Zimbabwe

A no-mercy lockdown

The government has yet to decide which industries will stay open and it was silent on possible rescue packages for those that will be shut

29 March 2020 - 00:00 By LENIN NDEBELE
Health professionals said the lockdown was the best decision. Without it, Zimbabwe could see unprecedented fatalities this winter, said Dr Solwayo Ngwenya.
Health professionals said the lockdown was the best decision. Without it, Zimbabwe could see unprecedented fatalities this winter, said Dr Solwayo Ngwenya.
Image: Supplied

The three-week coronavirus lockdown starts tomorrow, with no measures to save companies or jobs.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa said on Friday the lockdown would exclude critical movement of goods and the operations of key utilities such as refuse collection, power generation and water supply.

Critics said the announcement appeared to have been made in haste, since it did not address the implications for critical sectors of society.

"He just announced what should be done and didn't outline aims and objectives," said Victor Katsande, a businessman and economist. 

It can wipe out a whole nation. People should simply stay at home
Dr Solwayo Ngwenya, clinical director at Bulawayo's Mpilo Central Hospital.

"For example, he said business should support employees. How can that work considering that there's poor economic activity? Clearly government doesn't have a package for struggling firms that will eventually be killed by the shutdown."

Katsande said finance minister Mthuli Ncube declared a ZW$59.3m budget surplus in January. "This created a sense of safety nets in our mind, but now we have a real disaster and government is silent."

By close of business on Friday, annual inflation was 992% and the Zimbabwe dollar was trading at US$1:ZW$40 on the parallel market.

Some firms, mostly in the hotel industry, began halving salaries last week and others laid off employees. Small to medium-size businesses in several sectors have told workers they will not be paid during the lockdown.

Announcing SA's lockdown on Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa unveiled a temporary employee-relief scheme to avoid retrenchments and asked for contributions to a Solidarity Fund to help people whose lives will be disrupted.

Critics said Mnangagwa copied Ramaphosa's methods but ignored measures to cushion the economy and help people who would suffer.

Minister of industry and commerce Sekai Nzenza told the Sunday Times the government had yet to decide which industries should remain functional, but she was silent on a rescue package for those that will be shut down.

"We are currently in discussion with key industries to determine essential services that must continue during the lockdown," she said.

Economist John Robertson said the lockdown would reduce projected economic growth, all industries would suffer and the cost of living would increase.

"Food will still be required by everyone during lockdown but some people will have difficulty earning the money to pay for it, especially if prices continue to rise because of the supply and demand curve," he said.

Street kids and the homeless were caught unawares by the lockdown announcement and said the president didn't address their plight. "People say the country is shutting down and shops will be closed and there will be no-one to ask for food. It doesn't make sense," said Tommy Kaseke, a street child in Harare.

Social welfare minister Paul Mavima was not available for comment.

Health professionals said the lockdown was the best decision. Without it, Zimbabwe could see unprecedented fatalities this winter, said Dr Solwayo Ngwenya, clinical director at Bulawayo's Mpilo Central Hospital.

"It can wipe out a whole nation. People should simply stay at home. There have been pleas to the president and we are glad he listened finally," said Ngwenya. "Had the total lockdown not been announced, come May - with a lot of infections - a lot of deaths would have been experienced.

"A human body can go for up to 40 days without food but Covid-99 is a real killer. So staying on lockdown for three weeks as the virus dies - because it is not shared - is the better devil."

Ngwenya said an approach similar to that taken during the Spanish flu of 1918 was required. "This epidemic can last even up to the end of the year or beyond. That's why we encourage staying at home to avoid mass deaths. Science comes first for now, and this method worked to save lives during the Spanish flu," he said.

Mnangagwa said prison overcrowding would be eased by giving clemency to 5,000 inmates as part of fighting Covid-19. The beneficiaries are women who have served more than half their sentences, juveniles and the sick.

Justice, legal and parliamentary affairs minister Ziyambi Ziyambi told the Sunday Times the move would reduce the number of inmates in the country's 46 prisons to 17,000.

Those who remained behind bars would be protected from infection because no visitors would be allowed and warders' health would be monitored.

"Those in prisons are smiling. That's the safest place to be at the moment. We just need to isolate those on remand from the rest of the other prisoners," Ziyambi said.

- Additional reporting by John Ncube and Maxwell Chingaira

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