By Rejoice M. Chipuriro
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC) on 31 January 2020 and as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. Following the consequential high fatalities experienced in China, Europe and now in the United States of America, there are mounting fears on the African continent compounded by lack of preparedness to deal with this pandemic. Like most African leaders who saw it coming but took a slow approach, Zimbabwe’s president claimed that this virus did not give his government any warning that it was coming. This is the justification for the continued slow response as Africa is still the least affected continent. However, a steady increase in the statistics of affected countries is causing a stir on how our social, political, and ideological responses will influence the trajectory of the pandemic. As Chigudu (2020) asserts, COVID-19 as an organism obtains significance only when it interacts with the toxic politics and socioeconomics within the different human contexts magnifying the fragile inequalities in these ecosystems.
On the politics of covid-19
Scholars such as Okazawa-Rey (2020) note that the politics of scarcity and its ensuing unequal distribution of so-called scarce resources is more vicious to our societies than the Covid-19 pandemic. This leads to the survival of the fittest behavior associated with allegiance to capitalism as the rational distributor of scarce resources. The rich use these instances of crises to line up their pockets. As proclaimed by Shivji (2020), the fight against COVID-19 is a class struggle where capitalists profit from human misery and suffering. This is reflected by the Zimbabwean Government’s response to the crisis which shows the state’s lack of preparedness. Under Mnangagwa’s leadership, the state is increasingly adopting a neo-liberal approach where responsibility to provide for and protect citizens is shifted onto a profit-seeking private sector. Moyo and Chipunza (2020) noted that the Government of Zimbabwe teamed up with private sector player Sakunda Holdings to set up testing and isolation centers. The Herald reported that Sakunda Holdings invested USD 2,7 million towards the refurbishment of two private hospitals. Sakunda Holdings was recently named by ZANU PF youth leaders as a politically connected corrupt entity implicated in illicit fuel and foreign currency deals and has now been decried by some as venturing into the medical field to benefit from the Covid-19 crisis. On the same date that the partnership was announced, the Reserve Bank Governor Mangudya announced the re-dollarization of the economy to cushion business from the effects of Covid-19. This effectively allows Sakunda Holdings to charge in USD in the newly refurbished private care isolation centers, thereby exclusively serving the few affording elites. Media reports note that Ministry of health senior officials received top of the range luxury vehicles, whilst nurses and doctors are underpaid, have no equipment to conduct their work and no protective gear to handle the highly infectious virus. The public health facilities are run down and a death trap, such that the rich are looking for some alternative private isolation facilities.
Locking the nation out of sight and the subsequent gendered implications.
Pontarelli, (2020) notes how times of crisis reveal fundamental contradictions of our society as the spread of Covid-19 is not only a medical crisis but also a political and social struggle. This virus is highlighting vulnerabilities of the marginalized in society, which includes workers in the informal sector, carers, and those unable to access labor rights and social safety nets (Pontarelli, 2020). The Nigerian Feminist Forum (NFF) also expressed how epidemics affect girls, women, boys, and men differently, magnifying existing inequalities on age, class, disability, gender and income lines. Poor women make up the majority of those on the fringes who are/will be hard hit by this pandemic and its effects. The state must still provide food and care to families under constrained environments. In Harare, the farmers market, Mbare has been declared an essential service which implies that it will be allowed to operate under the recently sanctioned lockdown starting on Monday 30th March 2020. There is no clean running water facility, the market is overcrowded, and conditions do not allow for social distancing. The Harare City Council which owns the marketplace has not provided protective clothing, water, or soap for the stall operators who pay the City Council rentals and are mostly women. This will expose them to contracting Covid-19. The inability of women to access personal protective equipment in their caring work as nurses or caring for sick family members at home speaks to the negligent nature of the state and appropriation of women’s labor. The power relations at play ensures that women’s caring labor can be cheaply extracted, exploited and their lives disposable.
Whilst the rich stand to benefit from the crisis, the poor who form the majority in Zimbabwe at 90% unemployment survive from working on the streets and are bound to struggle during the 21-day lockdown announced by President Mnangagwa. Zimbabweans were only given the weekend to prepare for the lockdown after the President announced the lockdown on Friday. In a typical top-down authoritarian approach, the President assigned an 11-member inter-ministerial Covid-19 taskforce and proceeded to announce the lockdown without consultations, awareness-raising, and plans in place to sustain the precarious livelihoods already under threat. Women who are in informal employment and not operating within the food value chains or at the Mbare farmers market will be forced to stop trading. With no social provisioning, they will be exposed to the immediate impacts of poverty through loss of income. With the loss of income comes poor nutrition which weakens the immune system exposing them to contracting Covid-19 and succumbing to it.
As critics on social media have commented, most of the ways prescribed to ward off Covid-19 are only accessible to the affluent. Social distancing is a privilege afforded by those who live in large houses, hand washing is a privilege available to those with access to running water, hand sanitizers are a privilege for those who have money to buy them. Lockdowns are a privilege experienced by those that can afford to be at home. An intellectual understanding not backed by experiential knowledge of the plight of the poor is going to cost the most vulnerable in our African societies and globally as well.
Reimagining possibilities to effectively tackle the virus
The Covid-19 pandemic poses an opportunity to build alternative solutions that consider the needs of the people and the environment before profit (Pontarelli, 2020). Reconstructing healthy societies requires a shift from individualistic orientation to economies described by Okazawa-Rey (2020) as those that generate meaningful, sustainable livelihoods and provide material resources for all to flourish. These sustainable economies center universal social policies where provisioning of decent and holistic care of body, mind, and spirit, ensuring all people are food secure, housed adequately with child support and access to proper health care.
The Nigerian Feminist Forum (NFF) took it a step further and called for a gender-transformative response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In its statement issued to the Federal Government of Nigeria, NFF called for the expansion of dignified healthcare services to the marginalized and vulnerable people in rural areas. This NFF statement mirrors the urban bias in the majority of the African countries including Zimbabwe where the few public designated isolation centers are all in the major cities. It also reflects the neoliberal approach where the government is shifting responsibilities for the universal provisioning of essential public health services to their cronies in the private sector. The call is thus a challenge to change the way society is organized. As Shivji (2020) stated, guided by Nyerere’s assertion that human beings are equal in their humanity, this pandemic demonstrates humanity’s need for a new civilization. This civilization whose center must be the human being, a social being with innate humanity, not an individual subject of the greedy capitalist state is essential to protect the socio-economic rights of the rich and poor alike (Shivji 2020 p 3). As a solution to the Covid -19 crisis, Shivji calls for African rulers to allocate funds from their lavish projects and earning to support feeding schemes for the food insecure during lockdown for without food, lockdown is not possible and without lockdown, it will be impossible to control the transmission of the deadly Covid-19.
Chigudu, 2020. From cholera to corona: The politics of plagues in Africa. Africa is a Country. https://africasacountry.com/2020/03/from-cholera-to-corona-the-politics-of-plagues-in-africa Accessed 25 March 2020
Moyo, A., and Chipunza. 2020. Private sector to set up testing, isolation facilities. The Herald. www.herald.co.zw Accessed 26 March 2020
Okazawa-Rey. M. 2020. The Most Lethal Virus Is Not COVID-19. San Francisco State University. African Feminist Initiative https://afi.la.psu.edu/ . Accessed 24 March 2020
Pontarelli, F.2020. Covid-19: The labor movement struggles to institute social distance between the capital’s needs and people’s health in Italy. Global Labour Column. www.column.global-labour-university.org. Number 335. Accessed 24 March 2020.
Shivji, I. 2020. Trying times. Academia. www.academia.edu Accessed 26 March 2020
The Nigerian Feminist Forum (NFF).2020. Call for a gender-responsive response to Covid-19. Press statement for immediate release: 21 March 2020 www.nigerianfeministforum.org Accessed 22 March 2020.