Competing COVID-19 narratives in rural Zimbabwe

The first case of COVID-19 was identified in Zimbabwe on March 20 2020. Having seen what was happening elsewhere in the world, Zimbabweans were fearful of what was to come. Following World Health Organisation guidelines, the government imposed a strict lockdown on March 30. While there were very few cases in the country by this stage, the lockdown had a dramatic impact on people’s livelihoods. Markets were closed, transport was restricted, curfews were imposed, schools were shut and church and other gatherings were banned.

Overall, the pandemic emerged in a series of phases, associated with different ‘waves’ of different variants (see graph). Recorded cases and deaths were (relative to other countries) low, but of course there was massive under-reporting. Even if direct effects remained limited, the consequences of the pandemic were huge. Each wave was associated with a lockdown, lasting for different periods, and each all with major impacts on rural people.

As the pandemic unfolded, there were different narratives about the pandemic. Based on the material collected for our 20 blogs (see last week’s blog, and the book – details below), we have written a paper on how these narratives compete and framed responses over time. The narratives reveal important connections between the disease, social relations, the economy and politics. The narratives were not static nor uniform among people, however and in our paper (summarised through some edited extracts below), we identified three ‘Acts’ in a drama involving different actors and competing scripts.

A drama in three parts

At the beginning of Act I there was fear and shock, and people found it difficult to navigate the strict lockdown regulations as they were strictly enforced. Later, as the feared growth of COVID-19 cases and mortalities did not materialise, anxieties reduced and people learned how to cope, not least through their own experimentation, innovation, learning and sharing around COVID-19 treatments. However, in 2021 concerns grew again around vaccines. Misinformation and rumour spread fast, especially focusing on vaccines from China. Without movement, WhatsApp became a vital form of communication, both providing important insights into treatments shared amongst family members and friends, although also a source of false information and fearmongering. Navigating competing claims about pandemic knowledge remained a challenge throughout.

When the Delta wave arrived in Zimbabwe in mid-2021 mortalities spiked, and a new phase – Act II – of the drama emerged. It was no longer seen as a rich person’s disease affecting only those in town, but something that had a direct effect in the settings where the team was working. This heightened concerns, but also added to the determination to find local treatment solutions. By this stage, people had an increasingly good idea about how to manage the disease, although sadly at this point a number of people died. Yet, case rates and mortalities remained far lower than experienced by relatives in the UK and even in South Africa. People commented on their own resilience and offered hypotheses about how the virus affected different people in different places in different ways. Especially by 2021, everyone was fed up with the lockdowns, seeing them increasingly as political impositions rather than public health measures. With crops to send to market, social obligations to fulfil and jobs to be done, by necessity people increasingly found ways round the restrictions. Even if fined, they surmised that breaking the law was better than starving at home.

By the time the Omicron variant arrived at the end of 2021, and Act III commenced, most felt confident in confronting it, with an array of innovations, including local treatments, at hand. Luckily the variant was relatively mild and even though people fell ill for some days, Christmas and New Year holidays, as well as the agricultural season, proceeded without too much disruption, despite another lockdown.

Competing narratives

Three competing, although overlapping, narratives can be discerned: a science-led technocratic narrative, a state-led control narrative and a citizens’ narrative focused on independence and autonomy.

The science-led narrative was important throughout and has guided much government policy. The government followed WHO guidelines on lockdowns assiduously and promoted the vaccine campaign vigorously. Despite many health workers being in dispute with the government over pay and conditions, and indeed on strike for periods, their voice was often coincident with the pronouncements from government.

The lockdown policy was however not always just to do with public health, even though health professionals and most of the rural population in our sites backed the first lockdown. Asserting state control over the population through lockdowns, involving numerous arrests, surveillance and restrictions on movements, was, many thought, a reflection of the authoritarian tendencies of the militarised state and ruling party, and an excuse for suppressing dissent and opposition. The state-control narrative was strong throughout. As lockdowns continued, some surmised that the reason for them had switched to a largely political motivation, as protests were banned on public health grounds.

Such scientific-technocratic and state-control narratives did not always gain the upper-hand, however. Zimbabweans are long practised at resisting imposition by the state, knowing that there are limits to its capacity and that there are ways of avoiding if not confronting. Jokes, songs, Internet memes and other routes to subtle resistance make life more possible.  However, resisting adds to the costs of life – paying bribes, dodging roadblocks, marketing at night and so on. But none of this is new, and the pandemic just added another layer to the challenging navigation of everyday encounters with authority in Zimbabwe.

The pandemic was layered on a long period of economic and political uncertainty for much of the past 20 years, where daily rural life has been a constant struggle in the face of currency fluctuations, hyperinflation, shortages of key goods, combined with often arbitrary state interventions, sometimes violence. In such situations, there is no option but to get by and get on. What came out strongly was a resigned resilience as people struggled to carve out a way of living independently to survive.

This ‘citizens’ narrative’ was centred on low expectations of external support and the need to develop autonomous and independent solutions. In the absence of external support, local solutions, experimentation and innovation, combined with collective action and solidarities, were essential.  

A window on society

As Simukai Chigudu observed for the 2008 cholera outbreak in urban Zimbabwe, a public health crisis can forge new political subjectivities, and so recast the relationships between the state and citizens, and this was certainly the case for the COVID-19 pandemic. As many have observed, pandemics offer a window on society and its politics.

The periods of strong state action – early preventive action and vaccine deliveries, for example – were seen positively, perhaps a reflection of a yearning for an idealised past from soon after Independence when the state did actually deliver and could be trusted. Yet during the last few years, the expectations were not high, and people were quick to condemn procurement corruption and heavy-handed lockdowns.

With trust low and capacity extremely limited, the attempt to impose a technocratic public health solution foundered, and people sought ways around what they saw as unnecessary restrictions, generating a ‘citizens narrative’ centred on autonomy, independence and self-reliance, along with a certain pride in rediscovering local treatments, and so generating a local resilience, based on shared, collective knowledge and innovation. This is the theme of our second paper now out in BMJ Global Health, featured in the next blog.

This blog includes extracts from: Bwerinofa, I.J.; Mahenehene, J.; Manaka, M.; Mulotshwa, B.; Murimbarimba, F.; Mutoko, M.; Sarayi, V. and Scoones, I. (2022) Living Through a Pandemic: Competing Covid-19 Narratives in Rural Zimbabwe, IDS Working Paper 575, Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, DOI: 10.19088/IDS.2022.058; Download link: https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/20.500.12413/17593

The 20 blogs that provide a real-time overview of the pandemic are now available as a low-cost book: You can buy the 160-page book on Amazon (£12.72 for a paper copy, £1.25 for a Kindle version) or download it in high- or low-resolution versions here and here).          

The research team are Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Felix Murimbarimba, Moses Mutoko, Vincent Sarayi and Ian Scoones.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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