Harare: When social distancing becomes a privilege

“As Zimbabwe goes into a 21-day lockdown in response to Covid-19,” writes Craig Dube from Harare, “I see that this is a story of countless questions. And I can’t help asking myself: Haven’t my people been here before?”


As I sit here on a bright, clear April morning in Harare, I wish I could write something inspiring to share with you: a story of hope and solidarity. I wish I could simply share the simple beauty in taking a break from our busy, constantly speeding lives, or the unexpected gift of fossil-fuel-guzzling fleets being grounded, temporarily giving Mother Earth some breathing space. I wish I could simply applaud the resilience of my ever-resilient people, at a time when Zimbabwe’s tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 stands at just eight and we have had only one death - although even one death is too many - as a result of the virus. And I wish I could tell you that these low numbers mean that Zimbabweans are all willing and able to play their individual parts to keep the spread of coronavirus to a minimum. 


Photo by Tinashe Craig Dube. The Kuwadzana Market in Harare, Zimbabwe.


But as I look around me, I see that this is a story of countless questions. I can’t help asking myself: Haven’t my people been here before? Have we not lived through queues and empty shelves countless times? Have we not been in lockdown before -- and failed to deal with avoidable but highly contagious diseases before? Crucially, will enough Zimbabweans be able to survive the 21-day lockdown instituted on 30 March without the need to leave their homes? 


When the first countries confronted with coronavirus asked their populations to remain at home and people responded with panic-buying sprees, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Zimbabwe in 2008 and 2009. It was a time when the impact of a drought and political tensions were compounded by the shocks of the global financial crisis - and, on the horizon, a deadly cholera outbreak.


When the first countries confronted with coronavirus asked their populations to remain at home and people responded with panic-buying sprees, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Zimbabwe in 2008 and 2009

It was a time when schools and businesses closed, and there were frequent calls for people to stay at home to avoid clashing with violent actors across the political spectrum. No one was prepared for this situation: staying at home was a luxury that the majority of urban low-income Zimbabweans could not afford. Many had to choose between risking being beaten up in the streets and risking dying at home. In the past twelve years, all subsequent calls for Zimbabweans to stay at home have been a milder version of what we experienced then; the most severe came as recently as January 2019, when the government instituted an internet shutdown and hundreds of human rights violations were reported. 


No one was prepared for this situation: staying at home was a luxury that the majority of urban low-income Zimbabweans could not afford

As Zimbabweans face down the local impact of a global pandemic, we can see our government making what appears to be sincere and focused efforts to curb COVID-19 and address its impact. It has now promised cash transfer assistance to vulnerable families and has set up temporary shelters for the homeless, most of whom are young children. This is in addition to allocating significant public funds to directly combating the virus and coordinating local production of the (normally imported) medical and protective goods needed by our health sector. Even local corporations are clamouring to “join hands” -- a well-meaning but awkwardly inappropriate coronavirus slogan if ever there was one -- and help the government minimise the spread of COVID-19.  


A growing concern, however, is over how the 21-day lockdown will be enforced. Some large retail businesses are still being allowed to operate, but over half of Zimbabwe’s adult population work in micro and small enterprises, many of them relying on daily sales to feed their families. How will their needs be covered during this period? The small-scale farmers who supply small-scale vendors have lost their buyers, and their produce lies rotting in the fields. Worse still, many of those farmers and vendors have not fully recovered from the devastating effects of Cyclone Idai, which destroyed most subsistence crops in 2019. 


Coronavirus is blind to the needs of the people whose daily lives, even in “normal” times, are spent in high-density communities at the sharp edge of poverty. Even for Zimbabweans who can afford to pay utility bills, there are constant electricity and water supply cuts. Now imagine what it is like for those who live in makeshift dwellings, unconnected to power or water supplies, with no internet, and who are now being asked to stay indoors -- and with no funds as a cushion against the impact on their livelihoods. 


Over half of Zimbabwe’s adult population work in micro and small enterprises, many of them relying on daily sales to feed their families. How will their needs be covered during this period?

As a public health advocate, I know that the logic of the lockdown is that these prompt, effective measures are for the greater good, and could save tens of thousands of lives. I know that physical distancing makes perfect scientific sense: stay home, and you reduce the chance of catching or spreading the virus, and help reduce the exponential rise of further infections and further casualties.  


But in Zimbabwe, as in the rest of the world, if policy-makers do not properly articulate the importance of these actions to asymptomatic people, and if we do not allay the fears of loss of livelihood among the most vulnerable, many people will ignore these urgent messages. I’ve seen it in my own high-density Harare neighbourhood this week, with dozens and even hundreds of people congregating in street markets and shops before and during the lockdown, desperate to stock up on food and other necessities, but ignoring physical distancing rules. Now, as always, government and citizens alike must think, and think again, about how to make protective measures work in practice, and about the potential to harm the very people who most need protecting. 


If we do not allay the fears of loss of livelihood among the most vulnerable, many people will ignore these urgent messages

But perhaps this is a story of hope and solidarity after all. In “normal” times without physical distancing, we live at a great social and mental distance from the lives, fears, and needs of others, even people struggling to survive just a few streets away. This virus has taken much from us, but it has also given us the opportunity to share our stories of hope and rediscover our solidarity with people whose daily challenges have always been great. It is an opportunity for governments like mine to regain people’s trust by mobilising expertise, by exercising power wisely, by preserving human rights and providing essential social services to those who are most affected. Already in Zimbabwe, there are signs that it could be possible. In a time of uncertainty and suffering, this may be the most important story of all.


This story was shared by Tinashe Craig Dube, a Zimbabwean native and health equity professional based in Harare and working in the fields of socio-political determinants of unequal health outcome and poverty alleviation. He is a 2018-19 Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity.


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