Tag Archives: COVID-19

Preparing for the next pandemic: lessons from Zimbabwe

There is a lot of talk about pandemic preparedness, but what does it mean? Too often there are narrow, medicalised versions – focused for example on drug stockpiling, vaccine banks and so on. A forthcoming COVID Collective report – Pandemic Preparedness for the Real World – has critiqued this view, offering a wider perspective on pandemic preparedness. What might a more locally rooted version of pandemic preparedness look like? Can wider understandings of how building resilience within communities can assist? There have been many important lessons emerging from the pandemic experience, but are they being learned? The relatively quiet and calm inter-pandemic period is crucial, as there will surely be a next one.

During November and December 2022, we tested the ideas in the COVID Collective report with different communities in six sites across Zimbabwe in a series of dialogues. This built on real-time research in the same settings from March 2020 to February 2022. From Chikombedzi in the dry, far south, via the sugar estates of Hippo Valley and Triangle to the livestock farming area of Matobo and the maize/horticulture zone of Masvingo and Gutu to the tobacco growing area of Mvurwi, we engaged with a real diversity of rural settings (see map). There has been remarkably little commentary or research on rural contexts and we aimed to fill this gap. Our work did not rely on snapshot surveys, but on real-time discussion and reflection – involving six field researchers living in the sites, a field coordinator and Ian Scoones at IDS.

The result was a series of 20 blogs published from March 2020, when the first case identified in Zimbabwe,  to February 2022. They are all available on Zimbabweland, and also in a new book, which can purchased or downloaded online (see cover, below; full details in sources).

About 20 people who had engaged with our real-time learning during the pandemic were invited to the dialogues, each of which lasted around 3 hours, with discussions following on over lunch. Participants included farmers, local leaders, church leaders and government personnel. In one dialogue we had representatives from five ministries: Agriculture (Agritex), Health (a nurse and village health worker), education (teacher), local government (a councillor) and Home Affairs (police), along with farmers and others. We invited participants to reflect on lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic and the implications for preparing for a next pandemic.

Following the wider COVID Collective report, we discussed three themes: the diverse forms of knowledge, the role of reliability professionals and how formal and informal institutions interact. These combined to generate an understanding about how resilience – and so preparedness – can be built.

Knowledge

A key theme from our real-time reflections and from the dialogues was the importance of making use of multiple knowledges. Under conditions of uncertainty, using varied, plural knowledges is essential, people argued.

In one of the dialogues there was an interesting exchange around how local knowledge about treatments (which became really essential during the pandemic) was devalued by formal medical knowledge systems. A particular concern was vaccines, around which there many concerns expressed. Were these being used to experiment on or worse exterminate Africans? What was the role of the Chinese in this? This raised in particular the whole question of trust in knowledge and how it carries authority – and particularly trust in the state. This was clearly lacking for much of the pandemic and remains a big challenge for preparedness plans.

During the pandemic people felt very much on their own, without the help of the state, but the processes of local innovation and information sharing were impressive. The huge array of local remedies – centred of course on the famous plant Zumbani – became central to how people managed the disease. These were shared rapidly through WhatsApp groups, allowing knowledge for example of the Omicron variant to spread from our sites in Chikombedzi near the SA border to Mvurwi and on to the UK within a week or so – far, far faster than the published scientific information and public health advice.

So, what are the implications for pandemic preparedness. The dialogues confirmed that it is vital that different knowledge systems work together – not just informally but formally. This means more investment in assessing local treatments and integrating them into pandemic responses. Also important is the task of reinforcing the knowledge networks that allow the exchange of validated information (not just from public health sources) across communities and into the diaspora. And all of this exchange must help build trust between different sources of expertise, avoiding the dangers of vaccine anxiety for example experienced this time. 

Reliability professionals

When health systems are weak and ineffective in the face of an unknown threat, then certain key professionals on the front line, embedded in networks become key. This is an important lesson from Zimbabwe. Literatures on critical infrastructures (for example water or electricity supply systems) tell us that it is ‘reliability professionals’ – not standardised protocols and routines – allow for the services to be delivered, even in contexts of high input variability. They can scan the horizon for impending dangers, while attending to day-to-day responses on the ground.

Who were these reliability professionals during the pandemic? In our real-time research we met one – a young nurse at a rural hospital. He had been training at the very beginning of the pandemic in a large hospital in Harare and had learned some of the features of COVID-19. His superiors in the hospital were fearful as they knew that COVID was coming – particularly given the proximity to the South African border. The Ministry had cut and pasted some instructions from WHO – it was all they had – but these were not enough.

When the first disease arrived in the area (during the delta phase), he worked with other local officials – traditional leaders, church pastors, heads of women’s groups – to share information but also learn from the ground. He had a good idea of the big picture, but also a sense of what was happening locally. As the pandemic changed (as it soon did), then he instituted new arrangements at the hospital and helped patients in the wards and at home. He was allowed to do this by his superiors, but it wasn’t in his job description. Crucially, he was given the latitude to use his professional skills and his networks to generate reliability in a difficult setting. But this work was not recognised or rewarded.

There are always people like him. In one of our dialogues, we heard of a Village Health Worker and an Environmental Health Technicians, who played similar roles. But it could equally have been a church leader, a party official, a councillor or whoever. The important point is that to generate reliability in the face of uncertainty –and so assured preparedness – you need these people, and their networks. And they need to be rewarded and recognised.

Institutions                                                                  

There was some quite heated debate in our dialogues about the role of formal institutions in the pandemic. As in our real-time reflections, there was much critique of heavy-handed, unthinking approaches to lockdowns. Everyone appreciated why COVID was a disease of crowds, but did not understand why this meant livelihoods being undermined through lack of transport, closed markets and so on and the education and mental health of children compromised through closed schools, leading to wider social problems of drug taking, teenage pregnancies and crime?

Many thought it was these lockdown measures that caused more hardship than the disease itself. Why couldn’t the Ministry of Health relax the form of lockdown over time as the disease changed with different variants? Why couldn’t the police allow for certain types of marketing (say door to door not large market gatherings)? Why couldn’t the education ministry allow classes to be held in smaller groups for shorter periods, so kids at least had something to do? Why couldn’t the police allow some church services if they were safe, without large crowds? Why couldn’t the ministries speak with each other, so people could make the case that lockdowns were causing untold hardship.?

We always talk about cross-sectoral coordination and integration, but the tendency to centralise and control is strong, especially in an emergency. However, such interaction does happen at the local level (all the people from the five different ministries at one of our dialogues knew each other – but they rarely met together). The problem is that decentralised decision-making is often restricted from on high. The opportunities to negotiate compromises at the local level was because the lockdowns were national requirements (often simply replicating global advice) and implemented with a military style, top-down approach. But global even national advice may not make sense – a pandemic is always local and the politics of response must be local too.

So, a key lesson for preparedness is to decentralise, to trust local negotiations and to be flexible in implementation, responding to local conditions. This may help (in part) address the lack of trust people had in formal institutions because of the nature of an often predatory, autocratic state. In our real-time discussions there was no love lost between farmers and the police who were endlessly taking bribes, preventing marketing and so on. But interestingly in our dialogues, after some barbed exchanges, there developed more of a compromise; an acknowledgement that during the pandemic the police were following orders, working absurdly long hours and were barely paid. Talking together and building relationships helps institutions function better. This work is vital for being prepared for the next pandemic.

Rural people in all our sites have a good understanding of the epidemiology, which improved impressively through the pandemic (often again rather faster than the science). But they also knew how their livelihoods had suffered. Making sure that pandemic responses are livelihood-compatible – perhaps working out a series of options – is vital, and public health and livelihoods more generally must be seen in one holistic approach with local people and formal institutions working together. 

Resilience

These three themes together offer insights into how to build resilience in ways that allow people to be prepared for the next pandemic. There is a lot of lip service paid towards ideas of community resilience in the health sector. Indeed, resilience is a development buzzword that often lacks meaning, even if it attracts donor dollars (see our BMJ-GH paper for a reflection). 

So, from our studies what is resilience? First, resilience isn’t a thing that can be planted, implemented, created as part of a project, it’s a process, emerging from relationships. Second, resilience isn’t just about bouncing back to what existed before (often vulnerability and poverty), but it’s about transforming structural relations – yes, it’s political. Third, building resilience at community level is essential, but it’s not a panacea, or an excuse not to build the staff, stuff, space and social support central to health systems, as Paul Farmer liked to put.

The ‘communities’ in our research sites are not uniform – contests exist between those with different religious beliefs, between men and women, young and old, rich and poor. Finding a collective way through the pandemic was always negotiated politically, and some were left behind. As with all pandemics, COVID-19 accentuated already existing inequalities and vulnerabilities – meaning that local solutions through romantic visions of community action were not enough and external intervention and support was needed.

What emerged through our discussions was the understanding that the resilience building was all about relationships. The work of reliability professionals focused on relationships and networks (even if centred on a skilled individual), while debates about knowledge were about how different knowledge systems need to relate. Equally, innovation for a more resilient outcome had to involve multiple actors interacting with each other. And, in relation to institutions, again it was all about working together, between ministries and between the state and local actors, with different interests.

In other words, while focusing on the community (broadly understood, and often stretching far through knowledge networks), community resilience should not result in a reification of indigenous knowledge or local ‘community’ practice, somehow isolated from the world. Instead it involved diverse communities interacting with a range of players, including the formal health system. In other words, a hybrid, plural health system was envisaged as the basis for long-term resilience, and the cornerstone of pandemic preparedness.

Lessons and priorities

Where does all this leave us? How has learning in a pandemic and convening dialogues about it afterwards help us develop more effective approaches to pandemic preparedness?

We need to do better than last time. Those countries that were according to WHO the most prepared for a pandemic, had some of the worst outcomes (including the UK and the US). Why was this? It was because they relied on a narrow form of preparedness, reliant on a particular type of knowledge (mostly epidemiological modelling) and a standardised approach to pandemic response (movement control, lockdowns etc.). What they didn’t do was listen to local reliability professionals in decentralised institutions (the doctors and nurses and local government workers in the British Asian communities in the UK Midlands, for example). Nor did they work with the most vulnerable communities (in the case of the UK/US, densely packed multigenerational urban households) to help build resilience (of networks and relationships).

The four themes that emerged from Zimbabwe are therefore as relevant in the UK or the US. But they need to be thought about and implemented in different ways, with local contexts in mind. This is the job now – in the inter-pandemic period when things are calmer and lessons still fresh in the mind. It’s too easy to forget and go for knee jerk responses that replicate past mistakes when a new emergency arises. The impulse to centralise through a securitised, authoritarian response is strong, but other alternatives are essential and need to be fostered now.

Three priorities to help build resilience for preparedness emerge:

  • Support knowledge networks that connect formal and informal, local and scientific knowledges, and carry out research on local treatments and the processes by which they are developed and shared.
  • Identify and map reliability professionals and their networks across communities, and provide support and recognition to them
  • Encourage the decentralisation of decision-making across ministries, including convening cross-sectoral fora for emergency pandemic response.

All of these priorities need to be addressed now. There’s an important role for donors in this, including providing contingency funds at the local level to allow for rapid response around knowledge sharing, reliability professional support and decentralised institutional interaction.

Virtually none of these things are being done in Zimbabwe yet (or indeed anywhere else), and it will require significant finance both to local communities and the state in ways that are flexible and crucially with finance arriving in advance of the inevitable next crisis.

Further sources:

Bwerinofa, I.J.; Mahenehene, J.; Manaka, M.; Mulotshwa, B.; Murimbarimba, F.; Mutoko, M.; Sarayi, V. and Scoones, I. (2022) What is ‘community resilience’? Responding to COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe, BMJ Global Health

Bwerinofa, I.J. et al. (2022) Living Through a Pandemic: Competing Covid-19 Narratives in Rural Zimbabwe, IDS Working Paper 575 https://opendocs.ids.ac.uk/opendocs/handle/20.500.12413/17593

Bwerinofa, I.J et al. (2022). Learning in a Pandemic. Reflections on COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe. IDS: Brighton, 160 pages (colour) Amazon (£12.72, paper, £1.25, Kindle) or download in high- or low-resolution versions here and here).  

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and Felix Murimbarimba and was originally a presentation at FCDO Harare in November 2022. It draws from research on the impacts of COVID-19 in rural areas of Zimbabwe carried out from March 2020. The dialogues held in November and December 2022 were supported by the FCDO-funded COVID Collective.

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Navigating uncertainty, predicting the future: the importance of religion in Zimbabwe

In today’s uncertain world, having a sense of what the future holds is vital. This is why biblical predictions and prophecies hold so much cachet, offering hope in times of turmoil. While religion may be the ‘opium of the people’ it can provide a sense of direction when none seem available. This is of course religion’s power, and why those who claim they can foretell disasters and cataclysmic events are held up high, attracting followers and sometimes great wealth.

Responding to drought and keeping the spirits happy

Our discussions on drought and how people manage uncertainty (see a previous four-part blog series) highlighted many examples of how farmers made use of natural signs as a source of prediction – bird song, particular trees, clouds and so on. And when these failed – as they often do – then everyday adaptation and attuned response based on accumulated experience is necessary.

In the past, as discussed in the previous blog, people would rely on rainmaking ceremonies conducted in relation to wider territorial cults to assure good harvests. Paying respect to the ancestral spirits, brewing beer and offering libations and providing contributions to the rainmaking cult shrine in Njelele were all part of the annual cycle. Only some key people were involved, led by the spirit mediums (svikiros) and assisted by the rainmaking messengers (nyusa) and supported by the traditional leadership. Only men and post-menopausal women and pre-pubescent girls could be involved in the ceremonies. Ritual purity was essential to please the spirits and assure good rains and harvests.

As discussed before, such practices are declining across our study areas, and nearly completely absent in some such is the dominance of diverse forms of Christian religion described in an earlier blog in this series. But this does not mean that appeasing spirits or a Christian God is not central to dealing with uncertainty.

Indeed, all churches pray for rain as part of their services, while the spiritualist churches go further and call on spirits to assist their followers (whether the Holy Spirit or some others linked to the ancestors), using a whole array of ritual objects and practices to cement the relationship, whether anointed oil, holy water, sacred beer or burning candles and incense.

Prophecy and hope in challenging times

The prophets of the indigenous African churches are especially important, offering hope and salvation to their followers. They offer predictions on coming seasons, as well as suggesting what agricultural practices to follow. For individuals who have suffered mishaps, particular advice can be offered, sometimes for a fee.

While some of our informants condemned these new Johanne Masowe churches as just ‘false prophets’, in it for the business and sometimes sexual favours, there are others who are firm believers, arguing that such prophecies will be fulfilled, and the directions should be followed.  

When there is no one else to turn to and when such prophecies offer some surety and hope in difficult times, then it is no surprise that such prophet-led churches have many followers. It is perhaps a reflection of the times that such churches have become so popular – and indeed politically influential. If the state and ruling party cannot provide and provide the basic protections, then other sources of succour must be sought.

During the pandemic the role of prophets became significant. With Apostolic churches rejecting modern medical explanation and intervention, the COVID-19 pandemic was interpreted in different ways. Predicted in the bible and representing a scourge on humans by God, it was accepted as fate rather than as an epidemiological challenge. Prophets offered support to those who were fearful and treatment for those who became sick. In the absence of other forms of support, given the parlous state of the health system, such alternatives were often seen as the only alternative and people flocked to the prophets, with many more appearing during the pandemic.

Waiting for the rain

The annual agricultural cycle is centred on waiting for the rain, and anyone who can offer predictions for the season and ways of preventing disaster have great power. The power of the territorial rain cults in the past and the prophets today is witness to the importance of this role. An agricultural extension worker joked that they are the ‘scientific prophets’, providing meteorological information during the season and advice on how to adapt agricultural practices, but they often cannot compete with the church prophets; or at least people will consult both to inform their decisions.

Warnings of impending apocalypse as well as salvation are recurrent themes in Christian doctrines, but how these are interpreted and explained to followers differs widely. Such events may seem inevitable, resulting in a sense of despair but also dependence on religious intervention. In the case of the prophets this becomes a source of income as well as an opportunity to garner more followers. While not rejecting external support and recognising the value of science, the state and wider development, other churches – whether the Pentecostals or the Seventh Day Adventists – foster a view that disasters cannot be averted but for the grace of God, making prayer, religious commitment and doctrinal adherence essential.

For others, a sense of hopeless inevitability only offset by divine intervention is rejected with a focus on people’s empowerment and transformation. This too is seen as a religious vocation. The liberation theology of the Roman Catholic church has had influence in Zimbabwe through Silveira House, and a progressive alternative for development, centred on peace and justice, is promoted.

Religion in turbulent times

Religion therefore offers many different compasses for navigating uncertainty in a turbulent world, based on different doctrines and interpretations. The rise of the ‘new’ churches and the role of prophets however is especially important in many of our study areas, with important implications for how people confront uncertainties and adapt their agricultural practices.

Understanding how religious belief influences agricultural practice – and particular adaptation to climate change and addressing wider uncertainties – is a crucial theme, but still remains rarely discussed.  

This blog was first published on Zimbabweland and was compiled by Ian Scoones. This is the fourth and final blog in this series. It is informed by contributions from Judy Bwerinofa (Triangle), Jacob Mahenehene (Chikombedzi), Makiwa Manaka (Chatsworth), Bulisie Mlotshwa (Matobo), Felix Murimbarimba (Masvingo/Hippo Valley), Moses Mutoko (Wondedzo) and Vincent Sarayi (Mvurwi)

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Building ‘community resilience’ through the pandemic in rural Zimbabwe

‘Community resilience’ is one of those policy buzzwords that has emerged through the pandemic. With the clear limitations of many public health measures, particularly in settings where health systems are weak, relying on community capacities to respond to pandemic shocks and ‘build back better’ (another familiar buzzword) is seen as the way to go. This does not mean that standard public health and technical measures are abandoned, but they must go hand-in-hand with community resilience-building.

For some, this is at last a recognition that local efforts count, and that centralised health systems are not the only solutions. A more plural, rooted alternative is needed. For others, this is a typical neoliberal sleight of hand, downplaying the role of state support in times and relying on community voluntarism.

Whatever the underlying motivations, the big question is what happens on the ground and how can this help both with pandemic preparedness and response? This was the focus of our research in Zimbabwe, conducted in real-time over two years from March 2020. As the earlier blog that introduced our new book highlighted, we had an open-ended approach to research. No prior questions or hypotheses and an approach that lent itself to finding out what was happening as events unfolded in real-time.

We therefore did not start out with any prior ideas about ‘community resilience’; indeed, we did not use the term (and I am not sure we could translate it into Shona or Ndebele anyway). Instead, we explored the reactions to the pandemic in different sites through deep immersion, inductively understanding the dynamics.

Resilience building in a plural health system

Our new open access paper in the British Medical Journal (Global Health) journal presents the findings and explores whether what we found was ‘community resilience’. Around two themes – adaptable livelihoods and learning and innovation – we certainly found a core set of practices, centred on making use of local, contextual knowledge, learning and sharing ideas across networks and social and technical innovation, not least around COVID-19 treatments (including local herbs and tree products, such as Zumbani, see lead photo). All contributed to a process of building resilience, the ability to resist and transform shocks and stresses.

However, these practices were all highly differentiated – across sites and amongst people – and so a simple form of ‘local’, ‘community’ resilience could be questioned. Indeed, while autonomy and independence was hailed, in practice it was the interaction between formal and informal health systems – a plural health system – that was important. In the same way a standard version of ‘resilience’ was also challenged, as the responses were not ‘bouncing back’ to a prior state, but often resulted in transformations in livelihoods, social relations and politics, sometimes with empowering effects on certain people, but more often than not a sense of resigned coping in the face of on-going hardship compounded by the pandemic.

The paper is open access, so you can read the full piece, but meanwhile here’s the abstract:

Based on real-time recording and reflection of responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, this article identifies the features of ‘community resilience’ across sites in rural Zimbabwe. The findings confirm the importance of local knowledge, social networks and communication, as highlighted in the literature. In addition, a number of other aspects are emphasised, including the importance of adaptable livelihoods, innovation and collective learning. Flexible adaptation was especially important for responding to lockdowns, as livelihoods had to be re-configured in response to public health measures. Meanwhile, innovation and shared learning was vital for generating local treatment responses to the disease. In the Zimbabwe context, these adaptation and innovation capabilities emerge from a particular historical experience where resilience in the face of harsh economic conditions and in the absence of state support has been generated over years. This is often a more resigned coping than a positive, empowering, transformational form of resilience. While adaptation, innovation and shared learning capabilities proved useful during the pandemic, they are not evenly spread, and there is no singular ‘community’ around which resilience emerges. The article therefore argues against seeing ‘community resilience’ as the magic bullet for disaster preparedness and response in the context of pandemics. Instead, the highly differentiated local practices of adaptation, innovation and shared learning – across gender, age, wealth differences – should be seen as an important complement to public, state-led support in health emergencies, and so part of a wider, plural health system. 

And here is an extract from the conclusion:

Pandemics are an opportunity to rethink the way health systems operate. However, the popular idea of ‘community resilience’ must always be seen as part of a wider suite of responses and not as a magic-bullet solution. In the Zimbabwe case, responses to COVID-19 occurred in the context of a weak health service, an economy in a dire state and when trust in the state – or more precisely politicians – was extremely low. Here a resigned resilience – or coping – centred on autonomous local capabilities, although differentiated within a ‘community’ and also stretching beyond a locality, was clearly important in the COVID-19 response in rural Zimbabwe.

Generating such resilience, we saw the importance of plural health systems, involving many actors – formal and informal. This was not just ‘the community’, but a wider mix of players, all connecting around a complex pandemic response. Of course, such a plural system had long existed, but it came into its own during the pandemic. While the moniker ‘community’ is problematic and ‘resilience’ of course is an extremely difficult concept to pin down, certainly elements of what is referred to as ‘community resilience’ were present in our study areas during the pandemic.

See: Bwerinofa, I.J.; Mahenehene, J.; Manaka, M.; Mulotshwa, B.; Murimbarimba, F.; Mutoko, M.; Sarayi, V. and Scoones, I. (2022) What is ‘community resilience’? Responding to COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe, BMJ Global Health

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

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

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

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Competing COVID-19 narratives in rural Zimbabwe

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

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

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

A drama in three parts

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

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

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

Competing narratives

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

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

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

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

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

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

A window on society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Learning in a pandemic: real-time research on COVID-19 in rural Zimbabwe

In March 2020, when COVID-19 first arrived in Zimbabwe, we decided to switch our research focus to study the unfolding implications of the pandemic in our rural sites across the country. We did not expect to continue for over two years. It required us to reinvent a way of doing research so that we got to understand how the pandemic affected lives and livelihoods as well as emotions, social relations and politics.

The pandemic was not one event: there were different phases, with intermittent lockdowns and fluctuating incident. At some points, particularly at the beginning, people were scared, fearful of what was to come. At other points, people were angry, frustrated that they could not get on with their daily lives, prevented from doing so by strictly imposed movement restrictions, curfews and bans on trading. At still other points, people felt relatively relaxed, confident in their own treatments and abilities to survive, dismissing the impositions from outside as irrelevant and politically motivated.

Too often studies of the pandemic are based on snapshots, at best a series of them. These studies were often done at a distance through phone interviews and recall. Such approaches have their worth, but they do not get at the experiences of living in a pandemic, and how strategies changed over time. Responses were quite contingent, reflecting a diversity of factors impinging at particular moments. And it was not only what people did, what they earned, how they responded, but also how they felt about it that framed the response.

Over nearly 20 years, our work in Zimbabwe has focused on a number of sites across the country where land reform took place (see map). The research team largely lives and works in these places, stretching from Chikombedzi in the far south lowveld, to the sugar estates of Hippo Valley and Triangle, to Matobo in Matabeleland South where livestock are especially important to other mixed farming sites in Masvingo, both near the main town (Wondedzo) and further north in Gutu. Our final site in Mvurwi, a tobacco growing area not far from Harare, the capital, is a high potential area, where commercial farming dominates. Although no set of sites can be truly representative, our seven areas cover a wide range of contexts.

Our field team are all farmers and some earn other money from extension worker jobs with government, well-digging and other activities – including research. They know their areas well and the people there. Their contacts are excellent, both in the land reform sites and the small towns in the areas. They have their fingers on the pulse and are not external researchers separated from the pandemic. They had to experience it as everyone else did in their areas, experiencing the uncertainties, worrying about the lack of health facilities and dealing with illness and sometimes death over the past years.

At the beginning of the pandemic, we decided to write occasional blogs on what we found. The process involved the team documenting experiences, identifying themes, interviewing people and writing down quotes and case studies. The information was then relayed to the research team lead, Felix Murimbarimba in WhatsApp conversations. Photos from the field sites were sent too. Felix then compiled the reports and relayed them to Ian Scoones who was in the UK, prevented from travel due to the pandemic. He the put together a blog. In the end, 20 were produced starting in March 2020.

We did not have any prior questions, beyond finding out what was happening in each of the sites. We left each team member to probe and explore what was happening in each place: the stories, the gossip, the scandals, the innovations, the tragedies. This allowed an open-ended approach to the research without assumptions or biases. We were interested of course in how rural life changed, so themes of agriculture, land and livelihoods were central, and reflected our own professional foci and our past research. But as we went along there were particular themes that emerged.

The way people had to diversify was central, with small-scale mining for example being important in many areas, with important gender and age dimensions. Issues of politics emerged at different points in different sites, and everyone had a view resulting in much debate about the role of lockdowns, the value of vaccines and the influence of corrupt officials and more. As the pandemic progressed, we noticed innovations of different sorts – in some cases to get around the regulations, in others to develop local treatments for the symptoms of the disease. A rich picture emerged, one that would have been impossible through any other research approach.

As a real-time reflection on a pandemic from the standpoint of local participants, it is a unique record. The blogs have now been compiled in a short 160-page book, illustrated with colour photos from the sites. You can buy the book on Amazon (£12.72 for a paper copy, £1.25 for a Kindle version) or download it in high- or low-resolution versions here and here).

We have also produced two more analytical papers from the material, reflecting on cross-cutting themes. These include a paper on ‘narratives’ around the pandemic and how across three periods these narratives constructed the social and political reaction to the pandemic in rural Zimbabwe. The other paper published in BMJ Global Health looks at local resilience-building, and how adaptable livelihoods and local innovation contributed to the ability to survive in the face of an uncertain, unknown disease across our research areas. These two papers will be featured in the following two blogs.

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

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

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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.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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