Tag Archives: COVID-19

Lockdown politics: reflections from Zimbabwe

Last week, the blog looked at the COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe. The situation continues to get worse. On 9 January, there were 20499 reported cases and 483 deaths – 6000 more cases and over 100 more deaths in just a week. It looks like the South African ‘new variant’ is taking hold. Another very severe lockdown was imposed on 2 January, with strict movement restrictions, many businesses closed and a curfew.  

However, like many other African settings, as discussed last week, so far at least the rural areas in particular seem not to have significant coronavirus incidence, with reported cases concentrated in urban areas. So are widespread, national lockdowns justified? Should governments persist with the harsh lockdowns that are perhaps best designed for different Western, urban settings with different social and economic profiles?

This is a difficult one. We don’t know if the early action by African states – including Zimbabwe – prevented a massive early spread, and it would be foolhardy to experiment with releasing lockdowns to boost the economy if it resulted in a massive transmission of disease during a second wave. And especially so in settings where health systems are deeply inadequate.

The Swedish experiment of a light lockdown has faltered badly in recent months, and the haphazard approach of the UK government to pandemic control measures has resulted in a huge and unnecessary death rate, even with a top quality health service.

Hardships, but innovations and transformations

What then are the downsides of the current approach of strictly following international public health guidelines? As we have documented in the blog series since March last year, the impacts of lockdowns on rural populations across our sites have been harsh. And the new lockdown in Zimbabwe is already biting hard.

This is a pattern seen across Africa as many studies have now shown. Reduced market access, lack of mobility for labour and work, school closures meaning kids don’t get an education… and so on. The story is now familiar. There have been many surveys of the impacts and the considerable costs of lockdowns. Lockdowns particularly hit those reliant on formal markets and those requiring mobility for their livelihoods.

Yet, as our field reports during 2020 have shown, in a largely informal economy, where exchanges are local, there has been an impressive resilience in rural areas and small towns in Zimbabwe so far. Without wanting to dismiss extreme hardships, falling perhaps especially on women and young people, the adaptations and innovations we saw over the past 9-10 months across our sites have been impressive. 

Whether in terms of marketing, health care, off-farm income earning, trading or artisanal mining, a new array of new activities have sprung up so that people can survive during lockdowns. Compared to the formal phone surveys that many researchers are fond of, asking not just about what has changed from the status quo, and so highlighting the costs, we have also been asking what has emerged, highlighting innovations and opportunities too.

Our qualitative work across multiple sites in Zimbabwe shows not just how the existing agro-food and livelihood system suffered, but how it also was transformed – by necessity, and through skill and ingenuity. Reading back across our accounts from March 2020 onwards it is interesting how the tenor of the commentary changed: from negative impacts to positive opportunities, even in very tough circumstances. 

Authoritarian reactions

A common argument about the downsides of lockdowns is that they provide space for authoritarian states to exert control on restive populations under the guise of public health measures. The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition has recently produced a significant report (and video) on the shocking abuses that have occurred in Zimbabwe (and across SADC) over the past year, with heavy lockdowns and restrictions on movement seemingly being used as a pretext for arrests and violence, directed particularly against the opposition.

The ‘closing of civic space’ is very apparent in Zimbabwe, and was heightened especially in the build-up to the proposed 31 July uprising. While this never happened in the ways envisaged, the clamp-down was severe, affecting everyone, but especially journalists (arrested and imprisoned) and opposition leaders (sexually assaulted and imprisoned). This pattern continues, with new arrests during the past week, and some still imprisoned.

The argument in the Crisis Coalition reports is that lockdown measures were ‘excessive and disproportionate’, with state and security services using lockdowns to boost their control against rising opposition and internal faction fighting. It is implied that lockdowns should be released with ‘civic space’ restored. In other words, it is suggested that lockdowns are manipulated, becoming simply a political tool.

Many public health officials would however disagree, and especially now. With great hardship and without resources, they have been implementing the measures in good faith, with the genuine fear that the pandemic will take hold, and that only strict public health measures will hold it at bay. Public freedoms are always curtailed in a health emergency for the greater, longer-term good, they argue. Lockdowns are therefore essential, even if private civic freedoms are curtailed.

Lockdown politics

This of course is a tension seen in many countries, with anti-lockdown protests in favour of ‘freedom’ a common occurrence. However, in Zimbabwe, the context is particular. A more sophisticated reflection on these tensions is necessary.

It is always about politics, and political assessment of trade-offs. In the UK, for example, the discussion has been about opening up to boost the economy and people’s jobs and livelihoods, while protecting health through a complex and confusing set of public health measures. In Zimbabwe, the state had similar concerns, as the already dire state of the economy was made worse by the pandemic, and fears of public unrest and opposition mobilisation were raised.  Yet, actually, those economies with stricter public health measures have actually fared better economically over the pandemic, particularly in east and southeast Asia.

Lockdowns are of course no excuse for human rights abuses and illegal activities. These have been seen in many places, as the ‘emergency’ rhetoric of a pandemic provides the pretext for authoritarian measures, as well as corrupt practices. The rush to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE) at the beginning of the pandemic saw procurement practices abused massively across the world.

In Zimbabwe, media exposes resulted in the sacking of the health minister and fingers pointed to the very top, while in the UK the extent of involvement of senior politicians and associates in the Conservative party in getting favourable government contracts is only now becoming clear. This is now subject to a number of lawsuits, although still remarkably little mainstream media commentary, despite apparently extreme forms of corruption.

Pandemics are windows onto society

A pandemic exposes the worst and best of any society, and Zimbabwe is no exception. The failure of governance, the abuse of power and the authoritarian approach to politics has been laid bare, along with the tragic lack of capacity in the health service and the neglect of key workers, notably doctors and nurses who have been underpaid for years. But, at the same time, the way public health workers have worked tirelessly across the country sharing messages about keeping a distance, washing hands and so on has been impressive; in many cases involving people who are barely paid a living wage. The commitment of medical professionals is also amazing. Despite the terrible working conditions, they have insistently argued for solid public health measures and may have helped offset something worse. And, in response, the extraordinary resilience, as well as the improvisation, ingenuity and innovation, that people have shown over these months continues to impress.

Over the coming months, we will continue to monitor the situation across our Zimbabwe sites and report back via the blog, as the unpredictable life-cycle of a pandemic reveals much about the struggles of daily life and the political, cultural, social and economic responses to adversity in rural settings, which remains the on-going focus of this blog.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

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Can Zimbabwe survive a second wave of COVID-19?

On January 2nd, Vice-President and Minister of Health, Constantino Chiwenga, announced another strict lockdown on the whole country. As in March, non-essential businesses are shut, travel is restricted and schools are closed. Everyone is urged to stay at home. In the last week, there have been a further 1342 cases, adding to the total of 14084 recorded. There have been a further 29 deaths too, including a number of high profile business people and politicians, adding to a cumulative total of 369.

Zimbabwe seems to be facing a second wave, driven by the new variant coronavirus from South Africa. I caught up with colleagues yesterday to hear about the current situation and to reflect on how has Zimbabwe fared since the first case was identified in March 2020 (see the Zimbabweland COVID-19 blog series).  

On the face of it, Zimbabwe like many other African countries outside South Africa and to some extent Nigeria, has been relatively spared the ravages of COVID-19 to date. The total (reported) cases and deaths remain low. Compared to the US, UK and much of the rest of Europe, where last week’s reported figures are a small fraction of what is happening each day in these countries, the figures seem to portray (relative) good news.

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a wave of Afro-pessimism: Africa was going to be hard hit, and with poor health services and many co-morbidities the toll would be massive. This did not happen during the first wave of the pandemic. In fact, the richest, supposedly most ‘efficient’ countries on the planet suffered worse. Why is this?

Why so few cases?

There are many theories out there, and no one really knows – uncertainties are everywhere. Some claimed it was the heat, but of course there are cold parts of Africa in some seasons and places, and hot places around the world have suffered terribly too, notably in Latin America. Some said it was because of widespread BCG tuberculosis vaccination, but the comparative data proved dodgy. Some said it was because of a young population demographic. This certainly helped, given the susceptibility of different age groups, but there are plenty of other places where a ‘young’ population was hit hard.

Certainly African countries, including Zimbabwe, responded to the pandemic quickly and effectively in line with WHO recommendations, with national lockdowns, restrictions on movements and health campaigns. This was unlike Western nations where the response was sluggish, with an arrogance that they knew best. Clearly, they didn’t and coronavirus did not turn out to be like ‘flu as all the elaborate preparedness and contingency plans assumed.

The experience of past pandemics/epidemics has also probably helped in Africa. The AIDS pandemic taught African nations and peoples a lot of important lessons: know your epidemic, take it seriously and change behaviour to save lives. The same applied to Ebola in West Africa and of course SARS in southeast Asia. Such experiences shape cultures and practices, and citizens, experts and institutions learn lessons the hard way. In the West, assuming that COVID-19 was ‘flu was fatal – literally, and resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths in the US and Europe – but Western nations had not experienced the ravages of a serious pandemic for many years outside certain communities.

In some ways it may have been that poor health conditions actually helped. Acquired or pre-existing immunity through the frequent attack of multiple pathogens may have made certain people more able to fend off COVID-19. Noone knows this for sure, and plenty of poor and marginalised people have died, but it’s a hypothesis worth exploring, as many of the (recorded) deaths have been among middle class and richer people, where co-morbidities – being overweight, having diabetes etc. – are similar to those in the ‘healthy’ West.

The spatial pattern of cases also gives some clues. Cases in Zimbabwe, for example, are heavily concentrated in the larger urban centres, where poorer people live in crowded places and moving to jobs means travelling on crowded transport. The colonial design of racially-segregated cities has resulted in increased susceptibility to this type of respiratory disease, requiring new thinking in city planning.

The other foci of infection are on the borders, highlighting the impact of migration as a spreader of disease, especially from South Africa. With the new variant extending from the coastal areas of South Africa, the transfer of the virus through migrant populations moving back and forth, especially through the festive period, has already happened. Add to this the crowded conditions and long queues at the borders such as Beitbridge seen over the holidays, it has been a recipe for rapid spread.

Understanding disease contexts in rural areas

However, there still remain very few (recorded) COVID-19 cases in any of our rural study areas, and few stories about people who have died. This is the case across the country – from Mvurwi to Chikombedzi – and the exceptions are in all instances a few imports from returning migrants, most common in Matobo. This is striking and contradicts the national narrative of growing infection.

We have been observing the local situation now for 9-10 months, and the pattern seems clear. Despite massive under-reporting due to an almost complete absence of testing, the rural areas seem to have been spared so far. As colleagues noted, “it may be that we have had the disease, but there are a range of ‘flus’ (respiratory diseases), and we know how to treat them with herbal medicines. Even the local village health workers are encouraging their use.”

We asked people in each of the study sites about why there were so few cases, and they consistently identified the activity patterns of people in rural areas. They live outside, there is ‘plenty of air’, they are not crowded together, as villages and homes are spaced out and people don’t move around so much – certainly compared to the ‘big bosses’ from Harare who seem to be suffering most. The moments when infection might happen included, according to their listing, funerals, markets, tobacco selling points, schools, indoor church services and beer parties where receptacles are shared. They also all pointed out that people are generally good at hygiene as this part of cultural practices for washing and cleaning, especially before eating.

As Paul Richards and Daniel Cohen point out on the African Arguments blog, understanding infection risk in context is essential, and this requires detailed insights into what people do where and why. In Africa it is not meat packing plants or care homes where concentrated transmissions occur, but in other settings. In order to shift behaviours and reduce infection, there is a need to know more about – for example – “the way infection hazard is shaped by key ceremonial activities in private spaces.” This means not just relying on the generic ‘science’ and projections from generalised models, or even the direct experiences of elite policymakers in large urban centres, but engaging with those who are confronting the disease, even if at this stage at very low levels. As they comment, it’s imperative to:

involve at-risk communities of all kinds in debate about how to manage the hazards associated with a second wave of the disease in Africa, based on diligent backward contact tracing undertaken while disease circulation remains relatively low. The time to do this work is now.

Only with such engagement and supported by effective testing – as was the case with Ebola in West Africa – will people shift practices, perhaps in quite subtle ways, to prevent disease spreading. The blunt tool of lockdowns and generic health messaging may be increasingly ineffective in a second wave, and more attuned responses will be needed.

Dangers at the borders

As colleagues said, “people are fed up with lockdowns, they don’t know why they are happening”. In the last period, things had got back to a (sort of) normal. Or at least people had found ways of managing the restrictions. Businesses had been re-established, markets had reopened, people were moving about (even if paying bribes to the police at roadblocks), funerals were being held with numbers way beyond the stipulated number, schools were open and mask wearing had become much more casual. The announcement of a new harsh lockdown has been met with dread. People remember the first major lockdown from late March, and cannot afford to return to that situation of extreme hardship.

But notes of caution also come from the border areas, especially in the last weeks. Over the festive period there have been a huge number of returnees from South Africa wanting to visit their relatives and rural homes. The massive queues at the border posts, with traffic jams of 20km or more have been widely reported. Traffic disruption has also occurred further away as police check for COVID test certificates among motorists and truckers.

As we have observed in previous blogs, migrants have invested in their rural homes during the pandemic, and have opened up fields, moving members of their families to these homes and away from towns in Zimbabwe or South Africa. Some villagers have been complaining that grazing areas are becoming short as so much land once fallow (and so available for grazing) has been ploughed this year, spurred on by the very good rains. There is now more movement and mixing with migrants from elsewhere, and especially around holiday times.

With the main border posts highly congested, others have resorted to illegal crossings. The Limpopo is flowing due to plentiful rains and normal crossings on foot are not passable. Boat operators have sprung up using large inflatables, with crossings costing Rand 200 per head. Huge numbers of people cross each day – around 150 per boat – along with goods and supplies, and sometimes even vehicles. Soldiers and border security forces are paid off, and a lucrative transport business has emerged, alongside other activities including supplying food to travellers. These crossings are taken by those without the full paperwork and who cannot pay for the U$50 cost of a COVID test. No doubt viruses along with people and goods are being imported too.

What next?

To date, the rural areas of Zimbabwe have yet to experience the direct impact of the disease, and only the consequences of lockdowns. This may yet change. In the coming weeks, we will continue to monitor the situation in our study areas. How will they cope with the new lockdowns? Will the second wave hit the rural areas this time? What strategies are being used to respond locally, with they remain effective even with greater transmissibility of the virus? Before the next update report, next week the blog will look more broadly at the debate about lockdowns and their politics.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

Thanks to the team from Mvurwi, Gutu, Masvingo, Matobo and Mwenezi. Image credit: NewZimbabwe.com

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Zimbabweland’s 2020 wrap-up

2020 has been quite a year in Zimbabwe and across the world. The blog has had two major series of posts, and this wrap-up features both – now with the links all working.

One series has followed the COVID-19 pandemic in Zimbabwe, and particularly the consequences of lockdown in rural areas. The blogs are based on discussions with our team based across the country – from Mwenezi to Matobo to Masvingo to Gutu to Mvurwi. The pandemic measures have radically reshaped the rural economy, with diverse impacts on different people. Heavy-handed clamp-downs have combined with (as ever) plenty of innovation and adaptation as people find ways of surviving. Luckily, despite dismal predictions, Zimbabwe has as yet not been heavily affected by the disease, a pattern seen in many parts of Africa. Why this is will be the focus of continuing discussion in the new year when this series will continue.

2020 has also seen the 20th anniversary of the fast-track land reform. Our surveys across Masvingo province have continued throughout the 20 years, documenting how livelihood changed in this turbulent period in Zimbabwe’s history, where economic collapse, political chaos and continuous sanctions preventing investment by Western development agencies have persisted. The other major blog series this year therefore presents of the results of our longitudinal studies looking at what has happened in A2 medium-scale farms, A1 self-contained, villagised and informal settlements across Masvingo. The story is fascinating yet complex, and the blogs present much data to show how there have been both important successes, but also major challenges.

Links to the two blog series are presented below. Additional themes discussed this year include commentary on the important compensation deal signed between former white commercial farmers, yet another blog on land tenure (given the on-going intransigence of the debate) and one on conservation and development in the Lowveld. A new paper on the history of commercial farming in Mvurwi was also highlighted.

As ever the blog has been widely read across the world, with many thousands of views, multiple subscribers and plenty of reposts, notably in The Zimbabwean and Chronicle newspapers. The blog will return in the new year with more evidence-based research and comment on agriculture and rural development in Zimbabwe and beyond. 

COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe: a blog series

Women and young people in Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 economy, Nov 9

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“Know your epidemic”: Reflections from Zimbabwe, Sep 27

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Innovation in the pandemic: an update from Zimbabwe, Sep 7

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Viral politics and economics in Zimbabwe, Jul 27

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COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: ‘we are good at surviving, but things are really tough’, Jun 15

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COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: a disaster for farmers, Apr 27

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Surviving COVID-19 in a fragile state: why social resilience is essential, Mar 30

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Twenty years after Zimbabwe’s land reform: a blog series

20 years after Zimbabwe’s land reform: what does the future hold? Jun 29

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (summary and reflection), Jun 22

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A2 areas), Jun 8

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 informal settlements), Jun 1

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 villagised areas), May 25

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on (A1 self-contained areas), May 18

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Zimbabwe’s land reform areas twenty years on: Introduction to the blog series,May 11

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This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

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Women and young people in Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 economy

I had another catch-up with colleagues in Zimbabwe recently, reflecting on the COVID-19 situation and its consequences across our sites in Masvingo, Gutu, Mwenezi, Matobo and Mvurwi. This is now the fifth update since March/April (see summary so far here).

The pandemic has not proceeded as some feared in Zimbabwe, and recorded case numbers (at 8471 on November 6) and deaths (at 250) are still low. There is much speculation about how and why the pandemic took a different course across Africa, and in future blogs we will explore some of these hypotheses in relation to the Zimbabwe setting.

As colleagues mentioned during the call, “We really don’t know any cases where we live, even in the hospitals and clinics. We don’t see people sick with the virus so far”. What is feared is the return of migrants from South Africa plus visitors from Europe and the UK during the holiday season. “We hope the government will be strict. There are requirements for test certificates, but you know they can always be cheated.” The importance of flows of people from outside the country is certainly central to the COVID-19 story in Zimbabwe, as we have discussed in previous blogs.

Zimbabwe is still under partial lockdown, with road blocks and movement restrictions in place, even though curfews and business opening hour regulations have been relaxed. The police are very present, and particularly engaged in checking permits especially of cross-border traffic in towns like Masvingo. With the weather being very hot last week before the rains, it was commented that “many had given up wearing masks, and relied on the heat as a ‘natural sanitiser’”. As one colleague observed, “It’s difficult to continue protecting ourselves when we don’t see the impacts of the virus”.

Diversified livelihoods

This blog focuses on the situation in the period since the last update on September 27, with a particular focus on the livelihood impacts of lockdown on women and young people. The standard approaches to raising funds to support families by women and young people have been insufficient, as COVID-19 restrictions have hit hard. Diversification beyond agriculture is key, offering new livelihood options. Below are some examples of occupations taken up during the pandemic in our sites, especially by women and young people, to support their livelihoods.

Fruit and veg. Diversification of livelihoods has been vital, since traditional occupations for women and young people have been constrained during lockdown. For example, while vending remains important for women, cross-border trade that used to be a mainstay in the border areas such as Mwenezi and Matobo is no longer feasible. Some have diversified, so for example dry season sales of wild fruits has expanded along the roads near Gutu, as women and children harvest matamba and mushuku, both selling for a US dollar for a handful of fruit.

Similarly, gardening continues as a vital source of self-provisioning with major nutritional benefits. As we have reported before, nearly everyone is a gardener now, whether in town or the rural areas, although women and youth are the dominant gardeners it seems. However, the expansion of gardening, combined with restrictions on market (again discussed in earlier blogs) has resulted in local gluts, particularly during the recent dry season – which is the traditional focus for gardening activities. The result is that women in particular have had to innovate, and develop new ways of processing and storing vegetables and fruits to sustain income over a longer period across seasons, and through variable market conditions.

Gold and amethyst. Small-scale mining is an essential activity for young people, mostly men. However, over the past few months a surprising development has been the movement of women into mining activities. Our colleague in Matobo reckons perhaps a fifth of miners are now women. While the mining claim owners of course are by-and-large well-connected older men, who manage the claim through a system of sharing with a group of contractors, women and young people join syndicates and provide labour. Most mining is of gold and in these cases half is shared with the owner, while the rest is divided amongst the group who did the mining.

Gold mining has expanded massively in all sites, including a recent huge expansion around Masvingo town. One young man, RB, relayed his story:

“I had been a driver for three years, but I lost my job because of lockdown. The transport businesses just collapsed. My wife and kids went back to the rural home as I could not support them in town. But in the last six months I have started mining outside town. I work with a group of five and we share the ore, milling it locally. If you work hard you can earn US$1400 per month, even when giving half to the claim owner. I have bought a car and I have plans to buy a stand. My family came back two weeks ago and are with me now. Life is now good!”

In Chikombedzi area in Mwenezi there has been a massive rush to mining sites where purple amethyst deposits have been found. Around a thousand people are living there, with markets developing for food, as well as services including transport, machinery hire and sex work. With amethyst quartz rocks being sold for about R1800 per kg, it has become a lucrative business.

Brick-making and building. With the flood of migrants coming back from South Africa and neighbouring countries, as well as from urban areas across Zimbabwe, during the pandemic due to the loss of jobs, the demand for building in the rural areas has sky-rocketed. These dispersed COVID-19 ‘refugees’ have returned home, but need somewhere to live. This, in turn, has generated a big demand for local ‘farm bricks’, which are cured and sold on to builders. In Wondedzo, a thousand bricks were being sold for around US$25. Brick-making has become an important source of income during this past dry season for both women and youth, who take on different roles between digging, moulding and firing in kilns, with each kiln producing 5-10,000 bricks each time.

Chickens and pigs. Poultry is another area where women and youth have invested considerably in recent months as there has been a growth in demand for local supplies of poultry. In part this is because of the closure of butcheries and the difficulty of getting to town, and in part because local sources of meat have been hit hard by the mass mortalities of cattle due to ‘January disease’ during the past wet season. The abbatoirs are also closed too; indeed one near Masvingo has been converted into a gold milling plant reflecting the switch in livelihood activities.

Mrs C. based in Masvingo explains how she moved from having under 30 chickens to over 300:

“I am a teacher, but my salary doesn’t pay. My husband who used to work on cross-border buses also lost his job due to COVID. I decided to expand my flock, buying up ‘road-runner’ indigenous chickens. I now have three breeds, two from a supplier of day-old chicks in Bulawayo and one from Mr M who supplies from a nearby growth point. I buy these for between 55 and 80 US cents per chick, along with some feed. These breeds though don’t need expensive feed and medicine, so I don’t have to go to town. I now make US$200 per month and am planning to expand further. I have already started a small piggery project to complement.  I am thinking of quitting teaching, as this really pays”.  

Bread and buns. With access to town restricted and movement difficult, baking has become another big cottage industry in rural areas and urban locations, and an important income source for women. In Chatsworth in Gutu for example a government training course encouraged women to take this up, and baking at home of bread and buns has expanded massively since. Across our sites you can buy bread, buns and cakes from people’s homes, as local people have taken on the supply.

Piece-work employment. While conventional jobs are scarce, there have been other sources of employment emerging, even in the dry season when agricultural piece-work options are generally limited. In particular, hiring of labour for digging holes for the Pfumvudza programme (a major government-led initiative with donor support on conservation agriculture – watch out for blogs on the experience of this in the coming weeks) has become important in all our sites.

Young people in particular have been able to benefit, with digging pits in one plot (39m x 16m) being charged at between US$5 at US$20 depending on the soil type and location, with payment in cash or kind (mostly soap and sugar). It is young men in particular who are benefiting from this, as older people often prefer to pay for the labour in order to get the free seeds and fertilisers.

Money matters

Saving and circulating money is a big challenges, as access to towns has reduced. There has therefore been a big growth in various forms of ‘savings clubs’ in the past months across all sites, which particularly involve women. For example in Wondedzo area near Masvingo, 20 women pooled cash and members draw funds to finance projects, paying interest on the amount of around 20%. In Masvingo town meanwhile there are lots of such clubs, some church-based, some just amongst a group of individuals. One group involves six female civil servants, mostly teachers, who save 150 Rand every two weeks, and one member takes out the full amount each fortnight to fund activities.

Money for new activities is crucial; without employment and with banks closed or difficult to get to from rural areas or townships, then new forms of managing money becomes important. New regulations that restrict the amount of phone lines for mobile ecocash money transactions and the electronic transfer tax also dissuades people from using electronic means. Instead very localised systems for saving and circulating cash – all in foreign exchange, either Rands or US dollars depending on the location – is the alternative.

And it’s women in particular who are the key players in this new savings and credit economy, as they in particular need funds for new projects to enhance their livelihoods.

Lockdown challenges

As we have discussed in earlier blogs, lockdown has not all been plain-sailing. Not everyone is able to innovate, earn money and do better than before, as with RM the young miner and Mrs C the poultry producer introduced above.

Our colleagues report in particular the many tensions that have arisen within families. With relatives coming back from South Africa and elsewhere they have to be accommodated and supported. Extra mouths to feed and people to house in a time a crisis. While the COVID-19 migrant-return situation has not been widely reported, as people have dispersed to multiple homes across many locations, the absorption of many thousands of people into a poor, local, mostly rural economy has had a big impact economically and socially.

Those returning, used to working in big cities south of the Limpopo may not be happy with a new rural existence, something they escaped before. Among (mostly male) youth, both returnees and local residents, our colleagues reported a rise in drug taking, drinking and general depression. This has led to arguments and sometimes violence. A rise in pregnancies among young women and teenage marriages have also been reported. Boredom and lack of opportunity, along with an inability to travel, even move to the local town, play into a negative, potentially destructive, social dynamic affecting many young people.

Not all migrants have been able to return, however, and some have been trapped in South Africa, unable to move. In our study areas near the borders – Matobo and Mwenezi – in the past men would move back and forth between often temporary jobs in farms and mines in South Africa, or to Mozambique or Botswana. Today this flexible movement is no longer feasible. Men are locked in South Africa in particular, while women are locked down at home. Adulterous affairs among both men and women have expanded, resulting in arguments, occasional violence and many reported divorces.  

Unlocking opportunities during lockdown

Despite the very clear lockdown challenges, the pattern seen across sites is one of innovative survival, and sometimes more. As one informant from Masvingo explained: “Lockdown has unlocked the entrepreneurial spirit! We can now earn good cash. I am not looking back!”

The transformations precipitated by COVID-19 lockdown have therefore not all been negative. As people have innovated to survive, new options have emerged, focused on new markets – whether building for returning migrants, supplying chickens or vegetables in the rural areas. With a shift to local production, short market/value chains and extending the range of activities – from mining to baking – the rural economy, and its connections to urban areas, has shifted significantly over the past seven months.

There is therefore a new COVID economy – and with this new social relations, with both opportunities and challenges. We will keep an eye on these developments over the coming months as the dry season moves (hopefully) into a rainy agricultural season, exploring whether these changes are temporary – a response to a crisis – or more long-term, shifting the terms, roles and incentives in economic activities over time, with new opportunities, especially for women and young people.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

Thanks to the team in Matobo, Mwenezi, Mvurwi, Gutu, Wondedzo and Masvingo for contributing insights to the blog.

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“Know your epidemic”: Reflections from Zimbabwe

“Know your epidemic, act on its politics” was a lesson learned in the HIV/AIDS pandemic. As Alex De Waal argued back in March, it’s just as important for COVID-19. The pandemic is playing out in very different ways in different places, yet the public health responses tend to be standardised and not adapted to context. What needs to be understood are both local responses and their politics.

Since the end of March (when the lockdown was first imposed in Zimbabwe), we have been tracking the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on diverse rural areas and linked small towns across the country (see our first blog (Surviving COVID-19 in a fragile state: why social resilience is essential) for early reflections from March 27. Since then, and based on reports from colleagues from Chikombedi in Mwenezi district; Matobo district in Matabeleland; Masvingo and Gutu districts and from Mvurwi in Mashonaland Central, we have produced so far four extended blogs based on compilations of field reports.

Through some reflections on the past four blogs (links included below), this piece asks how can we get to ‘know the epidemic’ in Zimbabwe, exploring the implications for the response and wider politics?

April 27 (COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: a disaster for farmers): Three weeks into the lockdown and the effects on rural livelihoods were already being felt. Movement restrictions and the closing of markets were causing havoc. A heavy-handed response was being led by the police who ‘were everywhere’, stopping people moving. Rumours abounded about the origins of the virus and who it was affecting, and people feared going to health centres. The fear was tangible and the unknown nature of the virus (compared to say HIV) was causing major anxiety. Many had seen on the TV or heard about from relatives the devastating consequences elsewhere, including in the UK and South Africa. The expectation was that this was going to happen in Zimbabwe, in a situation with far fewer resources and an extremely under-resourced health service. The fear galvanised a collective response, and at this stage collaboration between people, the state, churches and others was growing. There was a sense that this was something that had to be addressed together, and for Zimbabwe there was an unusual politics of unity and collaboration.

June 15 (COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: ‘we are good at surviving, but things are really tough’): By mid-June the lockdown had been in place for about 10 weeks, and people were having to find ways to cope. Things were getting very difficult and consumer products and even food was scarce. By this stage transport of imported goods from South Africa was being facilitated (mostly illegally) by truckers. Traders of all sorts had emerged to supply both rural areas and townships; as someone put it, “we are all vendors now”. Agricultural production had spread – “everyone is a gardener” – including in town. Avoiding reliance on wider value chains had become essential and production, trade and consumption links were increasingly localised across our study sites. With the drying up of remittance flows (as diaspora populations were also affected by COVID-19 job losses and economic contraction), a sense of self-reliance emerged. The large number or returnees from South Africa (who had lost jobs and had been denied social assistance) was by this stage putting a strain on local communities. They also brought the virus and it was from this stage that cases were not just imports from outside but began to be based on local community transmission, although still at a very low rate. Community tensions rose in this period, as concerns over livelihoods and infection increased, with new arrivals from South Africa often shunned and stigmatised. Political scandals around procurement of PPE and equipment reinforced the sense that people were on their own.

July 27 (Viral politics and economics in Zimbabwe): By the end of July, the informal economy – including a substantial growth of smuggling – had expanded further to provide alternatives. A new economy had emerged in order for people to survive. While really tough, people had begun to find ways around restrictions. In this period there had been an growth of movement of people – first back from South Africa and neighbouring countries as people lost their jobs and had no other forms of support, and then from urban areas within Zimbabwe back to the rural areas. The extreme challenges of living in town had hit hard and many felt that the only way to survive was to go ‘home’ to the rural areas, where at least there were family members to offer support, and the opportunity of a small plot of land to do gardening. This pattern continued through August into September, likely resulting in a massive flow of people (and viruses). Meanwhile, the wider political context shifted. With the prospects of opposition protests scheduled for the end of the month, the state and security forces were clamping down, using the COVID-19 regulations to restrict movements and gatherings. Some high-profile arrests had changed the political mood. While at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone was pulling together and the joint COVID committees involved all political parties, the churches, businesses and others, tensions were rising.

September 7 (Innovation in the pandemic: an update from Zimbabwe): The most recent update again showed a shift in responses. The restrictions had relaxed a bit and the political tensions had eased somewhat. Although lockdowns were still being imposed along with movement restrictions, the way local economies had adapted over the previous months had meant that new supply chains had emerged. The shift from formal to informal marketing was complete and mobile shops from cars had become the dominant approach to retail selling. By this stage, people had given up on expectations that the state was going to provide, and many had turned to traditional healers, herbalists and prophets offering health care and support. While cases had not expanded massively, the threat of COVID-19 remained real, but new ways of coping had to be found. The failure of state provision, combined with the series of corruption scandals allegedly linked to those at the top, fed into a disappointment with political leadership and process. People were again on their own having to cope with the virus – and in particular the harsh lockdown measures that had been imposed. Many argued that it was not the virus that was killing them but the lockdown. There were of course always ways around the restrictions as life had to go on, whether involving selling things at night, moving through new routes or paying off police or security forces at road blocks. A sense of disconnection and disillusionment reigned, with a feeling that no-one else – and particularly the state – cared. This has generated a spirit of innovation however, as people have found new ways to get products to market, provide goods and get round the restrictions.

The COVID-19 pandemic – and in particular the lockdown control measures – has resulted in changing economic responses, huge transformations of market arrangements and value chains, there have been large movements of people, and with the rapid expansion of informal economic activity there has been innovation on all fronts. At the same time, politics has shifted from a politics of collaboration to a politics of conflict and dissent to a politics of disillusionment. With the economic struggles for livelihoods deeply entwined with politics, we can expect further changes as the pandemic unfolds. We are continuing our informal monitoring – getting to ‘know the epidemic’ – across the sites, so look out for further updates in the coming weeks.

Many thanks to all the research team from across Zimbabwe for continuing interviews and collecting local information on the COVID-19 situation (and for the photos from different sites).

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

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Innovation in the pandemic: an update from Zimbabwe

I  had the latest long discussion on responses to COVID-19 in our rural study areas across the country on 5 September. Check out the earlier updates from 27 July, 15 June and 27 April The pandemic continues to take a hold in Zimbabwe, and the case numbers are rising (total 6837 reported cases and 206 deaths on September 4), although the rapidity and extent of spread is not as feared – so far at least. As one of my colleagues put it, “we are still the survivors of COVID-19”. That said, the impact of the lockdown measures is far-reaching, but since it’s now gone on for so long, people are (by necessity) adapting, and finding new ways of responding. What was striking about this conversation was the array of innovations happening.

Rural and urban connections

The relationship between town and countryside has been transformed by the lockdown measures. In the past there were frequent visits between rural and urban homes, with people being able to respond immediately to a crisis or just go and visit for a weekend. Now movement requires an exemption letter issued by the police. “You very frequently have to lie”, one of our colleagues noted, “saying you have a sick relative or that there is a funeral; otherwise permission is not granted”. The comedian VaMayaya captured it well in a recent video. The inconvenience and hassle is evident, as villagers try and bluff their way past the police officer.

The restrictions have a big impact when flows of agricultural labour are curtailed. For example, in our sugar-growing site in Hippo Valley, it’s cane cutting season and usually migrant labourers come for short periods, but this year they either haven’t come or they are failing to get back home, causing tensions and family disputes. The lack of labour is also pushing up hiring costs for producers and the resettled farmers are now competing with the estate. Fortunately more resettlement A2 farmers are on their farms these days, especially since lockdown, as the management of labour is increasingly demanding.

The importance of ‘home’

There are large numbers of people who have moved from towns in Zimbabwe back to their rural homes. Some have been away for years and have to find new places to stay. But town has become difficult to live in – there are few jobs and many have lost them since lockdown, prices are high, rents are prohibitive and the lockdown restrictions are harsh. Many are finding sourcing food difficult. Drivers, company workers, civil servants, vendors, sex workers and others who have lost the means to make a livelihood have moved in droves to the rural areas. In all our sites, the population of villages has expanded massively. Added to these local migrations, there are those who have come from abroad, as we have commented on before. ‘Home’ in the rural areas is the social safety net that the state is unable to provide.

Those coming back have to make a living of course, and there has been an expansion of agricultural projects (poultry, horticulture etc.) as well as other farming activities, as land has been subdivided by relatives. In our Mvurwi site some of the returnees have signed up for tobacco contracts for the coming season, acquiring grower numbers through relatives. Teachers no longer working in schools have set up private tuition arrangements in their homes, while mechanics and others are providing services once offered in urban areas. Vending has exploded, as former civil servants and others try and raise money through new businesses and, in some areas such as Matobo and Mvurwi, small-scale artisanal mining provides sources of income for those who once populated offices and factories in town.

Food flows

The last few seasons have been poor in Zimbabwe and there are many areas this year in food deficit. Getting food to the right place when movement is restricted is a challenge. Responding to this has been a massive growth in private transport networks that facilitate the flow of food. There are food relief efforts by government and NGOs, but this is far more significant overall. Relatives with surplus in A1 resettlement farms will often take food to their kin in town in cars, where food is expensive and scarce. Those with significant volumes will sell on maize to traders who will take it to sell to traders in town markets. In local areas where there are patchy food deficits, people must scout around to check out which areas have food so links can be made, and food moved. It’s not like the past when people were always moving; in the COVID time people must actively seek out food and organise to get hold of it.

Some food is transported in larger quantities, with large 20 tonne trucks moving from Gokwe and northern Zimbabwe, for example, where food is plentiful to markets in the south of the country. The larger operations are well capitalised and organised, with ways of dealing with the movement restrictions through connections and payment to officials. Some operators control the whole supply chain, and move food to stores in urban areas where grinding mills are installed and direct sales organised. Other, more informal arrangements must deal with permits and road blocks, often having to pay off the police. Just as with the transport of groceries on trucks from South Africa discussed in an earlier blog, even though there are challenges, food does get through.

Despite the restrictions, the movement back-and-forth between town and the rural areas continues, and is essential for assuring food security and providing much needed goods. Much exchange is in the form of barter, as groceries (cooking oil, sugar, rice) and clothes are brought by people from town are exchanged with maize and other crops. Urban markets for food and other agricultural products are complemented by a huge growth of urban farming and gardening. As noted in a previous blog, nearly everyone is a gardener now.

Within rural areas such as our food insecure sites in the lowveld and Matabeleland South, some can exchange dried mopane worms, for example, with those who have grain nearby. It as a mostly informal system, but complemented increasingly by larger operations. It is far more effective than the cumbersome and politicised food relief systems of government, UN agencies and NGOs. As ever with food supply, even in a drought year like now, it’s about timely supply and access rather than overall availability, as is too often assumed in the ‘food crisis’ narratives about Zimbabwe.

Localising value chains: cars are the new mini-markets

Our team has been visiting local shops and supermarkets from Chikombedzi to Masvingo, Mvurwi and Kezi-Maphisa, and a common pattern is emerging. Retailers are increasingly sourcing locally. They complain that volumes are insufficient, quality is variable and the range of products is limited, but with restrictions on supply, including from South Africa, supermarket buyers are making use of local production. This is good news for horticulture, poultry and other suppliers in the rural areas who are receiving a COVID-19 dividend, despite the other travails.

This applies to other shops too. As stock cannot be sourced, local suppliers are turned to. The trend of South African ‘supermarketisation’ is being reversed due to an informal import substitution policy enforced by a virus. Of course not all products can be substituted and there are shortages of key elements for manufacturing processes. This is having knock-on effects for example in feed supplies, fertiliser manufacture, herbicide provision and spare parts of different sorts. This has definitely having a negative impact on farmers, as prices hike with increasing scarcity.

Shops in town are shifting their focus too. One hardware store in Masvingo, for example, was failing to stock goods and applied for a grocery trading license and is now shifted to supplying locally sourced groceries. But commerce is now not just through shops, as their opening hours are restricted by lockdown measures. The provision of groceries, grain, vegetables and a whole host of products is increasingly being done by local, mobile traders, frequently operating out of their own cars.

Mrs V. lives in Mucheke, a high-density suburb in Masvingo, she formerly has a stand at the KuTrain market in town. But this was closed for renovation due to lockdown and she instead took up trading from her car. “I don’t dream of going back to the kuTrain market”, she says, “I start at 3pm when shops are closing down and park at strategic points in the location and sell until the evening. It’s good business. I source products from local farmers, including those who have plots near Great Zimbabwe, and get groceries from truckers who come from South Africa”. Cars are the new ‘mini-markets’ and business is booming. All this is restructuring the economy towards more localised value chains that a greater diversity of people can benefit from, including farmers.

Working from home

Many formal places of work have closed and to make a living people must now work from home. It’s impossible to travel to work due to movement restrictions and those who are self-employed have shut up shop as rents and rates are high. Moving businesses to home during lockdown made total sense, and they are thriving. There are welding operations happening in living rooms, tailoring businesses in garages, bakeries in people’s kitchens, beer brewing in yards… along with hair salons, photocopy/printing businesses, brick-making and so on. The list is endless.

Working from home takes on a different meaning in Zimbabwe, whether in the townships or in the rural areas. Of course much of this activity is illegal, flouting health and safety rules and avoiding taxes, but as one person running a home business argued, “What can I do? I have to survive! We are learning new skills for survival!”

Finance in the COVID economy

With Zimbabwe’s economy in a mess, and currency swings a daily occurrence, navigating finance in business and agriculture is a challenge. The new Reserve Bank auction system, and the control measures that have limited exchanges, agents and cahs withdrawals has, it seems, brought some more stability of late. The official and parallel exchange rate is now closer, and the queues at shops, fuel stations and so on have reduced, as the opportunity for hoarding and speculation, and gaming the system has reduced. More commodities are now available in large part due to the new supply systems that have evolved in recent months. Instead, as one of my colleagues observed, “the queues you see today are waiting for sanitiser and temperature checks at shops”.

With inflation high and the local currency weak, the economy has by default re-dollarised, but the underlying fragility remains. All this is good for producers and consumers, but not everyone. Our team interviewed a money changer in Mvurwi, once a sight on every street corner: “I used to make US$500 per month, but now I am lucky to get US$80. I used to enjoy good living, drinking every day. Now it’s tough”. As our colleague put it, “rather than see the well- known money changers in the bars braaiing meat, they now go home with a bundle of vegetables like everyone else!”

Alternative health systems

With the near-collapse of the Zimbabwean public health system, and a series of rolling strikes by nurses and doctors who are poorly paid and badly treated, people are more and more reliant on alternative sources of health provision.

Sometimes this is through the family, with particular family members having knowledge about herbal remedies. There is a huge demand for particular herbs, tree roots as well as onions, ginger and lemons, which are seen as important in remedies. Not all of this is directed to COVID-19, but people are very aware of the need to boost immunity, stay healthy and have remedies at hand in case the virus strikes. Those supplying herbs or other agricultural products used as treatments have been experiencing a roaring trade in recent months.

The same is the case for prophets and other religious figures offering spiritual healing of different sorts, through banishing evil spirits and other causes of ailment. Large gatherings led by prophets from a variety of churches have attracted the attention of the authorities and some have been dispersed by the police. These days most are more organised, with effective distancing and requirements to wear masks. COVID-19 has definitely boosted the popularity of particular prophets across our study sites, who now have big followings.

Professional herbalists have also become massively popular. These range from the informal n’anga living in the village to Chinese/Indian herbalists to those African, traditional herbalists who have surgeries and clinics that spread between Zimbabwe, South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi. One such surgery is in Masvingo. One of the herbalists explained: “We have 300-400 customers a day, and sell herbs as far afield as the UK. There is huge demand. The clinics and hospitals don’t look after their patients, but we can – whether you are young or old. We can visit people at home or they come here. For COVID you must build strength to fight it and our herbs really can help”.

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As elsewhere in the world, Zimbabwe’s pandemic experience continues to evolve, reflecting the very particular context of the country. Innovation, adaptation and learning to cope with a fast-changing, challenging setting are all important. We continue to monitor the situation across our sites from all corners of the country, so look out for another update in October.

Many thanks to all the research team from across Zimbabwe for continuing interviews and collecting local information on the COVID-19 situation (and for the photos from different sites).

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

 

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Viral politics and economics in Zimbabwe

COVID-19 has taken hold in Zimbabwe with a significant growth in community transmission observed in the past weeks. On July 24th, the total reported cases were 2296, with 32 deaths. This is likely the tip of a much bigger iceberg given under-reporting and limiting testing. President Mnangagwa has re-imposed a strict lockdown in response, including a dawn to dusk curfew, further limits on movements and restrictions on transport and business.

The relative easing of COVID-19 measures over the past weeks was clearly premature given the huge flow of infections from South Africa via returnees coming home. In the last blog on the pandemic in Zimbabwe we discussed this mass migration of those who had lost their jobs or had become ill in what is now one of the major foci of COVID-19 in the world. Zimbabwe’s close proximity to South Africa is proving highly risky.

This is the third update from our field sites across the country, each focusing on how COVID-19 is affecting rural areas (see previous blogs here from 27 April and here from 15 June). Reports from all sites were relayed to me in a long phone conversation over the weekend. As the effects of lockdown have combined with an already deteriorating economy, the situation in Zimbabwe is bad. To survive people are resorting to a range of informal and sometimes illegal activities. The common view is that it’s better to risk COVID-19 in the future than die of hunger now.

The smuggling economy

Our colleagues in Mwenezi, Chiredzi and Matabeleland South in particular highlighted the massive growth in smuggling of goods, cash and people across the border from South Africa, and the implications for the spread of the virus. With restrictions on border crossing and the banning of private transport, the demand for goods has heightened and with this there have been massive hikes in prices.

A widespread network of smugglers, sometimes with the direct involvement of security forces and customs officials on both sides of the border, has emerged. Links are made to shop owners in Musina in South Africa who transport goods to the border, and link up with traders and transporters who move them throughout Zimbabwe. Paying off officials adds to the cost, but the result is that a range of goods – groceries, clothes, agri-chemicals and more – are supplied throughout Zimbabwe.

With some shops closed and others operating with shorter business hours and less stock, suppliers sell on to mobile shops that move around rural areas and locations/townships in urban areas. Much activity happens at night to avoid the authorities who restrict vending or may impose arbitrary fines. These are elaborate value chains, with many connections, and with people at every stage demanding a cut. The consumer inevitably suffers as prices go up and up, inflated further by the collapsing value of the local currency. Government and local councils also lose out as the taxes, customs duties and rates that are normally paid are lost. This huge trade is largely illegal, and many cross at secret points in the highly porous border.

This massive informalisation of the economy extends to how the supply of cash is dealt with. In the past, remittances from relatives in South Africa and elsewhere were usually paid through standard agents – like Mukuru, Western Union and so on – based in towns and cities. While still mostly operating, they no longer can be reached by many due to restrictions on access to town centres. This has become worse with the limitation of opening hours for businesses and the recent curfew.

This means that the lifeline of remittance cash in the absence of jobs has to be sought through new routes. Here the traders who illegally transport goods across the border also assist. Zimbabweans with South African bank accounts can receive and then withdraw large amounts of cash and send it via traders, lorry drivers and others to relatives on the other side of the border. Those moving the cash take a proportion for the service – up to 30% – but ensure that relatives’ money reaches their kin in Zimbabwe to keep them alive.

Mass migrations of people and viruses

The movement of people from South Africa (as well as the UK, Botswana and other neighbouring countries) resulted in the establishment of the virus in Zimbabwe. A month back nearly all cases were imported, but now community transmission exceeds these in the reported statistics. The migration of people with the virus across a region that has long relied on labour migration is one of the major stories of the pandemic in southern Africa.

When the pandemic first struck, the South African government built a massive (and very expensive) new fence along the border with Zimbabwe, notionally aimed at stopping Zimbabweans flooding into South Africa as the economy collapsed further, and so spreading the virus. But it was movement in the other direction that has driven the pandemic, with many Zimbabweans in South Africa losing jobs and fleeing poverty to be with their families back home. Excluded from social security measures, the migrant populations in South Africa not only suffer xenophobic attacks but now viral infection.

Those who return with the virus are often smuggled across the border with goods in lorries and trucks, hiding from the authorities. Illegal crossings are used to dodge the requirements to go to quarantine centres that have become notorious places, rumoured to spread disease through unsanitary conditions. Alongside normal returnees have been criminals who have been deported back to Zimbabwe, often returning to crime in the process. Returnees who arrive back in rural villages across Zimbabwe are often hidden from authorities and neighbours, and are sometimes protected by local officials and traditional leaders if well connected. It is no surprise that the pandemic has established itself in Zimbabwe.

Volatile markets: challenges for agricultural producers

As discussed in previous blogs, agricultural producers have been hit hard by the pandemic, notably through the restriction of movement and constrained access to markets. As the economy continues to implode, demand also drops. The horticultural producers from our research sites that surround Masvingo for example have cut their production by 40% and shifted to local drying and processing of vegetables as contracts with supermarkets and other traders have ceased. This has affected all household economies, as especially in the dry season (which it is now) income from horticultural production is vital.

Farmers are much better off than their counterparts living in the town, however. As our team reports, in all parts of the country those without land and some form of agricultural production are suffering badly. Hunger is really stalking the townships in all parts of the country. Farmers who have reduced production have had to diversify livelihood activities, switching to trading in particular; as our colleagues point out, nearly every household has someone trading in the informal COVID economy.

Due to the loss of value of the Zimbabwe dollar, now trading against the US dollar on the black market at over Z$120 per US dollar, many have adopted barter trade arrangements, informalising exchange yet further. This operates across international borders as well as within the country.

In rural areas, for example, farmers exchange grain, groundnuts, nyimo and other products for groceries supplied by mobile traders. In the sugar-growing areas, workers for the estates or A2 farmers who are able to buy 20kg of sugar per month at a reduced rate as part of their employment package, trade this for a range of goods. Sugar is an especially valuable currency as it holds its value well and is in constant demand. For farmers, agricultural products are fast replacing cash as a medium for exchange in the informalised COVID economy.

It is tobacco marketing season in our site in Mvurwi at the moment, and this is a rare focus of vibrant economic activity. Mvurwi town is a hive of activity with five auction floors now competing for trade. Payments are made half in US dollars and half in local currency, and although not as profitable as in the past, the tobacco sales are providing much-needed income in the area.

However, as our colleague in Mvurwi notes, the crowded scenes in the marketing areas and in the transport hubs do not result in public health compliance. Tobacco marketing, like the increasingly large church gatherings and major funerals, are feared as foci for infection. The police intervene and occasionally arrest people (sometimes in large numbers) for contraventions, but the next day things look much the same. Maintaining public health while continuing with economic activity is a tough balance.

Pandemic politics in a failing state

Zimbabwe in many respects has followed the WHO global recommendations on COVID-19 very assiduously. Interventions were early, movements have been restricted, masks are compulsory in public places and on transport, advice is to wash hands regularly and stay at home and so on. But these regulations just cannot work when people are starving, in desperate need of income. They cannot work either when the health services on which such measures rely are woefully inadequate or when health workers are hugely underpaid. Today nurses are on strike demanding better conditions, and in hospitals it is trainee nurses who are on the frontline, many now contracting the virus.

Without a functioning state that can provide security – through safety nets and support for livelihoods – and pay health workers and guarantee their safety, public health measures are quickly abandoned. Add to this the growing distrust of the state, and the likelihood of people following government edicts declines yet further.

At the beginning of the outbreak, when it seemed that this was a problem for others elsewhere, there was a sense of joint commitment: coming together to address something threatening and unknown. With the virus spreading fast and with the lockdown measures having decimated livelihoods this collective sense of purpose has gone.

Our colleagues report that, across the country, opportunistic crime has risen, along with gender-based violence. In all our sites, there is a palpable sense of frustration and tension; a sense of being left alone, abandoned by the state.

Trust in authority has been undermined too, and this has been massively exacerbated by the way the government and ruling party have acted. The scandal over corrupt procurement of PPE and other COVID-related materials that saw the Health Minister fired, charged (and then given bail) has enraged many. The heavy-handed tactics of the security forces – both the army and police – has generated resentments, as the informal trade that is the Zimbabwean economy has to pay off security officials at every turn, with bribes just adding to costs of an already expensive life. That the state is clamping down on opposition activists and journalists who are exposing corruption and restricting protests against the state is just further justification for a growing disquiet.

Rather than the sense of national collective effort in the face of crisis, it seems that everyone is on their own in the struggle to survive the virus.

What next?

The next weeks will be crucial ones in Zimbabwe. Will the virus continue to spread resulting in the scale of death and suffering now being seen in South Africa? Or will the measures being imposed now contain it? Will the resentments that have built up over the failure of the state – alongside scandals of corruption – result in strikes and protests that some have called for? Or will most Zimbabweans just continue to suffer; just about surviving and innovating continuously in response to the fast-changing economic, political and epidemiological conditions?

Our team will continue to listen to stories from the field and monitor what is happening, so watch out for the next update in a few weeks’ time.

Many thanks to all the research team from across Zimbabwe for continuing interviews and collecting local information on the COVID-19 situation (and for the photos from different sites).

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

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COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: ‘we are good at surviving, but things are really tough’

 On the 13th June I had a follow up conversation on how people are coping with the COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe. As with the previous discussion on April 23rd it was based on a compilation of insights and reflections from across our rural field sites – from Chikombedzi, to Masvingo district, Gutu, Matobo and Mvurwi. It was a long and fascinating call, and this blog offers only some highlights.

Compared to when we first talked, there are now more recorded cases in Zimbabwe (currently 356), although no more deaths (still at four recorded). The country is in ‘indefinite’ lockdown, but in Level 2 mode, which allows some more flexibility. However, things remain tough for all those in our study areas. Below are some themes that emerged from the discussion:

Restricted movement

Movement restrictions are very strict. You have to get a permit to travel, and it can take days for these to be issued. The police are everywhere, and the army. They will stop you at roadblocks and turn you back if you don’t have the paperwork. It’s a real challenge as farmers need to get to town to sell things or buy inputs. It’s really impossible. Shops are now open longer, but if you cannot travel, what can you do? It’s even difficult to get to hospital or the clinic. Those with conditions like HIV/AIDS or TB are suffering as they are not getting the medicines on time. If there’s a complication with a pregnancy there’s nothing you can do. You have to rely on local herbalists and others. The same is for livestock – they are dying of diseases as we can’t travel to town to get the dip chemicals or treatments. Movement is essential for life. People will always find a way though. They have to in order to survive. We have had 20 or more years of practice of living under hardship, we are good at surviving, but things are really tough.

We rely on the truckers

For supplies, we now rely on the truckers. Traders are not allowed to go to South Africa anymore (although some sneak through unregulated border crossings), and the buses that used to bring things from down South are not moving. So the truckers who are allowed to move bring things. It’s illegal, but there is a well-established network these days. And those who used to buy and sell from South Africa have set up tuck-shops in the locations (high density suburbs in town) and in the rural areas, and things are supplied. You can buy agri-inputs, groceries, phone credit, and much more. But it’s expensive. They are buying in Rand, and the Zimbabwe dollar is fast losing strength. The black market rate is three times the official rate, so buying goods these days is seriously expensive.

Remittances are no longer coming

People used to rely a lot on remittances. Either in kind – usually sent by bus from South Africa – or in cash – through transfer services like Mukuru, World Remit or Western Union. But relatives outside the country – even in the UK – have lost their jobs. They no longer send remittances. This is a big problem as these funds used to pay for labour or for agricultural inputs, or for fees or groceries. It’s a big gap. For example, the tobacco harvest in Mvurwi is being delayed as there’s no money to pay for labour.

We are all vendors now

To survive, everyone must become a vendor. It seems something is being sold from every house in the location, and even in the rural areas too. People stock some small things and sell. Some deal in groceries, others sell farm or garden produce (vegetables, peanut butter etc.), others do sewing and repairs, others sell clothes. There are so many shebeens (informal drinking places), and beer brewing is a massive business particularly in the locations. There are hair and beauty salons – all informal – in people’s houses, along with electrical repair shops, tailors – you name it, you can find it. It’s all illegal and the police can always close things down, so people wait until they knock off. It’s the evenings when there is so much activity. Some sell from their cars, as they can quickly move if the police come. Others use wheelbarrows, push carts, large dishes. Markets are everywhere, despite the older ones being closed. The government has destroyed the old informal markets and is building new ones, but these are not complete, so people must improvise. Some have even started online trading, but this is only feasible in the towns, given the cost of (phone) bundles. The action is all in the locations, and farmers must link with relatives and others there. In town, some buildings are registered for trade, and people can then set up tables there, but they will pay the tax. The government doesn’t like the informal traders and is trying to formalise everything. Although they are building new hygienic structures for people to trade from, much of this is just to control people and collect taxes. Right now, we need to live.

Everyone is a gardener

Gardening is essential too. Every bit of ground near people’s houses is now a garden. It’s vital to stay alive, and with the markets closed it’s difficult to buy things. You have to grow your own. It’s good as people stay healthy, and some can also sell as part of vending from their homes. In an area you know who has what. Wider markets are coming back too, as schools, universities and other institutions begin to open. The demand is not as it was, but there is business to be done if you are a farmer or gardener.

Restrictions on agricultural markets persist

Moving produce to markets is difficult. The police will stop you, ask for permits. It’s a total hassle. So some farmers will move early in the morning, offloading produce in the locations where others sell. Others move in the evening and sell from their pick-up trucks. There’s always a way, even if it’s more difficult. For more formal marketing there are so many regulations. For example in Mvurwi, people can come together and sell at a single point to a company representative who comes to the area. A farmer representative can travel with the crop to the auction floors, but the selling is not transparent. You cannot see how it’s weighed and graded because of the coronavirus restrictions, so farmers are easily ripped off. This is disastrous as these days payments are only in part in forex, so you don’t get much for your crop. Alternatively, you can take your tobacco to the auction floors yourself if you’ve got a truck, but you may have to queue for days, and they will not let you on the floor because of the virus. So there is always cheating, and you get a bad deal. Marketing for farmers is a big challenge due to COVID-19.

It’s better in the rural areas

There is massive urban to rural migration right now. Many people in town are really suffering. They have lost jobs, there’s no food, rents are getting hiked and there is huge inflation on everything. Some say it’s 700 percent! Many have come home to the rural areas. This is particularly those who were relying on informal activities, including vendors, sex workers and other informal jobs in town. The rural areas are now full of those coming back to their rural homes. Here rent is free, and you can grow food, even if only a small garden. And relatives know them, and will help out. It’s a much better situation. Some are wondering if they will ever go back to town.

Returnees from South Africa are feared and stigmatised

There are thousands coming back from other countries – mostly from South Africa, but also other countries in the region, such as Botswana, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania and so on. And also from the UK, Australia, parts of Asia. There are so many. People are saying why did you leave if you come back when things are tough out there? They left because of Zimbabwe’s problems, but now they’re running away from hunger and disease in South Africa. The rise in reported cases has almost all been from returnees from South Africa and other countries. They have lost jobs and have no means of survival, as the ‘social protection’ measures in those places do not cover migrants, especially if you don’t have the right papers. When they cross the border into Zimbabwe, they are supposed to be put in a quarantine centre, but some may escape. These places are not good, and if you don’t have the virus you might catch it there! People are complaining seriously about these centres, as they are not well run. If you escape the police can chase you, and now they are confiscating passports and ID cards. If you don’t have the virus after eight days you can be transferred to an isolation centre, which are better. Less like prison. You can even pay for something better, as hotels are being used. Or you are sometimes allowed to self-isolate at a rural home under the supervision of a kraalhead. Those returnees from South Africa are seen as diseased and dangerous in the villages. People run away from them. There is so much stigma and fear. Those who dodged the quarantine camps, perhaps coming over an illegal crossing, are sometimes smoked out by locals, and reported. People really fear the returnees. We see this unknown virus in them.

Community relations are getting strained

COVID-19 is really straining relations. Social gatherings are restricted, and you have to get a permit. You can have up to 50 people for a church service or a funeral for example. But people cannot travel far to weddings, funerals and so on, so families are not keeping in touch at these important moments. With returnees coming back, they may be hidden from others for fear of them being exposed. This is causing problems within villages, where everyone knows everyone. But there are ways of bringing people together too. There has been a big rise in savings clubs to assist with people buying groceries. People now realise that saving is important so as to cushion you from a shock like this that just comes from nowhere. There’s also been a growth of burial societies, as the main funeral companies are no longer working. So people do help each other out in the villages particularly, making the rural a better place to stay right now. There are also quite a few projects and forms of assistance, which seems to be more common in the rural areas. This can come from government – including the First Lady’s projects – or through churches, NGOs, even companies. But the lockdown is certainly causing many frustrations for sure. You can see this especially in the locations but also in the rural areas. People want to socialise; they want to go for a drink and meet people. So you see lots of people hanging around in the urban and rural townships, especially where there are illegal bottle stores and shebeens. Drugs are a problem too, and this is causing conflicts between people, and sometimes the outbreak of fights. The police will round people up, hand out fines, but people will not obey; they are frustrated with lockdown life.

Sharing information and countering fake news

There’s so much fake news circulating about COVID-19, especially on social media, WhatsApp groups and so on. Some are now saying that after so many months it doesn’t kill Africans. Some say that there is a cure already found. Others argue that it is all a plot by foreigners. Some of us look at the international media and know that these things are not true, but gossip and rumour travel fast, and it’s amazing what people believe! The government is publishing official information. They’ve printed booklets in all 16 local languages, and they also use radio, TV and the state newspapers. There are phone and text messages from the government too. And they publish the data by province each day, so you can find out how things are changing. The rise in cases from returnees especially from South Africa is certainly worrying people, and adding to the stigmatisation of those who come back. So yes people know it’s dangerous. They see it next door in South Africa. Relatives tell them how bad it is in the UK and Europe too. Although we haven’t seen deaths, we realise that controlling it is important, so overall people still back the government, as we don’t want it here like it is in South Africa.

Political tensions

We hear that there are some in power who are benefiting from tenders due to COVID-19. We know the chefs are corrupt. There are others profiting too, but that’s not bad. For example, there are business people who are making and selling PPE and sanitisers. There are lots of small COVID businesses around. Farmers are even buying this stuff, including face masks and sanitiser so they can move around and trade safely. Some shop owners are even buying temperature testing kits costing US$100 or more. Emergencies always provide opportunities for some. However, some of the police and security forces are taking advantage. There were rumours of mass mobilisation by the opposition recently, and then the road blocks became harsher. Some were targeted, and there was reportedly some violence in some places. We heard the news of the shocking attacks on MDC people too. We don’t know how bad things are elsewhere, as where we stay in the rural areas there is less conflict. This seems to be in Harare and places like that. But we can see the tensions and we see the results in the movement restrictions and the massive presence of security people everywhere. But the police were more heavy-handed in the earlier lockdown period, and it’s eased a bit now, although if you are found in the wrong place at the wrong time, you will be in big trouble. It is lockdown with force, but people must violate the rules because they are starving. They see the rationale for the lockdown, but they just cannot always comply.

Many thanks to all the research team from across Zimbabwe for continuing interviews and collecting local information on the COVID-19 situation (and for the photos from Mucheke). In a few weeks we will have a further update on this blog. In the next two weeks the blog series looking at what happened 20 years after land reform will conclude, wrapping up the five previous blog with two summary/synthesis pieces.

This post was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland.

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COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: a disaster for farmers

Over the last few weeks we have been tracking what’s been happening in our rural study sites in Zimbabwe as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown (see the earlier blog too). Last week, I caught up with a colleague in Masvingo who had been recently in touch with others in our team in Chatsworth, Chikombedzi, Hippo Valley, Matobo, Mvurwi and Wondedzo. This blog is a report on current conditions, summarising a long phone conversation.

The lockdown was first announced by the President Mnangagwa on 30 March, and was subsequently extended on 19 April for a further 14 days. As of April 26 there were 31 reported cases and 4 deaths, spread unevenly across the country. But of course the fear is that the disease will spread and strike hard. The lockdown measures have been heavily enforced and have caused massive hardship, particularly in the poorer urban areas, where informal traders in particular have been targeted. Farmers have suffered too due to movement restrictions and the collapse of markets.

As my conversation last week revealed, Zimbabwe’s experience, like elsewhere in Africa, raises questions as to the costs of a heavy-handed lockdown, particularly on the poor and marginalised, and whether there are alternative approaches both to confront the virus now and for different approaches to society and economy in the future.

How have movement restrictions affected people’s lives in the rural areas?

Massively. Although you can go to the local shops (between 9am and 3pm) and move about your area, you cannot move further without a permit, and have to prove that travel is essential. Security people can stop you at any moment. You can get a permit from Agritex (extension service) locally for agriculture-related movement, or from the councillor or police. But if you have to move further you have to go to the provincial level. It can take days. You can try your luck and negotiate at the road-blocks, but you will likely be turned back. There are so many police out – they’re everywhere! There is no public transport these days. If you travel in your private vehicle, you can only have two people. All the private Kombis and buses are grounded. ZUPCO (a government-owned company) operate buses, which are disinfected after each trip, but there are very few. This has had a disastrous effect on business, and farmers cannot get crops to market. Right now people need workers to help with the harvest, and although this is allowed as agriculture is essential, you can easily be stopped, and it makes getting help on the farm more difficult than before.

So what about agricultural produce markets?

It’s a disaster. All the main ones have been shut down. There was an outcry and they opened them again for a bit, but people crowded there. It was chaos, so they shut them again. This means for horticultural farmers in our study areas things are tough. Vegetables, especially cabbages and tomatoes, are rotting at their farms. In the south, huge number of melons have gone to waste. For some, vegetable-drying is possible, and people are creating ‘mufushwa’ in large quantities. But overall it’s a disaster. Some are selling individually, travelling to the ‘locations’ (high density suburbs) and selling from their pick-ups. Some can sell to the supermarkets if they have contracts, but demand has gone down. You can’t move from the location to town in Masvingo without permission, and so people just buy locally, informally. Other markets have also dried up. The boarding schools are closed, so are the universities, along with all hotels, restaurants and so on. These all used to be so important for horticulture markets, as well as for poultry. Income from these sources has ceased. Same too with the massive church gatherings, attended by thousands. In some of our sites, people had been growing for the Easter gatherings, but now they have had to dispose of the produce. It’s a disaster for farmers.

What about businesses more generally?

Most of these are closed. It means that as a farmer you can’t get your pump repaired, or a car fixed. You can’t go and buy key bits of equipment. Even if the shop opens for a short time, which some are allowed to, getting a permit to travel from you rural farm and ensuring you are there at the right time is impossible. A big problem is cash. This has been a problem for a time. The electronic RTGS Zim dollar is worth less than the Zimbabwe bond notes, but people are not keen to use cash notes as it might transfer the virus. Even if you have money in the bank, you cannot get it. They’ve opened banks only for forex, and for short periods, to allow remittances from the diaspora to be paid. This is vital for many of us, including farmers.

How are people surviving?

The rural people are on their own. There is a big chain reaction – without markets, producers, transporters, and all others suffer. And then there is no cash to buy food or other inputs. For example, there is a big theileriosis disease outbreak among cattle currently, but people have not been able to buy spray dip chemicals and cattle are dying in numbers. They cannot be driven to other places to avoid the ticks, so they just die. Of course people in the rural areas are in some way better off. It’s the beginning of the main harvest season and, although the season was bad, people at least have something. It’s much tougher in town. There’s subsidised mealie-meal, but a packet of 10kg that should be Z$70 it’s being sold for Z$90. Traders are exploiting the situation. Some are illegally doing business. In one study site the grinding mills open at night to allow people to get food. The money changers operate under cover and there is a growth of private business, from people’s homes, including brewing beer, baking and selling food. In the south, some are even risking crossing the border to get supplies for resale in South Africa. The danger is that they can smuggle the virus too.

What are some of the social issues emerging?

Certainly there are reports of increased domestic violence. People cannot go out, and tensions rise. Some are consuming illegal brews – including spirits made at home. This can be dangerous, just like we are seeing increased drug use among the youth. Normal life is disrupted. You cannot even bury the dead – you again need a permit, and a health worker has to be present to supervise the burial, and a maximum of 50 can attend, but following social distancing rules. Travelling to funerals is impossible if outside your area. Family relations – and life in general – are being challenged by this virus.

What about health services?

Yes the clinics and hospitals are open. The problem is that you have to get a permit to move. And then the nurses at a clinic may not see you. They don’t always have the full personal protective equipment (PPE) and are really scared. Even though there are no cases in Masvingo as yet, people may be dying of malaria or childbirth complications or whatever, because of the lockdown. It’s killing people. The government is investing seriously in the health service, even employing more health workers. They are creating emergency beds, even in the rural areas, but it may not be enough. We have seen what has happened in Europe and the US on the news.

What are people’s attitudes to COVID-19?

People ask, what disease is this? Where has it come from? It is such a shock! There are so many rumours. People say it’s God’s revenge; they blame the superpowers; they say it has been manufactured to kill us. But mostly people are just scared. They have seen the news. We know pandemics, we had HIV/AIDS, but this is worse. It’s the number 1 disease. With AIDS people died over a long time, but this is sudden. With HIV you knew how it was transmitted, and people changed their behaviour. It could be avoided. This is just meeting someone – it’s so contagious. Even though he’s allowed, one of our colleagues who works with Agritex was moving around and was told in one village to go home – to ‘keep to your place’!

Who are the main people involved in the response?

There are so many. The government actually has organised quite well, it is doing something. Before they’d forgotten the health system – there was a freeze on health posts, people were paid badly and the hospitals and clinics were in a terrible state. Now they see the importance. This crisis has at last awakened the administration. For years we haven’t had an effective health service, but now something at least is happening. In each area there are COVID-19 task-forces – and mines, business people, well-off individuals and others are contributing resources. The universities and some businesses are making things – sanitiser, masks, PPE materials and so on. It’s a joint effort with government. The chiefs are involved too, and so are the spirit mediums who are seeking spiritual help to get through the crisis. The churches are doing the same; although they are not meeting, the church leaders, prophets and others are mobilising. Everyone is praying! There are WhatsApp groups giving advice on what to do, including some ideas for remedies. There seems to be a unified approach, and all the political parties are involved.

What next?

So far we haven’t suffered from the disease, only the lockdown. We have a few cases only. We accept that this lockdown period is for building the capacity of the health system to cope. Let’s hope that’s possible. It’s a Catch 22. We see what has happened in the UK, US and even South Africa. We don’t want this to happen here. But with lockdown most people are surviving hand-to-mouth. Life has become very, very difficult. There is mass suffering, and so far in Masvingo we haven’t had a single case recorded. Is it worth it? I don’t know, but everyone is very scared. Maybe there can be a process where kids can go to school, markets can open and we can move around because we cannot go on like this for long. There must be ways to make the places where lots of people gather safe – schools, transport hubs, markets, shops, religious gatherings and so on. Surely we can think of ways. Good hygiene, distancing and so on. Once the health service is adequate and built up things will be better; maybe there will be some anti-viral medicines too, like we have for HIV. Hopefully we can then live with the virus, and still survive.

What lessons can we draw from the experience so far?

We know that health services are important, and the government needs to invest. We know that farmers are essential and contribute to combatting a crisis, especially getting food to urban areas. We also know that lockdowns are really impossible – and they can kill. They may be worse than the virus! We also know that we can do things ourselves. Good diets bring immunity. There are traditional remedies that may help. And hygiene in the home and at work is always important. In the past we used to be self-reliant, making and selling things locally. There were often big crises, such as droughts, but our parents had granaries to tide them over. In future, we have to be prepared, we have to use our own resources. In the past we used to make things ourselves, not go to the shop to buy. Why are we importing so many things like face-masks? We can make them. We produce huge amounts of ethanol from sugar, so we can make sanitisers. We have forgotten self-reliance. We have been taught a very big lesson by this virus. We should not rely on the outside, and individuals and households have to take the responsibility ourselves.

This blog is a summary of a recorded conversation on 23 April 2020. Thanks to the whole team form across Zimbabwe for their contributions. Future posts will offer more updates and detailed cases from our field sites in Masvingo, Matabeleland South and Mashonaland Central provinces of Zimbabwe.

 

 

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Living with coronavirus: lessons from pastoralists?

Moments of surprise can expose deep uncertainties and even ignorance. They also uncover issues of contested politics, unequal social relations and the capacities of states and citizens. The unfolding coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is one such moment.

We don’t know what will happen where and when; our normal ways of doing things are massively disrupted, so we must adapt rapidly and radically. This is now life with the coronavirus. For those of us used to predictability and stability, with systems that function continuously and reliably, this sort of uncertainty – now being experienced the world over – is unsettling, provoking anxiety, stress, dislocation and sometimes panic.

But for many people, living in highly variable environments, where shocks of drought, flood, snowfall locust swarms or human and animal disease are regular occurrences, uncertainties are always part of everyday life. Indeed, uncertainties are not only lived with, but lived off, as variability, mobility, flexibility are a central part of livelihood systems.

A question we have been asking in our European Research Council-funded PASTRES programme (Pastoralism, Uncertainty, Resilience: Lessons from the Margins) is: Can we learn about how to address uncertainties within wider society – including around disease pandemics – from pastoralists who live with and from uncertainty? What are the logics, practices, strategies and social and political arrangements that allow for adaptive, flexible responses in the face of uncertainty, generating reliability in turbulent times?

Of course, the spread of a global pandemic virus of massively lethal potential is very different to the regular problems faced by pastoralists, whether in mountainous Tibet, lowland Ethiopia or the hills of Sardinia, but there are some themes that emerge from our research that offer pointers. Here we outline four of them.

  1. Multiple knowledges

In navigating uncertainties, pastoralists must engage with multiple sources of knowledge, triangulating between them.

This may involve engaging with expert, scientific knowledge, derived from, say, weather reports; or expert advice on pasture condition or animal disease. It may involve referring to local, embedded traditional knowledges, consulting local experts such as traditional healers, prophets and soothsayers — involving, for example, predictions around the seasons from signs in nature or messages from the spirit world. And it may involve informally-shared updates and locally-rooted practical knowledge from friends, neighbours, relatives and others – these days often via mobile phone through Facebook or WhatsApp groups. These may include information on the state of grazing, the availability of water in a well or the source and quality of forage, for example.

All these sources – formal, informal, real-time, predictive – are combined, reflected upon and, in turn, feed into action. No one source is relied upon alone. This sometimes frustrates development experts who spend huge amounts of money providing sophisticated forecasting systems or satellite monitoring, with user-friendly online mobile interfaces, such as those used in climate/weather forecasting, drought early warning or market information systems. Why is it that these are not used as expected?

It is the same with disease response systems: again, huge efforts are made to predict and prepare, and communicate expert advice. But this must be incorporated into local-embedded knowledges in order to become part of regular practice. Yes, we know that hand-washing and ‘social-distancing’ are important, but such changes only happen when other sources of knowledge and advice combine. Just relying on formal models and accredited expertise (‘the science’) is not enough, in the context of deep uncertainties. Reducing everything to directive risk management is insufficient, and is in fact misleading, as uncertainty, ambiguity and ignorance must be embraced.

Pastoralists know this when they hear a climate forecast and an early warning message from the government. Local experience and assessment is an essential complement to the official message. Only when such a message is fully trusted will it be accepted. Today, publics everywhere are grappling with how to respond to public health messages about the risks of COVID-19, along with orders to isolate and quarantine. In these situations, people’s personal, experienced, embodied uncertainties have to be addressed too. Accepting the existence of plural knowledges, even some that may be regarded as ‘unscientific’, is essential when navigating uncertainty and ignorance.

2. How time is experienced

Very often external interventions – whether around disease or drought – are constructed around the notion of an ‘event’ and a timeline around which a staged series of risk management measures are deployed.

Forecasts that assess the probabilities of something happening assume that, based on past experience or modelled futures, we can predict and manage people and things. So, whether it is the varying level of ‘early warning’ alert around a drought or the stages of a response in an unfolding epidemic, the planning system imagines time in a linear, ordered, managed way. The result is the sequential deployment of interventions, managed by ‘emergency’ teams and ‘rapid response’ facilities.

But this isn’t the way most people experience time. The ordered, hierarchical administrative time of crisis and emergency management has to articulate with the more complex flows of lived-with time in everyday life. Whether this is people responding to a pandemic disease in their family or neighbourhood, or a group of pastoralists managing highly variable grazing over far-flung territories with mobile herds, the experience of time may be quite different to those of preparedness planners and early warning system administrators.

How the present, the future and the past are experienced may vary dramatically. Memories of past droughts or disease outbreaks loom large, while expectations of the future are affected by current conditions, as well as deeper cosmologies. Futures are not just simply a linear extension of the present, as in the liberal modernist view, but are deeply intertwined with memories, experiences and histories. These will differ across class, gender, age and race, affecting how different people anticipate and respond. Everyday, unfolding time is therefore a flow, not an event.

For people responding to a disease, or managing mobility and seeking out pasture, time may therefore not be so obviously punctuated with distinct events, and responses may not appear in neat sequences. Instead, a host of other considerations apply – people’s lives, livelihoods, spiritual need, or mental states. All of these can affect what is done when, and by whom.

3. Reliable systems

Uncertainties provide major challenges to standardised systems that assume stability. Following Emery Roe, we can understand pastoral systems as ‘critical infrastructures’, with the objective of reliably delivering desired outputs (milk, meat, hides, services and overall wellbeing) in the context of multiple uncertainties. Just as an energy supply system aims to keep the lights on, and a health system aims to provide effective healthcare, pastoralists also must generate reliability through a range of practices. And they seem to be quite good at it.

What are the features of this? Reliability emerges from an understanding of the wider system and its vulnerabilities, as well as insights into local contexts. Horizon scanning must combine with the day-to-day practices that allow rapid, adaptive responses. Herders and market traders must do this all the time, regularly checking on grass, water, prices and so on, while having a good sense of the overall system. They will not rely on an ‘expert decision system’ from outside, but they must build reliability through their own networks, among individuals, kin, age-groups and communities. Communication and deliberation is central, facilitated these days by mobile communications. When a disaster strikes, knowledge, resources and labour can be mobilised rapidly, and animals can be moved, fodder purchased or water supplied.

Most standard, engineered systems designed for stable conditions are poor at generating reliability under such variable conditions. A health system relies on a regular flow of patients with a standard set of ailments requiring a prescribed array of treatments. This is fine under ‘normal’ conditions, but when a disease outbreak occurs, such systems quickly become overwhelmed, and there is a need to think differently.

Part of this is basic capacity, particularly in systems that are under-funded, but it also relates to the capacities of the professionals involved. Very often it is the frontline workers – doctors, nurses, pharmacists – who are left to innovate, to create reliability on the move. Managing an intensive care unit in a hospital may be more similar than we think to the embedded skills, aptitudes and practices of pastoralists, who must make agile, sometimes difficult, choices when facing variability.

4. Collective solidarities

If states cannot provide, businesses struggle and experts are overwhelmed, then what can we turn to?

Because externally-defined, top-down risk management based on predictive science is always insufficient under radical uncertainty and ignorance, we must also rely on ourselves – on community action and forms of solidarity and mutuality. Such initiatives are emerging during the coronavirus pandemic, including the explosion of locally-organised ‘mutual aid’ groups helping those in self-isolation and quarantine. Across Europe, a new, re-discovered moral economy is confronting the crisis.

How such arrangements work will, of course, depend on the setting and the challenge, but in pastoral areas, collective approaches to herd and flock management have always been vital in responding to variability. For example, a common tactic is to split a herd between young and vulnerable calves and milk cows who remain at home with additional fodder, and those that must migrate to distant pastures for the dry season. Mobility, flexibility and modular approaches to managing livestock and territory are the watchwords. These responses only work if they can mobilise labour, and this requires reciprocal relationships across kin and age groups and across communities.

In the past, east African pastoralism was characterised by extensive redistributive practices, as livestock were shared, loaned and redistributed across multiple ownership arrangements, facilitated by segmentary lineage structures and age-groups with specific responsibilities. This allowed for horizontal redistribution, friendship alliances across territories and marriage contracts that allocated stock. While such arrangements have declined, due to the individualisation and commoditisation of pastoral production, the cultural values and embedded practices still remain, and are often remobilised in times of severe crisis.

The revival of community and neighbourhood solidarities around COVID-19 are an example of how such social relationships are crucial in responding to uncertainty. Even in the commercialised, individualised West, they can still re-emerge around a re-defined sense of collective responsibility. In tackling a pandemic, working across nations, individual and collective actions must combine, public and private interests must converge, and centralised and local decision-making must interact.

***

COVID-19 is changing everything: how we live, how we relate, how we engage with expertise and how states and citizens interact. Deep uncertainties and extensive ignorance, as well as contested ambiguities, necessarily reshape society and politics.

In Western countries, we are learning to adapt fast. In the future – for this will not be the first or last time such a shock emerges – perhaps we can learn from others, including pastoralists, who have long embraced uncertainty as part of life.

This post first appeared on the PASTRES blog (www.pastres.org). It was written by Ian Scoones and Michele Nori, drawing on research on pastoralism and uncertainty

in Amdo Tibet, China; Borana, Ethiopia; Isiolo, Kenya; Gujarat, India; Sardinia, Italy and southern Tunisia.

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