure could hurt an economy already battling inflation and citizens working to stave off hunger from a crippling drought.

At least seven people, including one who has unfortunately died, have been diagnosed with the deadly virus.

Supermarkets, bakeries, fuel stations and a handful of takeaway restaurants are open as food outlets are listed as part of essential services, but, after just one day, impoverished Zimbabweans are frustrated at the lockdown.  

In the streets of Bulawayo, the country’s industrial second city, the streets were empty, but traders at the vegetable market bitterly complained the lockdown was a costly measure.

Melusi Dube, who sells bundles of kale from an open-air stall, told African Business the 21-day shutdown was a retrogressive order that could leave him in a poorer state.  

“We have been under lockdown before, but this is no longer Rhodesia – we don’t do curfews anymore. I need to sell at least 30 bundles today so I can have something to take home to my family, but this lockdown will make things hard for me,” Dube said.

Sithabiso Ncube, another trader, echoed similar sentiments and expressed fears over her ability to survive 21 days without income from selling her vegetables.

“This has really hurt, my business depends on the numbers of people who come to town every day, I need to be in the streets so I don’t go hungry. I’m being told by council police to stop coming after I finish selling these vegetables so what will I do, how will I survive? I can’t stop, I’m already struggling because things are so expensive,” she said.

Threat to small traders and entrepreneurs

Since the collapse of industry due the hyperinflation crisis of the 2000s, most of Zimbabwe’s workforce has been composed of informal traders and small-scale entrepreneurs.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has assured the nation the government will support businesses, but no details on what type of assistance the cash-strapped administration will give.

The Chamber of Mines of Zimbabwe, a business association, has warned at least $400m could be lost in revenue if all mineral producers were forced to scale back operations due to the global pandemic.

The mining industry generates two-thirds of the country’s yearly $4.8bn export earnings, with gold and platinum among the top foreign currency earners.

A protracted energy crisis in the southern African nation has forced some companies to import their own power to keep their mines alight.

In Nkulumane, a low-income suburb on the western side of Bulawayo where electricity cuts can last as long as 18 hours per day, crowds of people spent the first day of lockdown waiting to fill up their gas canisters. 

Although the government has banned public gatherings exceeding 50 people and consumers are urged to practice social distancing by staying one metre apart, hordes of people swarmed the local gas centre just to fill up.

Calls for mass testing

For now, Zimbabwe has relatively low numbers of coronavirus cases, but there has been strong opposition criticism of the slowness in testing – to date less than 200 people have been tested by the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare.

According to Tendai Biti, the former minister of finance, the 21-day exercise could be futile without the implementation of proper health procedures social care programs. 

“The pandemic can only be flattened through mass testing, surveillance, isolation, tracking, treatment and social distancing. Without a comprehensive ecosystem of complementary measures, this lockdown is a waste [of time],” he said.

Although the government legislated the lockdown, the failure to provide rapid testing and coping mechanisms for the most needy is an “unpardonable,” act, he said. 

A statement from the finance minister, Mthuli Ncube, said that the Treasury woud release $4m to support health efforts against COVID-19 and cash transfers would be made to 1m vulnerable households, once the Department of Social Welfare has identified beneficiaries.

Ahead of the lockdown, the central bank announced Zimbabweans could use foreign currency in daily transactions, less than a year after prohibiting everyday use of the US dollar.

The government believes the ease in regulations could make it easier for Zimbabweans to transact during the epidemic, but for the poorer majority who endure the worst of the country’s cash shortages and live on less than $2 a day, the remedial measures could ring hollow.

According to local press reports, there have been minor skirmishes between police and the public in the smaller towns, but as the lack of an income affects people more deeply, there is a risk tensions could build.

The lockdown is due to end on 18 April, Zimbabwe’s 40th anniversary of independence from British colonial rule.

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