Tag Archives: COVID-19

Changing food systems in Zimbabwe: shifts from rural to urban production

Last week’s blog discussed the massive growth of urban agriculture in Zimbabwe. How is this affecting the wider food system? What are the impacts on traditional sources of production in the rural areas? And what was the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in precipitating these changes?

With transport costs rising and inflation hitting hard again, the incentive to grow locally and self-provision grows. For farmers in rural areas, this has always been possible, which is why they have weathered the compounding storms of economic collapse and the pandemic relatively well. As we have reported a number of times on this blog, the supply of food to towns from the resettlement areas where surpluses are produced fundamentally shifted the food supply system across the country since land reform.

The importance of resettlement areas in food flows

Over the last 20 years, those living in town have become increasingly reliant on food from those producing in the land reform areas. I was talking to a colleague in Zvishavane recently and, as in previous years, the resettlement areas to the north of the town along the Gweru road are supplying maize and other produce to town dwellers, both through informal exchanges between relatives and the market. Where rural food supplies are close and transport is possible – in this case along a major road where buses and other vehicles move frequently – the flow of food to urban areas remains key.

This avoids the costs of the centralised food system of the past where maize and other staples were sold to the Grain Marketing Board and then on to millers and those in town bought processed flour for consumption. This route is now expensive and inefficient. Today there are many more flows of food within the system, most of which are unrecognised and unrecorded – which, as discussed here before, is why the national food security data are so problematic.

However, the high and secure production from the De Beers resettlement farms near Zvishavane does not mean that town residents are not investing in agriculture. The same colleague told me that many are moving mobile grinding mills from the rural areas to town, where crops are being grown in ever larger amounts. This is not just small-scale vegetable gardening to provide ‘relish’, but significant amounts of grain for basic food provisioning. This is an important change, and one that has accelerated during the pandemic.

Pandemic transformations

Through the pandemic, as we have documented many times in our two-year blog series on COVID-19 experiences in rural areas, lockdowns prevented the transportation of agricultural goods to urban areas. Roadblocks, complex permit arrangements and incessant requirements for bribes made normal agricultural market expensive and full of hassle.

Over time, as we have documented, some found ways round these restrictions by moving and selling at night or making deals with the authorities, but it was not easy. This meant that the cost of rural produce increased relative to that produced in town. In the past, because of the limitations of land, the costs of water and labour and so on, this was not the case. Through the pandemic, the comparative advantages of crop production – including of cereals, oil seeds, livestock, as well as the usual vegetables – increased in urban areas. For example, today urban producers can supply a bundle of rape to the market for a dollar, while a bucket of maize from town is US$5-6, while in the rural areas it’s US$7-8. The same goes for broiler chickens, with a rural one costing US$5 compared to one in the rural areas being US$7. This reverses the price differentials of a just few years ago, and this is having major consequences.

We asked about changes through the pandemic in all our field sites, and a rough-and-ready estimate was derived from a number of informants. This is not hard science but reflects the reality that we have all seen. The results are shown below, which show the approximate percentage of residents in different towns in our study areas who are farming in open spaces (meaning beyond just backyard vegetable gardening) in two periods.

SitePrior to COVID (2016-2019) (%)During COVID (2020 to date) (%)
Mvurwi2540
Masvingo3570
Triangle/Hippo Valley4555
Maphisa2050
Chatsworth3055
Chikombedzi2545

Since the onset of COVID-19, many lost their jobs and while some returned to rural areas, others had to make ends meet in town. The lack of transport possibilities during COVID meant that town residents also had assure supply, once offered by exchanges with rural relatives and others. Shops became expensive as the economy declined further and inflation crept up. This was made worse by the unstable local currency (RTGS, Zimbabwe dollars) and many preferred to barter and exchange or produce their own food.

With schools closed and sports, church and other activities cancelled there was a greater supply of labour for agriculture in town. Even urban-based young people shifted attitudes towards farming, seeing it as an option to make a bit of money and help out their families. The array of crops has expanded too. Farming involves producing staple crops, vegetables, but also responding to the demand for COVID-19 treatments (garlic, ginger, chilli, lemons) as well as ornamental trees for the development of new suburbs being invested in.

The result has been a sharp increase in demand for land in urban areas, particularly those where the rural hinterland is further away, as reflected in the higher percentage engaging in farming in the city of Masvingo compared to other small towns, where residents have closer connections to nearby rural areas, with many having access to their own plot.  

Consequences for rural production: permanent or temporary?

This shift towards urban farming was an important adaptive response to the combined challenges of economic meltdown and the pandemic. It is having profound effects on the wider food system and putting pressure on rural producers who now must compete with lower cost urban farming where market access is assured, with urban farmers able to capture markets in timely fashion given their proximity. Rural farmers, particularly those who managed to capture lucrative contracts with supermarkets in town, are complaining bitterly.

With the breaks in supply during the pandemic, contracts were lost and tomatoes, vegetables and other crops sold regularly to urban wholesalers and retailers rotted. Rural producers are having to think of their own solutions, including the drying and processing of vegetables for later sale, when urban production is lower. However, others are leaving land fallow and reducing agricultural output as it’s impossible to sell surpluses, returning to a more subsistence pattern of self-provisioning.

Will this be a permanent change, or is this only a temporary shift responding to particular circumstances? It’s difficult to tell. The prospects for economic renewal in Zimbabwe look bleak, even if the pandemic restrictions have gone for now. The connections between rural and urban in changing patterns of food production – and associated issues of water and land use – will be themes to watch in the coming years. And this nexus definitely must become a key focus of future efforts to assess food insecurity and address vulnerability across the country.

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

Thanks to Iyleen Judy Bwerinofa, Jacob Mahenehene, Makiwa Manaka, Bulisiwe Mulotshwa, Moses Mutoko and Vincent Sarayi for their contributions and to Felix Murimbarimba for both researching and coordinating.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Health workers on the front-line: experiences from rural Zimbabwe

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 (the first case recorded in Zimbabwe was on 20 March 2020), health professionals in clinics and hospitals have been on the front-line of Zimbabwe’s response. In the last few weeks, while reengaging with our field sites, we have visited a number of health facilities in our rural study areas across Zimbabwe and talked to health workers about their experiences. As our informants explained, the three waves of the pandemic in Zimbabwe have been quite different.

The fear of COVID: the first wave

At the beginning of the first wave from late March 2020, there was a deep fear of the unknown. Health workers were confronting a novel virus without protective equipment and no known treatment or preventive vaccination. People watched TV and saw the scenes from China and then Europe, looking in horror at what might be coming their way. Much commentary saw the parlous state of health systems in Africa and feared the worst. Certainly, our informants reflected on how they were all initially terrified, sometimes avoiding seeing or treating people for fear of contracting the virus, while later they learned how to respond to the disease, but with significant wider challenges.

Across Zimbabwe, the first wave saw limited cases and few deaths, and these were nearly all imported cases with deaths recorded in hospitals in Harare. One nurse, now based in the Lowveld, experienced this first-hand as he was a student the main hospital in Harare at the time. With qualified doctors and nurses on strike, students were asked to attend the COVID wards. Lack of PPE and no knowledge of how to treat patients meant that they had to improvise. The lack of ventilators in the country meant that any escalation of the pandemic would have been disastrous. Luckily, this did not happen. Whether the strict containment measures enforced through a harsh lockdown helped or it was other factors at play, no one knows, but the first wave came and went with only limited impact. In our sites, clinics and hospitals instituted strict screening requirements for entry and with testing facilities emerging, there were requirements for widespread testing, especially of staff. This was initially resisted as everyone feared the virus. Being COVID positive was seen as a potential death sentence, and would result in enforced quarantining.

Tensions between public health measures and public views: dilemmas in the second wave

Vaccines became available from February 2021, but vaccination drives in our rural sites initially saw very limited uptake. Hesitancy emerged for a number of reasons. Low incidence meant that there didn’t seem a need. The misinformation from WhatsApp groups and social media was extreme, with all sorts dangers suggested from vaccination in general and from Chinese vaccines (the only ones initially available in Zimbabwe) in particular. Fears were also held by health workers, who were one of the first groups where vaccination was mandated. Many we interviewed admitted they delayed getting vaccinated until it was clear that the vaccines were safe. This made their role in promoting the vaccination drive somewhat ambivalent; although this changed as vaccines became more widely accepted. By the time of the second wave from mid-2021, when deaths and more serious illness were experienced, the demand for vaccination increased dramatically, as did the effectiveness of delivery and supply in the rural areas.

By this time, health workers across our sites felt more prepared. There was better protective equipment available as well as testing facilities, and they were more accepting of vaccination as a strategy. Health workers had also become more relaxed about regular testing, and saw this now as an important preventive measure, protecting them and their patients. In this wave dominated by the Delta variant, there was however some sickness and death across our sites; although it remained limited COVID was definitely much more present in the rural areas than during the first wave. Reflections from health workers on this period were more about how systems were developed to test, trace and contain the disease. Given the small number of cases, this seemed to be remarkably effective. Who knows if there were other unrecorded cases elsewhere, but it seems that the timing of the wave in the dry season helped limit spread. By this stage, the lockdowns were increasingly being challenged by locals, as they were affecting livelihoods and businesses seriously. Health workers commented on their importance for public health, but recognised the challenge of implementing them when there was actually so little recorded COVID around.

These tensions between public health recommendations – strictly following government (and in turn WHO) regulations – and the negative impacts on everyday life became increasingly evident, as all our informants acknowledged. Lockdowns also had negative effects on wider health care. Transport restrictions (combined with fear of testing and then getting isolated) meant that many didn’t come to clinics or hospitals at all, or only late. This meant that there was an increase in complications around pregnancy and births for example. Those preferring to treat COVID at home with the growing array of indigenous herbal medicines available may equally have risked late treatment of malaria, which COVID was confused with. This likely had fatal consequences. Some informants even suggested that, particularly by the time of the third wave, which came in the malarial wet season, malaria deaths probably far exceeded mortalities from COVID, and may well have been exacerbated by COVID measures as people were late to test and get treatment.

And then there were all the other knock-on consequences of the lockdowns and the disruption of the economy. Mental health was mentioned, including the problem of boredom of young people now unable to go to school. This resulted in increased substance abuse, as well as unwanted pregnancies amongst of very young girls. These wider health consequences of the pandemic (or at least the response to it) were mentioned frequently by health workers and villagers as major impacts (far more than the virus itself).

The emergence of a plural health system: the third wave

The third wave in December 2021-January 2022 was different again. As everyone recalled, Omicron presented as a bad ‘flu, but there were few hospitalisations (all from other conditions) and no directly attributable deaths. During this phase, the local treatments (steaming, herbal teas and other concoctions) had become part of daily life, for both treatment and prevention. These were seen as highly efficacious. Health workers admitted using them at home and with their families. Here the blurring between home life and treatment of health among the family and the official public health role became most apparent. As one nurse observed, I take off my uniform when I get home leave it until I go to work the next morning.

At home, health workers just like everyone else were engaging with a wider, plural health system, involving herbalists, healers, prophets, pastors, spirit mediums and traditional doctors, alongside their own medical training. In the context of the uncertainty of a new disease – and one that seemed to be so different in each wave – this made absolute sense, and none of our informants found this contradictory or problematic. To protect themselves and their families they would follow whatever worked, usually hedging bets given prevailing uncertainty. In the clinics and hospitals, the protocols had not changed much from the first wave. At the clinics, paracetamol was administered along with antibiotic injections for severe cases to reduce co-infections, but for Omicron a different regime was required, and local remedies served the purpose well.

All the health workers we talked to had worked incredibly hard during the pandemic. Unlike in other parts of the world they did not have to deal with the horrors of massive sickness burdens and death, but they had to follow a set of complex measures of testing, masking, distancing and so on that made their jobs more difficult. And, with limited facilities and initially barely any protective equipment, the fear and stress that the initial concerns about how the pandemic would play out took its toll. They had to deal with the dilemmas of advocating testing and vaccines that initially they had their own concerns about. And they had to convince a public to follow a whole panoply of public health regulations associated with the pandemic, while still coming to clinics or hospitals with regular diseases. Masking became widespread but restricting gatherings, particularly of churches and political gatherings was more difficult. And as time went on, especially in the hot season, masks became an additional garment hung around the chin, and quickly put up over the nose and mouth if a police officer was near or a roadblock was approached. Lockdowns as containment measures for a disease that was only sporadically present and at very low levels presented a dilemma for many we discussed with. While accepted at the beginning in the face of deep uncertainty, later many were more circumspect of their value. Lockdowns, for example, meant that patients presented late if at all, increasing the acuteness of conditions and resulting in different health burdens and more challenges for health care.

Everyone we talked to agreed that, with the pandemic changing in form and severity, opportunities to ‘live with virus’ were increasing and the costs of some of the remaining public health measures probably exceeded their current value. Many lessons have been learned about how to respond to a pandemic in a rural setting, and importantly how public health has to be balanced with livelihood and economic needs, while being supported by local approaches to health care and treatment as part of a plural system. These will be important as health systems prepare for the inevitable next pandemic.

 This is the 20th blog in a series on the COVID-19 pandemic. Search COVID-19 for other posts. A full compilation and overview will be avialble soon. Thanks to the team from Chikombedzi, Wondedzo and Chatsworth and the doctors, nurses and environmental health technicians in the clinics/hospitals for sparing time to speak with us.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Omicron for Christmas: what was the experience in rural Zimbabwe?

Guwini open air market, Chikombezi

The Omicron wave peaked in Zimbabwe just before Christmas. With people moving about for the festive season and large numbers coming back from South Africa and elsewhere for the holidays, the fear was that the spread would be dramatic, with devastating consequences. Border restrictions were maintained, curfews imposed and the lockdown was extended.

As we reported in our last blog on 20 December, many had already reported that the infection was proving relatively mild, a finding subsequently supported by hospital evidence from South Africa, the UK and Denmark. And, just as the spread of Omicron was dramatic and fast, its decline has similarly been sudden, although cases still persist. Across our sites in the last few weeks, multiple cases have been reported, but way down on the situation a few weeks back. No deaths have been recorded in our sites in the past weeks. A few of our agricultural extension colleagues went down with Omicron around Christmas, but they all isolated and quickly recovered.

A festive mood

Although Omicron presented more uncertainties to contend with for the holidays, people across our study areas reported that they were not going to be put off. People were in a festive mood, relatives had returned after a long gap and there were parties to be had. Many large gatherings were reported, including the return of large church services. In towns and business centres large crowds gathered, bars were open and there seemed to be little social distancing, there was reduced mask wearing and people were sharing calabashes in communal drinking sessions.

The now familiar ‘bakosi’ markets were in full swing across our study sites, especially in locations further south. These sprawling open air markets usually operate once a week and sell everything from food to clothes to hardware and more. Huge numbers attend, perhaps several thousand at times, and of course are potentially major infection hot spots. But they also serve important economic and social functions: they are places to gather, to meet people, to exchange ideas and goods, and are now an essential part of rural economic life, and no matter what the potential risks people were not keeping away over the holidays.

Open air market Guwini, Chikombedzi

Despite the caution of the public health authorities, the people were not going to let the virus get in the way of a holiday mood or the need for business. Fear had receded of COVID, perhaps because of the experiences with Omicron in the previous weeks of relatives and others both in Zimbabwe and South Africa.

Changing remedies and home treatments

As we have reported many times before, local remedies and home treatments have become the way people have coped. People fear quarantining and forced isolation now more than the disease. Because Omicron presents differently – more ‘flu-like symptoms, with a combination of nose and throat congestion and a dry cough, rather than the impact on breathing and the chest as in previous waves – the treatments have changed.

The most recent, circulating widely on family Whatsapp groups, is a concoction of Coca-Cola and chilli, which is supposed to work wonders. Others reported include a mix of lemon, cooking oil and onion. And of course the full array of other herbal treatments we have discussed on this blog before. The important point is though that with an effectively new disease in Omicron, with different symptoms, people have experimented, learned and shared new remedies – literally in a matter of weeks.

Mrs CF holding her traditional medicine
Mr F. Soko from Mvurwi at his nursery: lemon trees are selling fast because of the pandemic

Nurses in clinics across our sites reported that it was a busy time over the holidays, but many were not coming to the clinics if they thought they had COVID as they feared quarantine. They would prefer to treat themselves at home, while self-isolating. Having a variety of treatments to hand people argue, is a more effective response. It seemed that the nurses (informally) agreed as they noted the problems in the public clinics.

A plural health system: fostering resilience

Meanwhile, public health interventions continue focusing on vaccines. There was a big spike in vaccine take-up in the rural areas over the holiday period. This was apparently due to people coming home from town, and choosing mobile rural clinics over the urban ones where they normally live. The rural alternatives were quicker, easier and more accessible it seems. Even diaspora relatives took up the opportunity, and many younger workers from town were persuading their parents and others to join them at the clinics.

During the pandemic a network of health professionals has emerged to support rural people’s response to the disease. These include of course the doctors, nurses, vaccinators and village health workers, part of the public health system, but the wider health system also includes herbalists (those with specialist knowledge of particular herbs), n’angas (spirit mediums with treatment powers), and family based health specialists (often individuals within a wider family recognised as especially knowledgeable). And supporting them there are the wide range of collectors of herbal products, those who process them and the vendors who sell them, often with street advice on how to prepare presses, teas or other concoctions.

Susan, a traditional healer from Mutomani village, Chiredzi, with her husband

 A plural health system has therefore emerged, partly out of necessity as the public system is inadequate, but partly out of the need to respond in a diversified way, recognising that many people have expertise in a fast-changing pandemic setting, and there is no one right way, especially as the virus changes. With such a plural system, innovation, learning and sharing can happen quickly and effectively. Some of the remedies may not work that well, but others might, and people will respond accordingly.

In March 2020, right at the beginning of the pandemic, in the first contribution of this now long series on COVID responses in rural Zimbabwe, we argued that rural Zimbabwe might offer some level of resilience, having been able to manage turbulence and uncertainty of different sorts for many years, despite the obvious ‘fragility’ of the state. Resilience is not a single property; it is relational based on how people, individually and together, respond to unfolding events. This requires flexibility, responsiveness and collective sharing. As we have seen now over nearly two years, these are all features that have been central to rural Zimbabwe’s (largely informal) pandemic response.

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team in Mvurwi, Matobo, Chikombedzi, Masvingo and Gutu for contributions to this blog.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

As Omicron sweeps through Zimbabwe, how are people responding?

It was just a few weeks ago that our last report noted the arrival of a new variant identified in South Africa. In the interim Omicron has swept through the country. This initially resulted in panic, with a rush to get vaccinated and the government swiftly responding with further lockdown measures. As someone recalled, “it was like the world was about to come to an end”, so panicked were both officials and many in the population.

The rapid spread is reflected in the case data that is officially reported, but the real figures are massively higher. Across our rural sites, people report that about 50-60% of villagers have been struck down by a virulent ‘flu in the past weeks, suggesting massive under-reporting in official figures.

Just two weeks ago we were hearing reports of a ‘flu in our site in Chikombedzi, in the far south of the country near the border with South Africa. On 5 December, our research team member reported via Whatsapp that many people in the villages had been coming down with ‘flu, but no deaths were being recorded. Since then, the same reports have come from all sites as the variant has spread north and across the whole country.

However so far, just as observed in Guateng in South Africa, which has been the epicentre of the Omicron epidemic, there have been very few deaths. Indeed, in our last review across sites over this past weekend, no local deaths have been reported and the only COVID related burials have been of those who have died elsewhere – all in our Chatsworth site near Gutu, with four bodies returned from South Africa and one from Chiredzi.

Omicron seems to cause a debilitating flu, involving a severe headache, joint aches, body weakness and severe fatigue, together with a running nose. People say it’s like malaria, with hot and cold sweats. It is extremely transmissible and very often whole families are down with it together. Indeed one of our research team members has been suffering from it over the past week, but the whole family has now thankfully recovered. It affects all ages, and vaccinated and unvaccinated people are all affected. However, recovery rates seems extremely good and it lasts about five days, slightly longer for older people.

Rapid spread, rapid learning

While in the first days at the beginning of December people were seriously worried, as they have experienced the disease over the last couple of weeks and been able to treat its symptoms, people have become more relaxed. With such rapid spread, the learning cycle in this pandemic is speeding up. The remedies used in previous phases have all be deployed, but this time the focus on body aches and fatigue has meant new innovations. The long used medication from China called ‘Tsunami’ (an aromatic oil, as shown by Mr Mutoko from Mvurwi below) is in high demand, as it can be applied to joints and even drunk in a tea. Equally, onion compresses are widely used to help with body aches and cold symptoms.

While many have taken up the offer of vaccines (20% fully vaccinated, 27% with at least one dose), few think that this is enough. An interesting argument emerged in discussions across our sites about the importance of having lots of different responses so that new variants can be tackled on many fronts. A single response – just focusing on vaccines as the government is emphasising – is not enough, people argued: “You can be doubled vaxxed even have a booster and still get Omicron… the variant needs many things to fight”. “Treatment responses must be wide and varied and this must include local remedies”, was a wide consensus as expressed in one discussion.

The sharing of remedies and treatment responses has been as rapid as the spread. Those in the border areas near South Africa experienced it first, and shared information about symptoms and remedies to relatives and others elsewhere. Whatsapp messages and Facebook groups are full of advice on how to tackle Omicron. Each family and village has a different set of responses, but the sharing of options is widespread. There are many, diverse prongs of attack. And (so far) it seems to be working.

Major disruptions

With whole families out sick for a week, and with the rapid spread sometimes half a village at a time, this has seriously disrupted the beginning of the farming season. The rains have finally (it seems) come, with steady rain falling over the past days. This is the time to be in the fields to plough and plant, as timing is all. Omicron is causing havoc with farm labour and this may have knock on effects into the harvest. The need for labour for land preparation is heightened this year as many livestock have perished due to January disease (known as cattle COVID locally), and so draft power is scarce.

However, what is causing most disruption and what was the centre of people’s commentaries was the return of lockdowns. People are just fed up. They have no livelihood options, people are poor. Kids have been out of school for months and are really suffering. Social problems are building up. Noone can face another round of lockdowns, especially with what appears to be a mild disease. And for this reason, very few are reporting sickness to clinics with the fear of being quarantined. As someone observed, “getting locked up is worse for you; you don’t have the support of your family, you cannot use your local remedies”.

The politics of control

Perhaps more than in previous phases, or at least with a different accent, there is a political critique of the current response and a demand for freedom and liberty, with an abandoning of a standard, centralised response to the pandemic. “We must learn to live with the disease, just as we have before with AIDS, and so many other diseases”, someone argued. “It’ll always be there, so we need vaccination alongside our own methods”, another said. “Who profits from this very standard way of responding – vaccines, vaccines, vaccines?”, someone asked rhetorically, answering: “it’s the big businesses who make a profit, and the governments who want our resources. A vaccine may be free, but it isn’t really”. People are very aware of the vaccine politics being played out in Africa and they don’t like it. In commentary across sites, there was a widespread critique of the top-down response to the pandemic:

It’s government, the WHO, corporations who are in control. The powerful. The messages come one-way from them to the masses. We are bombarded with messages and instructions, which require adherence without question.

The restrictions of endless lockdowns were getting to many: “It’s just don’t, don’t, don’t; it’s terrible for us, we are trying to live. How can we live a life of lockdowns? We are not comfortable with this”. Another informant observed, “We are not scared now of this disease; the only challenge are the lockdowns. We are approaching Xmas, but we cannot do any business, we are stuck.”

Even those enforcing lockdowns are fed up. One police officer commented, “We are tired of this, but we have to enforce the law. We need a compromise”. Lockdowns, as we have discussed before, lead to businesses collapsing and people seeking other forms of income. Corruption and crime are rife. Civil servants have not been paid a living wage for years, so as someone observed “it’s no surprise that people steal and get involved in corrupt practices like the police….It’s the same with the rise in petty crime. People are desperate.”

Collaborative approaches

So what’s the way out of this endless cycle? There were some interesting ideas expressed about ‘living with the disease’ in discussions in our sites during the last week:

We have to do this together. We cannot have government just saying do this, do that, the top-down control doesn’t work. We have to find a way to discuss. After all it’s us who must ultimately respond to the disease in our own localities”.

A more collaborative approach, taking account of local needs and knowledges, was advocated:

We have our own ways of dealing with the pandemic, we don’t like being controlled. Those in charge don’t know what we do, let us do it. Yes, we need the vaccinations and the drugs from the clinics, but let’s recognise the many other responses. We have to work together”.

This may be an important lesson for other countries too as a wider social contract emerges about how to deal with what inevitably will be an ongoing response to a disease (or now seemingly a variety of diseases), even as it settles towards an endemic state across the world, with inevitable new variants and new surprises in store.

This is part of a series of reports, starting in March 2020 on the unfolding COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe. It is based on reports from the field team led by Felix Murimbarimba based in Mvurwi, Chatsworth, Wondedzo, Masvingo, Hippo Valley, Chikombedzi and Matobo.

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

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Zimbabwe’s bumper harvest: what explains the success?

As farmers turn to the next season with the beginning of the rains, the country is in a good position having reaped a bumper harvest in 2020/21. An estimated 2.7 million tonnes of maize were produced, triple the amount in the previous season. Given COVID-19 and the endless lockdowns and restrictions, this is remarkable and witness to the possibilities of significant production if the rains are good.

For too long the narrative has been that after land reform in 2000 and the decline of large-scale commercial farming, Zimbabwe has shifted from a breadbasket to basket case, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary documented repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere.

However, the harvest this last season has been spectacular. Does this mean that the biased commentators can finally abandon this tired narrative? What are the factors that have contributed to this success?

Good rains make a big difference, but how reliable?

Well, obviously good rainfall makes a massive difference. In the last season, this was substantial and well spread. Without significant irrigation support, most farmers must produce on dryland fields, so good rains are essential.

However with climate change this is far from guaranteed, and the recent period has shown much variability. Often unexpected extreme events such as mid-season droughts, floods, even hailstorms, destroy the crops, even if on average the season is OK. Climate change predictions suggest that this is likely to be the pattern into the future, meaning mechanisms of climate adaptation are essential.

Planting in pits: the Pfumvudza/Intwasa programme

One response to uncertain rainfall has been the Pfumvudza/Intwasa programme – a system of zero tillage cultivation involving the construction of small pits allowing water and fertility to concentrate. The government reports that yields on such plots increased from on average 1.2 tonnes per hectare in extensive dryland fields to 5.3 t/ha on Pfumvudza plots.

This is impressive, and certainly our early assessments suggested boosts, although perhaps not quite as much. In some areas waterlogging and intensive weed growth hampered crop productivity and for some a lack of labour meant that digging pits in the required format was impossible.

Overall, there is little doubt that where such intensification occurred many people across the country, especially smallholder farmers in the communal areas, gained significant yields, even though these were on very small areas per household.

Indeed, scaling up Pfumvudza techniques is very difficult without mechanisation, as it is so labour intensive. As a focused gardening technique to guarantee outputs it works well (and the adaptations that people have adopted this year, such as combining with winter ploughing, changing the pit design to avoid water pooling, often even better). But Pfumvudza will not solve Zimbabwe’s agricultural production challenge given the still relatively limited areas involved, even when these are multiplied by millions of plots.

It is difficult to tell, but it’s very unlikely that Pfumvudza such plots contributed massively to the big total harvest given the areas involved. Pfumvudza has been important at the margins, especially for poorer, smallholder farmers, and of course as a result has become central to early electioneering by local politicians. Instead, this year maize outputs from larger farms across bigger areas were key contributors to the total.

Command agriculture

Here the government’s other favoured programme – Command Agriculture – probably came into play. The programme has been plagued by corruption scandals, poor delivery and costs a small fortune due to poor repayment patterns. Through the ministry of agriculture and with military support, programme offers loans to mostly to larger-scale farmers, often in the resettlement areas (mostly A2), including seeds, fertilisers, fuel and other inputs.

Not surprisingly, such support boosts yields and on larger areas in a good rainfall year, this results in big outputs, which have to be channelled to the state Grain Marketing Board to facilitate loan repayment. In terms of aggregate food production Command Agriculture certainly delivered in the last season, although the economics of this achievement can be seriously questioned.

Of course, only relatively few, often well-connected, farmers gain full access to Command Agriculture packages. Even if a wider group may get some elements, there are multiple complaints that delivery is delayed, the input packages are incomplete and that there is so much corruption in the system, it’s difficult to navigate as a normal farmer. Many in our land reform study areas don’t bother and prefer to go it alone.     

Land reform boosts food security

My hunch is that it is the large numbers of land reform farmers, often farming on relatively small areas (around 5 hectares of arable) in the so-called A1 areas, who have made the difference, and are the major contributors to the harvest success. Twenty years on, they have settled into a rhythm of successful, small-scale production, with selective use of inputs but on areas significantly larger than their communal area counterparts, who may have a hectare or less of land to farm.

Supplementary irrigation in small plots may help, assisted by the massive growth of small pumps and irrigation pipes. Although such areas rarely focused on maize, except for early green maize in gardens, the possibility of emergency irrigation in some plots is there, although not required in the past year.

We have been studying land reform areas now for 20 years, and the results are interesting yet still poorly understood. Production of course varies massively between years, across our sites (from the high potential areas of Mvurwi to the dryland areas of the Lowveld around Chikombedzi) and between people (some highly commercialised, with increased mechanisation and others much more subsistence producers).

Overall production is significant as this is on large areas (a total of around 10 million hectares across A1 and A2 farms nationally). A boost in yield as happened this past year can make a huge difference in aggregate, offering opportunities for sustained national food security, with surplus grains either stored or invested in value addition activities. The massive increase in poultry production across our sites reflects this, again having positive benefits across communities.

In the past year, government stopped imports of food and has planned significant storage of surplus grains for future years. Perhaps more importantly, it is the local food networks between land reform areas generating surpluses and communal area neighbours and town dwellers that is important.

Such networks, facilitated by informal trade often centred on small towns and business centres, are central to boosting food security. In the past year, with movement restrictions, closed shops and disrupted value chains due to COVID-19, these informal, yet again poorly understood, networks have been essential. This is the case in all years, but has been especially so during the pandemic.

With land reform and the emergence of a networked food economy, people have something to fall back on. This is in stark contrast to South Africa, where with a loss of jobs, the closing down of the economy due to COVID and multiple restrictions imposed, people suffered extremely with hunger rife. As we have seen, this can lead to desperation and unrest.

In our study areas, many Zimbabweans have returned home, as with some land it’s easier to survive. People are carving out new plots, reclaiming land in the communal areas and getting subdivisions in the resettlements. Land reform not only provides food security, but also social security and political stability.

Structural shifts, new potentials

While much commentary focuses on the technical responses to crop production – with much partial boosterism around particular ‘solutions’ – it is this wider structural shift in land and agriculture brought about through land reform that is perhaps more important in explaining the harvest success in the past year.

And linked to this is the new food economy, connecting informal networks of trade, involving lateral exchanges between areas via urban areas, often circumventing the old, formal centralised system altogether (although this past year there were more deliveries to the GMB as payment systems have improved).

However, as the painful experience of the past 20 years since land reform has shown so clearly, such gains are not necessarily sustained. A very poor year can follow a good one with disastrous consequences. Nevertheless, the potentials of the new structural relations of land, agriculture and food that have followed land reform have been demonstrated this past year (as indeed before). What is needed is major investment in agriculture and rural development – beyond the technical programmes, despite their benefits – to ensure that these potentials are built upon for the future.

Photos by Felix Murimbarimba (planting pit digging in Masvingo; Mr Mapurisa delivering maize to Nyika GMB depot, Bikita)

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The politics of control in Zimbabwe’s COVID times

The COVID-19 situation in Zimbabwe has improved since our last report, with infection rates and deaths declining in all areas. The alert level has been reduced to Level 2, with restrictions relaxed. At the same time, the vaccination drive has continued apace, with the government now mandating all civil servants to take a shot. So far just over 20 percent of the population has received at least one vaccine – mostly from China – although there are big variations across locations and age groups.

The period of Level 4 lockdown during the most recent wave has taken its toll. During this period, lasting up to 7th September, many businesses closed and most public institutions, including schools and colleges, were shut. This had a big effect on the local economy and many suffered badly. This included farmers across our sites, who complained bitterly that schools, colleges and other businesses they supplied food to were slow to open up after the shift to Level 2. This particularly affected horticulture farmers in Chatsworth and Wondedzo who rely on vegetable sales for livelihoods at this time of year, with large amounts of produce rotting.

COVID controversies

Controversies around COVID-19 continue to be central to discussions across our sites. COVID has become a symbol of control, a centre of power struggles and local politics; much more than just a disease. This has been especially evident around the vigorous vaccine campaign that the state has led.

Many, particularly younger people, still dismiss the disease: “It’s just a strong ‘flu”, one commented. “We have our own remedies for it, we don’t need the vaccines”. The view that COVID is being used by the state to control people is widespread. A number of younger informants observed that the vaccines may be used by the government, in alliance with foreign powers, to control the population, making people infertile. While conspiracy theories can be dismissed, their existence must be taken seriously as they reflect the politics of COVID times and the deep lack of trust many, perhaps especially younger people, have in authority.

Geopolitics comes into it too. “Why is this government accepting vaccines from unfriendly states like the US when they impose sanctions on us…. It seems very fishy”, one informant observed.  Others argue that it’s odd to get a free vaccine from China when health centres have no other drugs “not even paracetamol, no basic drugs, no ambulances, yet these are all free and supplied by the government. We smell a rat… there is something not right…. What deals are being made about our future?” “It’s all about making money and controlling people”, one young person commented, “COVID is destroying our lives and economies”.

Trust and the politics of control

All sorts of theories are debated, but the common theme is the little trust in the state and its solutions. Many see politicians capitalising on the COVID moment, recognising that elections are just around the corner. Other local leaders are using the requirement of the state to vaccinate to control their populations, with chiefs and headmen threatening the withdrawal of food aid if people don’t get vaccinated. Vendors wanting to sell in local bakosi markets have to be vaccinated in some of our sites, again giving more powers to local leaders. Local officials keep lists of those vaccinated and not, creating new forms of local surveillance.  Government departments have until 15 October to get their staff vaccinated, otherwise they must go on ‘unpaid leave’ until they do. All our team who work in the agricultural extension service have got vaccinated, for example.   

Others resist the state vaccination efforts completely. For example, the Vapostori church followers refuse to take them. They say that COVID like other diseases is just punishment from God. It should not be resisted, and any requirement to stop praying in large groups should be resisted lest the Almighty is angered. God will answer and find a solution, they argue. Other churches, such as the Dutch Reformed, Roman Catholic and others, urge their followers to get vaccinated.

Among traditional religious leaders, such as the svikiro spirit mediums, there are a variety of opinions across our sites. Some argue that COVID reflects the anger of the ancestors for not following local customs and rules. They promote traditional practices for curing and healing, and some herbalists have joined others in prescribing herbal remedies for teas/infusions, gargling and steaming. The massive growth in demand for local treatments that arose especially during the most recent deadly wave has reinforced the power of herbalists and traditional healers within local communities.

Recourse to ‘tradition’ and the rejection of modern ways, around food in particular, is a common refrain. The argument that foods made from rukweza, mhunga (finger and pearl millet) and other traditional products give strength and help people resist the disease has been much repeated. This has strengthened the hand of traditional healers, mediums and some local leaders over their ‘modern’ replacements in local power struggles in a number of our sites.

There is a gender, generational and locational divide too. Women are getting vaccinated far more than men, according to those working in the local clinics across our sites. Older people too are much more likely to get vaccinated than the youth, as they have seen old people get sick and die. Parents complain that they cannot persuade their children to get vaccinated and follow the regulations on distancing, mask wearing and so on. Finally, those in town are more likely to sign up as they too have seen the effects of the disease in recent waves – some even travelling to rural homes to get their shots as there is more availability of vaccine.

Controlling daily life

COVID times have created many tensions centred on the control over daily life. Tensions play out between the state and normal people; across generations, between youth and older people; within families, and between spouses; among colleagues who are civil servants; between church followers of different denominations, within villages and even within families; between the living and the spirit world; and between local leaders and their followers within rural areas. All these tensions are refracted through local politics.

While vaccination has often been the central, immediate focus, these tensions are therefore about much more; a window on contemporary rural society in Zimbabwe. These disputes are about the politics of control, over defining freedoms and limits and the role of the state and other authorities in relation to citizens. They are about faith and belief, interpretations of ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ and the trust in state authority and science. And they are about wider politics around which foreign powers can be trusted with people’s health and well-being.

We all know that the pandemic is political, but it now permeates all aspects of daily life in Zimbabwe’s rural areas.

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team from Chikombedzi, Matobo, Wondedzo, Chatsworth, Mvurwi, Hippo Valley and Masvingo for the ongoing reflections on life across our study sites

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

COVID-19 spreads to rural Zimbabwe

The third COVID-19 wave has firmly arrived in Zimbabwe’s rural areas. This is no longer the ‘rich person’s disease’ of those based in town. The number of cases and sadly deaths has surged across our rural study areas in the last month. This is a picture reflected across the country and indeed the region, with large increases since our last report.

After being spared for so long, why are the rural areas only now being affected? This was the topic of the conversations in our research team this month. It is clear that the Delta variant is proving extremely dangerous. Having spread from a small isolated outbreak in Kwekwe just a few weeks ago and through imports from across the border in South Africa, it seems to be the dominant variant now. Highly infectious and easily transmissible, the fact that rural people don’t move much and work and live outside makes much less difference in the face of this variant it seems.

There have been deaths recorded in all our study sites in the past weeks, with others being buried in the area having died in South Africa or elsewhere in the region. Many others have contracted the disease and have been battling it at home while isolating. Some of the most vulnerable are the front-line workers who have frequent contact with people, while living in the rural areas. Nurses, health workers, agricultural extension workers, police and others have all be noted as people who have contracted COVID-19 in our sites in the last weeks, very often passing it on to others. Mr FC is a 68 year old health worker and farmer in Wondedzo. He contracted the disease and went to the COVID quarantine centre. However, he was quickly discharged due to pressure on beds:

“The doctor and nurses decided to send me home for self-isolation paving way for the ever in-coming COVID-19 victims. I was given different drugs by the nurses, but I supplemented these by taking herbal teas. My son used to bring lemons, garlic, onion and mutsviri herbal tea. I used to cut onion or garlic into pieces where I could place underneath my pillow. Crushed onion was used to massage my chest and nose. All my belongings at home were heavily disinfected and I was given my own room where I stayed alone. All the food was brought by my son. I was given light food like crushed potatoes, rice, porridge, beans and mincemeat as swallowing was not easy. In the end, on the 15th day, I felt better and there was then slow improvement until I returned to work, when I got the disease again as I am in contact with people. This time fortunately it was not so severe and we now know how to treat it.”

Vaccine demand and compulsion

The demand for vaccination has risen significantly too as a result of the surge in disease and concerns about severe illness and death. Queues have been forming at vaccination centres in all our study sites, but demand far exceeds supply, and the many return home disappointed. While nationally over 10% of the population have had one dose, there is much further to go even amongst the older, more vulnerable age groups.

Zimbabwe’s vaccine programme has been the envy of neighbouring countries, but it does remain heavily reliant on supplies from China (and to a lesser extent Russia and India). The J&J single dose vaccine is now (finally) approved locally, so maybe there will be an expansion of supply soon, but with China now experiencing new outbreaks some worry that politically-driven gifts of free vaccines to Zimbabwe will be less of a priority.

Despite claims that vaccination will always be voluntary there have been recent moves to make it compulsory among civil servants, with memos circulating across all departments requiring reporting of coverage. This has provoked quite a bit of debate, including within our team. Among those who have been hesitant about the vaccine, several commented that they will get it now as they need to keep the job. The old tension between public health and individual freedoms is once again being played out.

Limited state capacity: reliance on local innovations

This latest surge is both more severe and more widespread than before. The state, despite its best efforts, does not have the capacity to respond effectively. Health services are overwhelmed, funeral parlours are full, drugs are in short supply and vaccines insufficient. Whether via treatment or prevention, the response has to be centred on local people, their ingenuity and capacities. As we have mentioned in previous blogs, there has been a blossoming of innovation and entrepreneurship in response to the pandemic, particularly focusing on traditional remedies.

The now-famous Zumbani herbal tea is in huge demand, and those who collect it and process it are making good money. Diaspora Zimbabweans based in South Africa are sourcing it in large quantities as an effective remedy. Team members comment that they have abandoned Tanganda (black tea leaves) for herbal teas and remedies. A few months ago, they did not like them much, but now such teas are the preferred beverage several times a day. For those who get sick there is now a common health folklore about what the most effective treatments are.

This is shared through various routes. One of our informants swore by a video she had seen on WhatsApp from a Nigerian woman extolling the virtues of steaming and certain breathing exercises. Others listen to what neighbours have done and share locally. Even our research team, now known to be the contributors to these blogs – which are often shared further through social media and in local newspapers – are asked for advice. “We are the new doctors!”, one quipped. While there is much misinformation on social media spread through rumours among relatives, neighbours and church members alike, there is also lots of useful advice. Sifting through this competing knowledge claims and making choices in the face of disease is a critical part of living with COVID-19 today.

Alongside traditional herbs and remedies, lemon, ginger, garlic and onion are the most common ingredients for local remedies and are used as teas, chest/body presses, inhalation steaming and so on. Mrs MC contracted COVID recently and explained:

I had two regimes, which is Zumbani mixed with lemon as tea taken twice a day, morning and afternoon. I also had ginger and garlic tea, which I took at sun down and late at night. I also used to chew raw onion regularly as means of opening the nasal system. I had learnt of these traditional medicines via social media, friends and relatives, I also learnt of the use of crushed onion wrapped in a transparent cloth, which then could be pressed against my chest whenever I go to sleep. It is now a habit in my family to take the traditional medicines all the time”.

The demand for such products is massive. Mrs Kwangwa has a nursery in Masvingo in the compound of her husband’s National Railways of Zimbabwe house (see pictures). They started the project back in 2014 after she graduated from Masvingo Polytechnic with a certificate in agriculture. They have been growing vegetable seedlings, fruit trees, flowers and so on, with a wide market across the province and beyond. In COVID times they have shifted focus – and now the big crops are onions and lemon tree seedlings, with plans for expanding into garlic and ginger growing once they secure a bigger plot with more reliable water supplies. As we noted in earlier blogs, everyone is now a gardener, and Mrs Kwangwa commented that her customers have expanded. “COVID-19 has popularised agriculture – I now have doctors, engineers, teachers coming for seedlings as well as the normal farmers.” Everyone wants to buy products that can help them fight infections. It’s a profitable business and they bought a Nissan Sedan and a Mazda truck to transport water, leaf litter and seedlings, and they now employ three people.

If the world is going to live with COVID-19 (in its now many forms) forever, even with protections from vaccines and so on, then the sort of innovations and investments that Mrs Kwangwa has made will continue to be vital. Research on new agricultural products and wild product harvesting and processing will be needed to support a longer-term strategy for responding to a seasonal, hopefully less virulent coronavirus into the future.

Disease spreading events

While traditional remedies help fight infection and treat disease, other behaviours may reduce transmission. People are now used to the idea of keeping a distance, wearing a mask, not going to large gatherings and so on, but it’s difficult to do this in normal life. Transport for example is rare because of restrictions and so people must resort to informal, illegal means. Such mushikashika transport is always packed, often with few measures to reduce infection. Cross-border movement is essential for many people’s businesses, especially in those study sites near the borders such as Chikombedzi and Matobo, but people have to pay the bribes to cross illegally so their business can survive. Different people commented: “It’s better to die of corona than hunger”; or “I have to carry on, I cannot let my business collapse. What will I do to survive?”; or “We just have to learn to live with this virus, we don’t have any other safety net”.

In our sites, our team (now all expert field epidemiologists too…) identified a number of spreader events. For example, one malaicha – an informal transporter of goods – became infected and spread the disease widely as a result of contacts made through his business. Equally, particular shebeens (illegal drinking places) have become a focus for outbreaks, as people gather in packed rooms, as the official bars and restaurants remain closed. Although church gatherings are officially banned and most churches comply, some – such as the Apostolic churches – resist and hold their (often huge) gatherings at night. It being winter, people huddle together and so become infected.

Perhaps the most risky gatherings are funerals. With more people being buried – sometimes several a week in a village – funerals bring together people from across the country as relatives gather to pay condolences. Village neighbours come to pay their respects and commiserate with the family. Viewing the body happens in closed spaces, within huts while the family sits nearby. With it being winter, more happens inside in closed spaces with limited ventilation, and no one knows if wood smoke disrupts the virus or makes you more susceptible. Funerals are of course important moments in any society, and are especially so in rural Zimbabwe and for the older (more vulnerable) generation. Children in the diaspora have been beseeching their parents to avoid funerals in their villages, but with little effect. How can you not attend, at least for a short time? The traditions and rituals of passing are so significant that even a public health crisis cannot prevent them happening.

While official case numbers and deaths are thankfully declining in the last few days, this third wave has brought with it new challenges, especially in the rural areas where, for the first time, infection, severe disease and deaths are being seen on a much larger scale. There are many hypotheses as to why this is only happening now, but much must be to do with the Delta variant, which is effectively a new disease. The state is doing its best, but can only do so much. As before, rural Zimbabweans are left to cope on their own, with important innovations supporting the struggle against the disease, both for now in the midst of the pandemic and likely into the future, as this is clearly not going to go away completely.

Thanks to the team from Mvurwi, Chatsworth, Wondedzo, Masvingo, Hippo Valley, Chikombedzi and Matobo and to Felix Murimbarimba for coordinating. This is the 17th instalment of our on-going real-time monitoring of the COVID-19 situation in rural Zimbabwe, starting in March 2020.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Zimbabwe faces a COVID-19 surge: what is happening in the rural areas?

Vaccination drive at Hippo Valley sugar estate

The increase in COVID-19 cases in Zimbabwe has been significant in the weeks since our last blog. This has been matched by an increase in recorded deaths. The government has responded with a new ‘level 4’ lockdown, imposing a curfew, restricting business hours, limiting inter-city transport, requiring movement exemption permits, closing schools and educational institutions and banning all gatherings, except funerals where numbers are again restricted.

The national level data show an increasingly dangerous situation, but why now and how has it affected the rural areas? As we have reported in the past, the incidence has been extremely low in most of our study sites, but this has changed somewhat recently, although few deaths have been recorded. Why this change?

Why is there a surge now, including in the rural areas?

Informants across our study sites point to a number of factors.

  • First it is winter and this is the cold and flu season when respiratory infections spread as people are more frequently inside and interacting in close proximity.
  • Second, it has been marketing season when people have been travelling about, gathering at market places, interacting with itinerant buyers and going to auction floors in the tobacco areas. Indeed, it has been in the tobacco areas that the greatest spikes in infections have been noted, and people have speculated that buyers travelling from hotspots – such as Karoi – have brought new infections into areas.
  • Third, it has been the relaxation in measures, including the day-to-day practices of hygiene that have occurred. Certainly over the last months people had gone back to a (nearly) normal life, and abandoned wearing masks and had attended large gatherings of weddings, funerals and church services. These are now banned, but some churches are dismissive of the regulations and argue that the power of prayer in large gatherings should be recognised as a way of combating the disease, and many are still continuing.
  • Fourth, early foci for infections have been educational institutions, including Bondolfi mission, Morgenster and Great Zimbabwe University. Here students and staff have been infected and later isolated, but in places where there is residential accommodation such as teachers’ colleges and boarding schools, the virus can spread, and those moving to such establishments – as day pupils, as service providers or sometimes as church goers  – can in turn spread the infection to their communities.
  • Fifth, the ease of movement from South Africa through illegal crossings improves in the dry season as the Limpopo has little water and the danger from crocodiles and hippos recedes. This is the period for mass movements, as people go and shop in South Africa and bring back goods. At the Chakwalakwala crossing people move daily in their thousands, even with cars and trucks crossing the sandy river bed. This has a focus for significant importation of disease, as South Africa’s surge is in full swing, increasing earlier than Zimbabwe’s.
  • Sixth, the increase in dry season trade is linked to major markets in the south of the country. These bring people together over wide areas. These Bakosi markets are preferred to going to town as you can buy everything from iron sheets for roofing to a chicken for a meal, and everything else in between. Much comes from South Africa, but local produce is also sold and exchanged. Such large markets are also a focus for social events and much interactions. In the midst of a pandemic, they are clearly foci for infection, and have now been closed.

All these factors have combined in the last couple of months to fuel the pandemic in Zimbabwe, extending it to the rural areas.

Why do death rates remain low, at least for now?

Yet despite this, the number of deaths in our study sites remain low. This remains an anomaly as vaccination rates and existing immunity from earlier infections rates are low.

When we discussed this, the team pointed to the difference between mortalities of those coming from South Africa (and indeed of South Africans and Zimbabweans), pointing to different lifestyles, unhealthy diets of processed foods, co-morbidity factors (including being overweight, having diabetes and so on). Poverty, they argued, has kept us healthy!

In our study areas, burials have been occurring in cases where bodies have been returned home from South Africa. Cemeteries in Bulawayo for example are reported to be being under pressure. This may yet change, but there are some interesting hypotheses about what both results in infection and causes death.

Many informants across our sites point to local remedies as important in managing infection. While more people are getting the disease, its effects though far from pleasant are being addressed by local remedies. Mr Moses Mutoko from Wondedzo Extension in Masvingo district explained:

“In June my whole family was infected by an unknown ‘flu. It was persistent and heavy. We treated ourselves by steaming of a mix of Zumbani (a local herb), eucalyptus leaves and lemon, covering ourselves with a blanket for 15 minutes and sweating hard. We would also drink the mixture morning and night. We would also gargle several times a day with coarse salt and warm water and drink large amounts of water when we wake up and before we go to sleep to clean the body. We all recovered and are fine now. I have shared this prescription with the community, and everyone has taken it up. We hope it will save people from the disease.”

People across our sites urge the government to take local treatments seriously and invest in research as well as promoting seemingly efficacious ones.

Vaccine views

The surge in infections across the country has put the vaccine programme in the spotlight. Earlier reluctance among some has turned to an increasing eagerness to be vaccinated. Currently approximately 6% of the population have had a first dose, but rates have slowed of late due to supply problems. The vaccines being offered remain only the Chinese, Russian and Indian vaccines with an offer via the African Union of Johnson and Johnson vaccines being rejected on the grounds that the infrastructure for delivery was not up to scratch.

Many speculated that this was just politics being played out, with the Zimbabwe government snubbing the West. With the Chinese offering a further 2 million of their Sinovac shots, Zimbabwe may be able to play politics, but it seems a risky strategy right now. This is especially so as delivery is patchy, and the logistics not always streamlined with shortages reported across our sites. Nevertheless, the government’s overall COVID-19 approach has met with approval, both from other countries in Africa, and from the Zimbabwean population according to the Afrobarometer survey.

For a time Zimbabwe had been seen as a potential vaccine tourism destination, with private clinics offering shots for US$70 or more, and South African travel agencies offering pricey vaccination travel packages. However, with current shortages, this has all stopped for now.

Meanwhile, companies such as Tongaat Hullett who run the huge sugar estates are offering shots to workers, as there has been a local peak in infections on the estates, with worker compounds closed down and put into quarantine. Again, this is linked to the season and the greater movement of people associated with cane cutting.  

The discussion in our team and amongst informants across our sites on vaccination continues. Many views are expressed:

  • Some complain that agricultural extension workers are not treated as front-line workers and do not get priority on the vaccination lists like doctors and nurses, yet they have to have face-to-face contact on a regular basis and must travel over wider areas. These individuals are keen to get a shot but have failed so far.
  • Others say that since deaths remain low and that the surge will likely abate after the marketing season and when the weather warms up, then they don’t mind and will wait for an more effective vaccine. They argue that these vaccines are not fully protective like the ones for measles, diphtheria and so on that Zimbabweans are very familiar with and many can name a case where someone vaccinated gets it again.
  • There are some who argue that the situation is nothing like that experienced with AIDS when burials were happening daily and everyone was affected, and yet, they comment, we survived that without a vaccine and through changing behaviours and practices over time.
  • Still others say it’s like any other severe ‘flu and we must learn to live with it, using local remedies. It’s clearly now endemic and it will be part of our winter experience forever.

Just like in discussions across the world, there are plenty of views, each with their own evidence and case studies to share. Complexity, uncertainty and contested interpretations of both science and experience remain the order of the day.

Lockdown responses

The return of a lockdown is creating real concerns. The memories of the suffering from 2020 are fresh. This is especially challenging now as this is the main season for marketing horticultural products. Transporters can only start moving after 6am due to the curfew, meaning fresh, perishable products can only get to market late. And in the evening they want to move their transport out of town before 6pm for fear of getting vehicles impounded. This constrains the marketing day and for farmers reduces income.

In the past weeks, there has been an increase in direct contracting to local supermarkets, as markets have been closed down. This is only available to some and often means lower prices, even if a market is guaranteed. Wider business dependent on agriculture and dependent on farmers buying things are suffering as business hours and movement is restricted once again. It is back to the bad old days of 2020, with businesses laying off people or closing, and farmers suffering.

The importance of real-time reflections

This is the fifteenth contribution to our real-time monitoring and reflection of the pandemic in rural Zimbabwe. It is far from a linear story and there are many contested views and diverse experiences. Without such in-depth, real-time information it is difficult to make an assessment, and so difficult to learn lessons. Lots of studies are emerging right now that offer definitive statements from snapshot and circumscribed surveys, including from rural Africa. What our tracking has shown is that these are inadequate.

A fuller understanding of this pandemic in all its dimensions will only emerge in time, and we will continue our regular reflections, so watch out for the next blog in about a month.

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

COVID-19 and economic transformation in rural Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 situation looks uncertain, with localised outbreaks and a rise in infections south of the Limpopo in South Africa. On June 11 there were 191 new cases (including 82 that were reported late) and 3 deaths reported, making a cumulative total of 39,688 cases and 1,629 deaths and a current seven-day rolling average new case rate of 77 per day, with a discernible upward trend. Vaccination rates are increasing, but very slowly and somewhat chaotically with 691,251 vaccinated so far.

On June 12, Vice-President and health minister, Constantino Chiwenga, imposed new restrictions, with the banning of gatherings, the limiting of business hours, a stipulation that offices should only be half full and the prevention of moving to and from ‘hotspots’. This is a set-back as things had got largely back to ‘normal’ (whatever that is) in the previous weeks. Across our sites people had got back to work. It’s harvest season and markets have been open, with the selling of grains, tobacco, beans and horticulture happening across all sites. Meanwhile in the sugar estates it’s cane cutting season, with much activity and movement of people to provide temporary labour.

With so many people gathering at marketing points and traders, labourers and transporters, the fear was that these could become sites of infection, hence the recent move. Larger gatherings of churches, farmer field days, training events, funerals and so on were previously allowed if not exceeding 50 people, but are now either banned or have a reduction in permitted numbers. While these regulations were sometimes not kept to, as of last week our team report no major COVID-19 problems in any of our rural sites across the country, although the worry is that this may yet change.

The national pattern currently seems to be small, focused outbreaks that are dealt with by Ministry of Health ‘rapid response teams’ that operate in each of the provinces, coordinated through the district COVID-19 taskforces, which has membership from across sectors. The most recent such outbreak near our sites was at Bondolfi teachers’ college where there were a number of cases reported. Isolation and quarantining seem to have stopped further spread fortunately and all are now recovered.

Currently there are concerns in Kariba where the district taskforce has been targeting ‘houseboat gigs’ and shebeens where many gather to drink and are spreading infection. Last Saturday a lockdown was announced for Hurungwe and Kariba districts due to 40 new cases being identified, with movements in and out of the districts restricted and a process of contact tracing is ongoing. The fear of course is that such hotspots will spread.

Variants and vaccines

Like other parts of the world, the concern is with the potential impact of new variants. So far there has been one outbreak of the Indian-origin delta variant in Kwekwe. Someone returning from India had infected a number of people and a local lockdown has occurred and been extended, again hopefully stopping further spread.

However, borders remain open, although restrictions and requirements for testing have been increased this last weekend. There is some testing, but also lots of reports of fake test certificates, with some in Mpilo hospital arrested, so it is difficult to see how the spread of variants, as elsewhere in the world, will be stopped, even if spread can be slowed.

The vaccination programme has run into difficulties with demand exceeding supply in some places, although the opposite in others. The ministry has admitted problems with distribution and administration. The main vaccines remain the Chinese Sinopharm and Sinovac shots (and some Indian ones too). Promises of others from Western aid programmes seem not to have been fulfilled as yet, while the Zimbabwe government has been showing caution around the US/Belgian Johnson and Johnson vaccine, perhaps part of the on-going tussle with Western powers. Meanwhile, as part of the continued frenzied vaccine diplomacy, the president received the first delivery of 25,000 Russian Sputnik V vaccine doses at the end of last week, donated by a diamond mining company. Vaccines clearly have important soft power.

Vaccine hesitancy remains, fuelled by much misinformation through the online media, Whatsapp messages and so on. But the big issue seems to be delivery and the capacity of the over-stretched health service to delivery. The ministry correctly is keeping up with its regular vaccination programmes, and the current polio vaccination drive is occupying staff and taking them away from COVID-19 vaccination.

Our informants noted that they can arrive at a clinic and be turned away as the health staff are busy, even if there are COVID-19 vaccines there. Given the lack of incidence in our study areas, there is little urgency felt and many argue that local remedies – from local herbs and leaves to lemons, garlic and ginger – used for teas and steaming are sufficient. The cost of lemons apparently is soaring, and there are many new businesses packaging teas and juices to combat COVID-19.

Markets are open, business is back

Unlike last year when the harvest season was very difficult, this year there has been much more opportunity. In Mvurwi tobacco marketing has been in full swing across a number of auction floors, and the trading companies are busy. Transporters are moving crops around and there has been a thriving business in the areas where people gather to market their crops, as prepared food is sold and groceries exchanged through a myriad of traders. As of 12 June, this is now banned as vending in and around tobacco auction floors is prohibited and a maximum of two sellers per delivery is allowed.

Maize and soybean marketing is underway too, but the government buyer – the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) – while offering higher prices has distant depots, pays in local currency (RTGS) and the cost of transportation is high. Instead, informal traders come to the farms, exchanging goods, notably groceries, for maize in particular. This means maize goes for USD 3 per bucket not the equivalent of USD 6.

While farmers complain about being ripped off, the provision of goods locally and the ease of marketing/transport is clearly beneficial. And the growth of informal trade provides jobs and sources of income for a whole range of people, especially women and younger people. 

The cold season is traditionally a focus for horticultural production but some producers, particularly in Chatsworth-Gutu area, have been hit by frost, with large amounts of produce destroyed. In the same way, livestock have been affected be tick diseases this year, due to the plentiful rains. Despite it being the dry season now, this continues to be a problem in some of our sites, and owners are selling off sick cattle before they die and so flooding the market and suppressing prices.

Despite these challenges, the marketing difficulties for farmers of the earlier COVID-19 lockdown periods have declined and all value chains for different crops are re-emerging, with vendors, traders, transporters and others all returning to support agriculture and the marketing of products across our sites.

However, the form, composition and location of these value chains are changing. Agricultural markets are now more localised, involve a greater diversity of people with exchange and barter being important and formal sales to outfits like the GMB on the decline. In time it may be that the more formal connections are re-established with the big players returning to dominate and control the market from farm sales to retail, but for now the COVID-19 shock seems to have reconfigured markets in favour of multiple, local players, with important effects on local economies, with value distributed across agricultural marketing chains.

Small towns are benefiting

This explosion of local economic activity is seen especially in small towns. In the two previous blogs (here and here), and in our paper in the European Journal of Development Research, the implications of land reform on small town growth has been emphasised, based on work in Mvruwi, Chatsworth and Maphisa over the past five years or so. This pattern has been accelerated by the effects of the pandemic.

With transport restricted by lockdowns and curfews and endless rent-seeking by the police on the roads, there has been a move to local marketing arrangements, often small-scale and involving informal, sometimes barter, arrangements. Women and young people without land are especially involved, and their improved spending power is seen in the rise of local retail outlets in small towns offering basic goods and groceries. While lockdowns affected the operation of food outlets and many other businesses, as we have discussed many times in our blogs on COVID-19 impacts since March 2020, there has been a rebounding of activity; although with the recent announcement business hours are again restricted to 8am to 6pm, with all markets closing at 6pm and bottle stores two hours earlier.

Unlike larger businesses with a single operation, many of those involved in trade in small towns operate at a small scale and have other activities in play. Many business people in the small towns we’ve been researching had land reform farm plots and could diversify when their businesses were restricted, but now they’re very much back.

There are health restrictions in place – sanitisation and mask wearing is encouraged and large crowds are banned – but in the absence of cases and with the fear of COVID having receded from earlier periods, there is a much more lax attitude to restrictions in all our sites according to our team. This may not last if the spread of COVID-19 continues in South Africa, but for now small town business is thriving again.

The shortening of value chains and the focus on local economic activity is also reflected in investments by larger agricultural businesses. For example, in Mvurwi, an important centre for tobacco growing, tobacco companies have invested in new floors, with impressive new structures being built.

Since people couldn’t move during lockdown, they had to come nearer to the farmers. And the firms have clearly judged that this situation is permanent, with significant benefits for the efficiency of marketing and access to high quality tobacco leaf. There are now eight trading floors operating in the town, up from one earlier, ranging from the big players (ZLT, MTC, Boka) to newer companies (Boost Africa, Sub Sahara etc.). This move to local investment is reflected in the multiplication of banks in the town too. There are now six banks operating, where there were only three before. This allows farmers to gain finance, pay in sales receipts and manage their income much more easily, with the banks benefiting too.

Even in areas that don’t have such an intensive, cash-oriented commercial agriculture, there are other similar developments towards a localisation of the economy. For example near Wondedzo, because people could not travel to Masvingo, Gweru or Harare to get seedlings for horticultural operations, a number of new business have emerged, based in the rural areas. Near Zimuto Mission, for example, Mrs Z has started producing seedlings, including of rape, cabbage, tomato and so on, with a vibrant local market. The same applies to Mr B’s business in Chatsworth, again supplying seedlings to the local horticultural market, replacing the mainstream suppliers, and making serious money by all accounts. 

Localising economies

We are very far from a post-COVID situation in Zimbabwe, and must await a wider vaccination effort, with help from the world beyond China being essential. However, there are glimpses of what this might look like. The growth of informal markets, the localisation of economic activity, the expansion of rural-based businesses and the continued growth of small towns as centres of exchange and trade in rural settings are all central elements.

These are all features that have dominated Zimbabwe’s rural areas since land reform. Sometimes denigrated and dismissed as not the supposed ideal of what existed before, but maybe this transformation has been the basis for survival during the pandemic, and provides the basis for an on-going shift to a more flourishing, localised economy linked to agriculture into the future. 

Thanks to Felix Murimbarimba and the team in Mvurwi, Chatsworth, Wondedzo, Masvingo, Matobo, Hippo Valley and Chikombedzi for continuing to report on the situation on the ground across our field sites, and for providing the photos. This is the 13th blog in this series documenting how the pandemic has affected rural livelihoods in Zimbabwe.

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

local

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Rural livelihoods in the pandemic: notes from Zimbabwe

Half a million people have now been vaccinated in Zimbabwe, but this is still only 3.5% of the population. The Chinese Sinopharm vaccine has now been fully approved by the WHO for emergency use and Zimbabwe’s vaccination drive is in full swing. Even tourists from South Africa are taking advantage of vaccine availability for a fee. However, there have been hitches and hesitancy, and despite widespread adherence to basic hygiene/sanitisation measures, there is a general relaxation on social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention measures after so many months of restrictions.

It is perhaps not surprising that things have relaxed since the peak of the lockdown periods, given that case rates are low and recorded recoveries are high. The total number of cases recorded in Zimbabwe by 7 May was 38,403, while the number of registered deaths was 1,576. Compared to many other countries, this remains very low; although of course these are likely underestimates. And the effects of COVID-19 are very uneven geographically and socially too, with most cases and deaths recorded in Harare and Bulawayo and especially among relative elites. The rural areas where our team live and work remain largely unscathed by the virus.

Relaxed measures, but livelihood challenges remain  

In the rural areas, as our team reported in a conversation last week (this is the twelfth update in our COVID-19 blog series since March 2020), coronavirus is not the major concern. It is a busy time due to harvesting after a good season and, with the seasons changing, many are complaining of colds and ‘flus as the weather becomes colder. Livestock diseases continue to cause problems after the very wet periods, with the lumpy skin outbreak in Matabeleland causing havoc.

While there are fewer restrictions these days and no curfews, there’s still a lockdown and there are notional restrictions of business hours, although many do not observe these. Large gatherings remain banned, but there are plenty of drinking spots where people gather in numbers. Many have returned to normal business, although transport remains limited as private operators remain restricted.

Despite the relaxation, the police are always ready to extract bribes, and moving about remains a hassle. Informal gatherings for beer drinking are regularly raided, but those hosting these often have made advance deals with the police or can pay them off. Movement across borders for trade is especially challenging as there are so many requirements for tests, certificates and loads of paperwork. There is a steady business in forgeries and bribing of officials is apparently commonplace; although there have been some arrests of truck drivers and others for flouting the regulations.

In the rural areas, while the harvest has been good the lack of other sources of income is a challenge. Many have started small agricultural projects – vegetable growing, selling of chickens and so on – and there has been a proliferation of small tuck-shops in everywhere from labour compounds to the smallest village settlement. As one farmer commented, “We used to go to town for shopping, but now there is no need, as everything is here!” With the good harvest and the surplus of agricultural produce in all our sites, farmers’ clubs have been revived to allow for collective selling and helping farmers to source inputs.

Remittances remain important across our sites but have declined, especially from South Africa and Botswana. Many who returned from there during the COVID peak across the border have remained in rural Zimbabwe, unable to return. In our Matobo site in Matabeleland South migrants have become stuck, so have had to find other sources of income as they do not necessarily have their own fields. There has as a result been a massive increase in informal artisanal mining in the area, with many villagers profiting from selling food and renting out blankets for the filtration of sediment. This is mostly taken up by women who are making a steady profit, as apparently 600 Rand can be earned from a careful washing of each blanket rented to miners, retrieving the last bits of gold.   

Schools remain open, but many are working with staggered attendance. This means kids attend only two or three days in the week, with the burden of extra care falling on women. Some have sought out places in boarding schools, as the regimes are stricter and a more complete education can be offered, but in the rural areas this is only possible for those who have got good harvests and income, and this is especially in the tobacco areas.

Vaccine hesitancy and supply challenges

After the high-profile arrival of the Chinese vaccine and the televised inoculation of senior political figures, the rollout has continued across the country. Initially the focus was on ‘front-line’ workers, mostly health workers, and then the elderly were focused on. Now a wider population can get vaccinated, but the take-up is still patchy, a pattern repeated across Africa.

As reported before, many are worried about the vaccine. They have heard of blood clots from vaccines in other parts of the world (mostly the UK), and fear the same will happen to them. This may after all be a plot by foreigners to kill Africans, some argue. People wonder why those who produce so many of these vaccines – such as India and Europe – have been so badly affected. Maybe these vaccines don’t work? And in any case, with so little COVID around, why bother, especially as our local herbs and medicines seem to work well. Some of the religiously inclined argue that the great pestilence of COVID is just a sign that the second coming of Christ is imminent, and we should not worry but celebrate. And of course the rounds of social media rumours reinforce concerns and worries for many.

In our sites there have been no reports of vaccine side-effects but uptake even amongst health workers has been below 50% so far. Of the others, it seems to be mostly women who have been coming forward, along with older people. However, getting a vaccine is not always straightforward. Supplies have been uneven, so clinics may have run out, and a clinic may be 20 kilometres walk away. Many feel that it is not worth the effort of going so far. The idea of mobile delivery like other health outreach was recommended by some, arguing that this will get more to take the vaccine and the vaccines can be kept in cooler boxes for the day.

Across our sites, the availability, delivery and acceptance of vaccines is the highest in Hippo Valley. Here the major hospitals in Hippo Valley and Triangle are run by the sugar company, Tongaat Hullett. Workers on the estates, as well as contract farmers, have taken up the vaccine in droves. In part the supply is better, but some commented that they feared the company discriminating against them if they didn’t have a shot. Either they might lose their job or they might not be able to get access to company services. On the estate, a different set of rules applies.

Across the country, including widely in the rural areas in all our sites, there is on-going promotion of vaccination and other mitigation measures by the government, some churches, NGOs and others, and overall the general understanding of the disease and its prevention is high. Contrary to the politicised narrative from the urban areas about the clampdown on civil society (which certainly has happened), by-and-large people think the government is doing the best it can – a finding echoed in a large survey mostly of urban dwellers in February.

While the official media pumps out health messages, people confront many other sources of information via Whatsapp, Facebook and so on. There are parallel messages, with people often getting confused or anxious, particularly around vaccines.  Vaccine rumours abound, and it is difficult for most to sift fact from fiction. One rumour was set off in our Matobo site that the vaccine also prevented HIV/AIDS and there was a flood of people turning up at clinics until the rumour was dismissed. It is clear that HIV/AIDS still remains a much more live concern for many than COVID-19.

Life continues, but fears on the horizon

The big fear in Zimbabwe as elsewhere is the prospect of new variants. No-one wants to return to a full lockdown and as everywhere people have viewed the scenes from India with horror. The leaky borders, the dodgy certificates, the prospect of flows of refugees from the conflict in northern Mozambique and the opening up of international travel are all sources of concern. But meanwhile, people in our sites must get on with their livelihoods, generating a living in a challenging economy. There is a harvest to bring in and sell, gold to mine, vegetables to sell and livestock to look after. Rural life in Zimbabwe continues, despite the pandemic.

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

Thanks to the team in Mvurwi, Matobo, Chikombedzi, Hippo Valley, Chatsworth, Wondedzo and Masvingo for contributions to the on-going monitoring of the local situation and to Felix Murimbarimba for coordinating.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized