"As I sat down and sighed at the physically and emotionally draining day I had had," writes Maureen Sigauke from Zimbabwe, "I found myself reflecting on our strange Coronavirus days, when life’s basic needs and rights have been reduced to luxuries."
Ever since the President of the Republic of Zimbabwe declared a three-week national lockdown at the end of March, I had obediently lived by the stipulations of the decree.
When a two-week extension to the lockdown was announced, it did not come as a surprise. Zimbabwe was not yet safe. We still had to reinforce our national response capacity. As an active citizen with my family and community at heart, I committed to playing my part in ensuring the safety of my loved ones, my neighbours, and every other Zimbabwean. But what came as a surprise, as I set out the other day to stock up on food supplies, was that the lockdown would be so full of little luxuries. Luxuries that you might argue shouldn’t really have to be considered luxuries, but which had become luxuries nonetheless.
Roadside food vendors, Zimbabwe, April 2020. Credit: Lovejoy Mutongwiza (@LJaymut10)
Although I do not have a formal job, I consider myself privileged. As the lockdown began, that privilege meant being able to stock up on the food and medical supplies that I projected would last me and my family for the 21 days of the lockdown. All around us, in our crumbling political economy, millions of people were losing their jobs and being sent hurtling into the informal economy. In the informal economy, survival is a hand-to-mouth game. Being able to stock up on food supplies for 21 days is a luxury only a few Zimbabweans can afford. Should it be a luxury? Really?
'In the informal economy, survival is a hand-to-mouth game. Being able to stock up on food supplies for 21 days is a luxury only a few Zimbabweans can afford'
Noble as the two-week extension of Zimbabwe’s lockdown was, my pantry had very little air of nobility about it. All the everyday items, including mealie meal, cooking oil and relish, needed replenishing. Most of my neighbourhood’s tuck shops – the local kiosks that normally sell basic groceries – had none of these things in stock. Those shops that did have supplies were selling them at prices far beyond the reach of anyone but a passing duchess, and we hadn’t seen any duchesses around since the lockdown.
There was no other option: I had to travel to the central business district, commonly referred to as town, to replenish my food supplies. But what I went through trying to get into town makes the struggle to get the money for the groceries look like a (suitably socially distanced) walk in the park.
Neighbourhood road, Kwekwe, Zimbabwe. Credit: Maureen Sigauke.
First, I had to get over the information hurdle, or rather the lack-of-information hurdle. Beyond President Mnangagwa’s imposing declaration of a “total lockdown” aimed at defeating “a virus that knows no class, colour, creed, tribe or region”, very little had been clearly spelt out. What would be the operating hours of the businesses offering essential services? What steps did I need to take, should I find myself with a pressing need to make a journey to the CBD or a suddenly-essential somewhere else? Was there a curfew in place? If so, what was it?
I spent the better part of the morning trying to get the answers that would ensure my safe passage to town. I asked my neighbours, and all they knew was that there was a heavy police presence in town and on the roads leading in. Those who hinted that they knew a little more about these things had unsettlingly conflicting narratives on operating times. I was left more confused than I had been before I asked anyone. But two things were clear: one, I had to get food supplies and two, I had no idea how I was going to get into town. Had information become a privilege and a luxury, too?
Tomato stall, Kwekwe, Zimbabwe. Credit: Maureen Sigauke.
Spurred by the primal need to feed the five children I am guardian to, I turned to the option that has become the new normal. I sought the help of a well-known youth leader within the ruling government establishment in my area. He gladly offered to drive me to town. Just one roadblock later and we were in the central business district, thanks to my friend’s friendly connection with the local police. Bless my friend’s soul, of course, but I found myself feeling conflicted. What happens to Mbuya VaJesse, who stays across from my house and most probably knows nobody who knows somebody who can help make things easy? Friends and connections are luxuries and privileges, it seems. Do they have to be? What about everybody else?
A couple of hours later, tiny hands were wrapping themselves around me, and beaming smiles greeted the contents of shopping bags full of… little luxuries. My family and I were set for the next two weeks, at the very least. With hopefully enough left over for a bit of quiet redistribution to neighbours who would never dream of mentioning that they have more mouths than tomatoes at home these days.
Tuck shop, Kwekwe, Zimbabwe. Credit: Maureen Sigauke.
As I sat down and sighed at the physically and emotionally draining day I had had, I found myself reflecting on our strange coronavirus days, when life’s basic needs and rights have been reduced to luxuries. I found myself thinking that the saddest part is that it isn’t Covid-19 that has chipped away at these fundamental needs and rights. The pandemic has merely exposed the realities of systems that favour the few over the many. The pandemic has merely called out nations – so many nations, the fortunate ones as well as the rest – on the hypocrisy tucked inside all those noble pledges to “leave no one behind”.
Like me, many citizens in Zimbabwe are structurally and systematically starved of the information that could help keep us safe during this pandemic and beyond. Many of us live in fear of state security violence, with no certainty about what any given day will bring. I think of the new normal, and the roadblocks, and the tomatoes, and Mbuya VaJesse. Should it be necessary to be politically connected to get the basic information necessary to be safe during a lockdown? Should being able to feed your family be a luxury?
This story was shared by Maureen Sigauke, a social justice and labour activist, an organisational change management and sustainability consultant, and an Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity. She tweets at @Maureenashleigh.
How do you experience living in your city under Coronavirus? Share your story and join us to Spread stories, not the virus.