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Innovation in the pandemic: an update from Zimbabwe

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

Rural and urban connections

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

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

The importance of ‘home’

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

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

Food flows

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

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

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

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

Localising value chains: cars are the new mini-markets

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

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

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

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

Working from home

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

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

Finance in the COVID economy

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

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

Alternative health systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Viral politics and economics in Zimbabwe

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

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

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

The smuggling economy

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

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

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

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

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

Mass migrations of people and viruses

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

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

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

Volatile markets: challenges for agricultural producers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pandemic politics in a failing state

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next?

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

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

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

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

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