By Dumisani O. Nkomo
Since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 as a global health emergency, Zimbabwe has since officially reported 9 cases and one fatality. The Zimbabwean government responded by putting in place a raft of measures to deal with the pandemic. I would like to suggest that over and beyond the Coronavirus pandemic threat; there is a need for a more comprehensive outlook on pandemics and other public health emergencies. I will attempt to first of all outline what the government and non-state actors have done, then highlight critical gaps which include service delivery provision, institutional capacity, a competent public health system as well as enabling laws and policies which are critical in dealing with pandemics such as COVID-19.
Although the government appeared relaxed and undecided in its initial response, it eventually did respond to the COVID -19 pandemic with a number of measures. Already in existence in terms of response to disasters is the Civil Protection Act that forms a critical component of Zimbabwe’s disaster response mechanisms and legislative infrastructure. In addition to this, the government through the Ministry of Health and Child Care crafted the Zimbabwe Preparedness and Response Plan which outlined how the government, line ministries, and key institutions would respond to the COVID 19 pandemic. The government speedily formulated a swathe of Statutory Instruments, as is the norm, to respond to the increasing threat of the pandemic in the face of accusations of inaction, inertia, and indecisiveness from the public through civil society groupings and the media. All these rafts of measures are indeed commendable and indicative of the government’s desire to deal with the pandemic albeit belatedly.
The pandemic has however brought a number of longstanding structural issues to the fore, which erode or undermine the government’s ability, capacity and indeed the capability of dealing with any major pandemic or any other public health emergency or national disaster.
Service delivery is key in ensuring the prevention, management, and eradication of pandemics. Zimbabwe has no capacity to deliver services whether through central government or local authorities or indeed through statutory service providers such as the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority. The provision of clean water is and has been a challenge in most parts of Zimbabwe, manifesting itself in the current context of the Coronavirus threat. Whilst the government has been pontificating about the imperative of washing hands with soap in order to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, many towns including Bulawayo and parts of Harare are experiencing serious water shortages.
The non-availability of clean water is itself a health disaster and emergency that must be attended to as a matter of the first capital magnitude. The City of Bulawayo has been facing a water crisis for over 25 years with the government doing little if anything to address the crisis. Surely, after 25 years an issue does not qualify to be a crisis but becomes a condition. The capital city, Harare, has also had its fair share of water shortages that may be attributed to poor water governance and corruption as most of the city’s supply dams are full. The shortage of water makes the country vulnerable to various public health disasters such as the Cholera epidemic that affected Harare and other parts of the country. Water shedding has resulted in people in high-density areas having to queue for water thus making them vulnerable to contracting coronavirus because social distancing is not adhered to in queues that are matters of survival.
Erratic electricity supply and load shedding erode the country’s capacity to cope with the Coronavirus as one of the suggested coping mechanisms has been working remotely or working from home. This is impossible in a situation where there is no electricity and no wifi connectivity. Effective sewer reticulation and waste management are also key service delivery pillars, which if unattended could lead to other public health emergencies.
Social Security and Social Safety Nets
Over 80% of the populace is employed by the informal sector and up to 90% of the population is dependant on the informal sector for goods and services. Zimbabwe also has a large population of widows, orphans, and vulnerable children as well as retrenches and pensioners. The country still has very poor safety nets to protect the most vulnerable members of society. Though the government has announced measures for cash transfers for the poor, this is hardly enough. One can imagine what happens to a poor family during 21 days of lockdown in terms of access to food and basic commodities. The poor cannot afford to stock food for 21 days [the duration of the lockdown] and indeed the average Zimbabwean civil servant can also be classified as poor and incapable of stocking food over 21 days. In the long term, the country needs a strong social security system that protects pensioners, youths, and children from the effects of shutdowns, lockdowns or any major pandemic or disaster.
The shortage of basic commodities such as mealie meal has accentuated and accelerated the problem of long queues, which are fertile ground for the spread of the Coronavirus. Faced with the possibility of hunger, Zimbabweans have been forced to join long queues in order to secure food especially mealie meal. The availability and provision of basic commodities are essential in lockdown contexts as failure to ensure availability can militate against measures to contain the pandemic and indeed other public health emergencies and or national disasters.
The existence of strong institutions is key in fighting and managing any national disaster or crisis such as COVID-19. Our institutions as a country still need a lot of capacity as even in the absence of such pandemics and emergencies, most government departments operate at deficient levels. The Civil Protection Unit is one such institution which needs to be strengthened. It cannot, however, be strong if the structures and departments that feed into it are inherently incapacitated.
Sound Public Health System
A sound public health system is a prerequisite to an effective response to bio-medical emergencies such as COVID-19. A sound public health system must include well-equipped public health systems, well-remunerated healthcare workers and responsive systems. There is an urgent need to overhaul the country’s public health system which would require sustained budgetary support from the fiscus as well as multilateral institutions.
Information Dissemination Infrastructure
Although the government recently announced measures to liberalize the media by granting licenses for community radio, this has been generally too little too late. By this time, the country should be having at least three community radio stations in each province. Community radio is key in the fight against pandemics such as COVID-19. The governments’ obsession with controlling the airwaves has cost the country in terms of its responsiveness to the coronavirus as information would have speedily been disseminated to affected remote communities.
Pro-Active Policy / Legal Framework
Instead of relying on the promulgation of statutory instruments, there is a need for beefing up of the Civil Protection Act and formulation of a new omnibus law to deal with public health emergencies and natural disasters. The country needs an aggressive enabling policy framework so that future responses build on a strong policy infrastructure and legislative superstructure.
The question of leadership and governance is key to the ability of any country to respond to disasters. This is why Winston Churchill made a great wartime leader as he was able to rally the whole nation to fight against Nazi Hitler. Decisive and effective leadership is key in the fight against this global pandemic. The world is crying for caring, servant leaders who provide vision, hope, and direction in times like these. As Zimbabwe, we need such leadership at the national and local level because crises tend to expose leadership deficiencies and capacities.
Together we can fight and win against COVID-19. This requires leaders from different political parties, religious, civic and business leaders to lend a hand and a voice in this great battle.
Dumisani O Nkomo is the Chief Executive Officer of Habakkuk Trust, he is also an author, opinion leader and content producer