This brief paper seeks to describe the situation and highlight the response to the COVID 19 pandemic in a selected Southern African countries notably, South Africa, Malawi, Zimbabwe, and Zambia. The author will finish with a few predictions emanating from the way the governments from the above-listed countries are handling the situation amidst this Corona Virus pandemic.
To start with South Africa, as of 01 May 2020, the country has recorded 116 deaths, 5 951 cumulated confirmed cases, a case fatality ratio of 1.95% and 2 382 recovered people as reported by the World Health Organisation Africa Region Office on (www.afro.who.int). This makes the country one of the most affected countries in Africa.
The South African government response to the COVID 19 pandemic since the detection of the first case on the 5th of March 2020 has been met with criticism more than estimation and emulation. Critics have pointed out that, the government was slow to stop the movement of people into South Africa, which is one of the prominent ways the virus can be transmitted. The time period from the 5th of March to the 18th of the same month when the government decided to ban flights and people from countries hard hit by the Corona Virus were believed to be a too late move by the critics.
The government has faced criticism and scorn when they announced the erecting of a 37 Million Rand border fence at the Beitbridge Border Post with Zimbabwe as one of the ways to contain and tame the Virus by blocking illegal migrants. The Public Works Minister Patricia de Lille was quoted by the media saying the fence was to prevent the spread of the coronavirus by keeping foreigners out of South Africa. This move was however met with criticism labelling the South African government taking the Corona pandemic as a platform to further their xenophobic instincts and cheap politicking by the South African politicians. Critics argue that the construction of the 40km fence at the border with Zimbabwe had nothing to do with fighting Covid 19 because, at that time, Zimbabwe had only 11 positive cases of Coronavirus henceforth, this was an excuse and opportunity to steal money and further the government’s anti-foreigner agenda. The timing was suspicious.
The South African governments also issued directives ordering the closure of shops and tuck-shops as a way to avoid overcrowding and stop those small shops being infection points in the country. This was a necessary move that went wrong the very moment the government further announced that only shops owned and run by South African citizens should remain open during the lockdown period. The irony, however, is that most of the small shops that are nearer to the majority people are run by foreigners notably, Ethiopians, Somalis, Bangladeshis and Mozambicans. The move was attributed to xenophobia until they withdrew that directive although the damage had already been done when people had to move long distances to purchase food thereby getting more exposed to the same virus the government was trying to protect them from.
The closures of the airports and land borders were cherished and could have helped a lot in fighting the spread of the virus. The same move was adopted by their northern neighbour, Zimbabwe on the 30th of March 2020 as a way to fight the virus. At the time of writing, Zimbabwe has 34 cumulated confirmed cases of Coronavirus, 5 recovered, 4 deaths and a case fatality ratio of 11.76%.
The Zimbabwean government closed all land borders and the airports were closed to all airlines except the Ethiopian Airlines flights that were supposed to bring needed supplies in the fight against the virus. The lockdown was executed with brutality. The police and the army beating violators of the lockdown and reported cases of some corrupt police officers allowing movement of people for a charge at their various checkpoints. The closures were hailed by many as the first and sensible thing to do at that time. However, critics have pointed out that a total lockdown for a country with high unemployment rates will be catastrophic. The general public and the self-employed Zimbabweans through social media had notified the government of an impending food shortage disaster if they are not allowed to go on with their trades. The Zimbabwean economy has been informal for a long time, with a lot of people informally employed. These people live on a hand to mouth basis. They buy food with their daily profits and therefore locking them in their crowded homes with no assistance or a rescue package is killing them with another weapon that is hunger.
The urban dwellers are the most affected by the lockdown in Zimbabwe and the urban poor bear the brunt since they do not have money to buy food in bulk. This is the same group of people that supplies the health sector with manpower in nurses and doctors etcetera. The health personnel in Zimbabwe has low morale due to poor remuneration, poor working conditions, notably the absence of PPE material. The staff and doctors associations compelled the government to provide the needed materials, clothing and ventilators for use at the main referral hospitals. The government response is also criticized when they appear to concentrate more on other issues that don’t have much to do with COVID-19 fighting. The government has been sniffing out and arresting social media users who have been circulating presumably, false and fake news on the internet and social media. People feel that for a government that is not doing much in fighting the virus, concentrating on false news peddlers on social media is irrelevant at this point in time.
The Malawian government has also received a barrage of criticism to its response strategy to fighting the Coronavirus. Malawi has 37 cumulated confirmed cases, 7 recovered, 3 deaths and a case fatality ratio of 8.11%. There have been accusations of corruption and plundering of the financial aid given to Malawi by the United Kingdom and the World Bank. The Malawi opposition accused the ruling party of stealing the money, diverting the money to its own purse instead of availing the money in the fight against the virus. Malawi is supposed to hold elections in July of 2020 so everything is now viewed through political spectacles in Malawi. The government tried to impose a national lockdown and a day before the lockdown, crowds of people protested citing lack of food and essentials to last through the lockdown. The lockdown was deferred by the High court of Malawi. Critics point out that, the intention to lock down the country without a proper rescue plan for those who live on a hand to mouth basis caused the protests that exposed many people to the virus. Before the outbreak of the Corona Virus, Malawi had been experiencing political problems and COVID-19 was a disaster within a disaster.
One country in Southern Africa that has implemented a different strategy to the COVID-19 pandemic in Zambia. With 109 cumulated confirmed cases, 74 recovered, 3 deaths and a case fatality rate of 2.75%, the Zambian government admitted that a total lockdown in the country would result in another hunger disaster. They did shut certain areas usually for the purposes of disinfecting. Bars and public places were closed to curb the spread of the virus. They also had financial rescue packages like the Epidemic Preparedness Fund to help the citizens.
A few predictions can be made from the different ways these Southern African governments have been reacting to this pandemic. One universal prediction is an increase in urban poverty in all these countries as a result of the lockdowns they have forced on people. It is with no doubt that the peoples’ livelihoods have been destroyed, and altered in a way that will be different to understand. In Harare, the Harare City Council took the lockdown and peoples’ absence in the streets as a chance to ‘sanitise’ the city by destroying illegal vending structures and that definitely means life will be hard for those who relied on vending to feed themselves.
Urban dwellers are the ones to bear the brunt of these lockdowns more than anyone else. In a country with a very high unemployment rate and with an economy that has gone informal for decades, locking down a country will inevitably result in unemployment, closing of small businesses, starvation and increased urban poverty. We are talking of people who survive on hand to mouth basis, and have been ‘caged’ for 34 days without any form of financial help from the government. The business has been disrupted in Zimbabwe. For example, the tobacco industry has already been affected. The tobacco selling season is about to start amidst a total lockdown. It is going to be a complicated situation to sell tobacco at the same time trying to adhere to laws that prohibit public gatherings.
It is with no doubt that the Covid 19 pandemic will have long-lasting effects on the economies of all the countries in the whole world and Southern Africa in particular. Businesses are not at their peak, no tourism, and no economic activity happening. Other catastrophes like xenophobia in South Africa might start again considering how South African politicians feel about the foreigners in their country. All the countries have closed schools without an alternative to continuing education unlike other countries of the world like Chile that have introduced online learning to students. Southern African countries just closed schools putting everything on pause and the results of such a move will be felt later on after the pandemic. The different responses to COVID 19 by the above-discussed countries have been criticized by certain quarters of the society and also approved by other people. Some interventions were said to be irrelevant to the fight against COVID19, others look like retributory responses to the citizens whilst others support the same interventions.
Written by Richard Mudyazvivi
About the Author: Richard Mudyazvivi is a Zimbabwean citizen, a junior development practitioner with experience in communication, coordination and training. He holds an Honours degree in Development from the Midlands State University in Zimbabwe. He has prior experience from the African Union Commission’s Peace and Security Dept and does possess working experience in Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, Ecuador and Liberia. He is more enthusiastic about the role of peace in development.