Over the past few weeks, the people of Zimbabwe have faced increased repression with activists and journalists facing arrest. The government cracked down on a protest that was scheduled for July 31 against the deteriorating economic conditions. The Pan Africanism Today Secretariat analyzes the situation.
Many years of state repression rooted in a mixture of neoliberal policies and structural adjustment programs had plunged Zimbabwe into a dire situation long before the humanitarian and economic crisis unfolding today. Corruption has been an inherent part of the predatory ZANU-PF regime, which has always seen state coffers as its prey. The spread of COVID-19 has further exposed an already failing system, leading to an intensified political and economic crisis.
In 2019 alone, Zimbabwe’s economy is estimated to have contracted by 7.5% while the inflation rate stood above 500% and 5.7 million people were plunged into extreme poverty. Today, inflation is above 730% while the ripple effect of the current economic collapse has resulted in debilitating consequences for the poor. Irrespective of the daily labor by Zimbabwe’s workers, the price distortion due to hyper inflation means that ordinary traders do not make enough money to feed themselves on a daily basis. Thus, what is understood as the economic decline and relapsing of the Zimbabwean economy, at a human level, translates into hunger, extreme poverty, homelessness, exploitative working conditions and a growing sense of hopelessness. In Zimbabwe today, food insecurity has become a shockingly accepted norm.
The crisis in Zimbabwe cuts across the material divide which has historically fractured the working class. This is because unemployed and employed, skilled and unskilled labor, doctors and farmers, have all been dramatically influenced by the collapse of the Zimbabwean economy.
In April 2020, the food poverty line was recorded as $596.96 for one person. While food insecurity was expected to rise in the year 2020, the current crisis provides no end in sight for Zimbabwe’s 14.8 million people. This as, 3.3 million more urban Zimbabweans are expected to be food insecure by the end of the year. This is on top of the 5.5 million expected to be food insecure in rural Zimbabwe.
COVID-19 arrived during an already evolving crisis
Against this backdrop, COVID-19 arrived at Zimbabwe’s doorstep. Earlier, in February 2020, the highest paid teacher earned 4000 Zimbabwean Dollars (ZWD) ($11.05). Following protests by soldiers and nurses over unannounced salary cuts by the government, midway through June, salaries were increased for all civil servants by 50%. The government has further committed to paying non taxable Covid-19 allowances to civil servants and pensioners. These are respectively $75 and $30 per month. Therefore the highest paid teacher would earn $91.58 dollars per month, factoring the increase and government allowance. Yet, unsurprisingly these measures have failed to be enough.
In the midst of this crisis there are those who have created and benefited from business opportunities through state contracts created by COVID-19. The pandemic has been a launchpad for cronyism and worsening siphoning of public resources. Some opposition leaders who have raised awareness around Covid-19 corruption in the country have been arrested by the ZANU-PF government under allegations of inciting public violence. The rapidly declining nature of the Zimbabwean economy means that there is a shortage of reliable unemployment data. However, it is estimated that above 95% of the population sustains itself on informal work.
The government has recently faced widespread criticism as the COVID-19 imposed curfew on 21 July was understood as state repression to quell growing dissent. The government’s repressive silencing of dissenting voices, mobilizing towards the day of mass action on July 31 by opposition leaders, NGOs, community groups and activists deepened the contradictions between the ruling elite and opposition forces in Zimbabwe.
The deep rooted corruption of Zimbabwe’s ruling elite network of patronage has intensified the economic crisis which has plunged the majority of Zimbabweans into poverty. The widespread criticism of the government’s handling of the pandemic has proved to be justified by the arrest and charging of Zimbabwe’s former Health Minister, Obadiah Moyo. Moyo was fired and charged with corruption over the illegal awarding of a COVID-19 supply contract. The minister was arrested and charged along with three executives from the state-owned National Pharmaceutical Company and the local representative of the Drax International company. Despite the arrests and charging, it has emerged that those charged were not in President Emmerson Mnanangwagwa’s favoured faction. This was even as two permanent secretaries loyal to Mnanangwagwa who signed the illegal deal were not arrested. Despite the ZANU-PF government’s inability to stabilize the Zimbabwean economy, it awarded the contract in dispute to a company that inflated prices, with the government invoiced $28 for disposable masks valued at under $4.
Prior to the arrest of the health minister, government officials were under public scrutiny after it emerged that the largest portion of COVID-19 expenses were travel and subsistence allowances for top government officials. This is despite healthcare workers in Zimbabwe being poorly paid and the healthcare infrastructure being severely under resourced.
Healthcare in tatters
May 2020 marked the end of a malaria outbreak in Zimbabwe. In the first four months of the year, 262 968 malaria cases were reported with 246 deaths. Earlier in April, the health minister had noted that COVID-19 had been prioritized over existing diseases such as malaria. Despite the 22 000 annual HIV/AIDS related deaths, HIV/AIDS patients are reportedly defaulting on antiretrovirals (ARVs). This is because they cannot afford the meals that are prerequisite in taking ARV medication. An ongoing drought in Zimbabwe has further decreased available clean water thereby increasing the risk of communicable diseases.
It therefore comes as no surprise that according to the World Health Organization’s African Region COVID-19 Status, Zimbabwe is only moderately prepared for handling the pandemic. In a country of 14.9 million people, there are merely 3 isolation units, no dedicated virology lab and no available ICU beds for COVID-19 treatment. In preparing for the inevitable surge in Zimbabwe’s COVID-19 case load, the country is reported to have under 100 ventilators.
Concerns over Africa’s capacity to provide reliable COVID-19 data continue to grow as the South African Medical Research Council’s weekly death reports indicate a significant surge in deaths reported as natural deaths. The surge in deaths does not match historical trends. Rather, they are in line with South Africa’s COVID-19 data. To date, Zimbabwe has confirmed 104 Covid-19 related deaths. Neighboring Botswana has 2 confirmed Covid-19 deaths and no available data on their testing rate. Zimbabwe’s 67,374 Covid-19 tests performed remains far below neighboring South Africa’s 3.25 million cumulative tests.
Prior to COVID-19, healthcare personnel have been under intense pressure over the past year with doctors and nurses protesting against low wages. In January 2020, Zimbabwean doctors ended a strike which had been ongoing for over 4 months. The doctors ended the strike after the intervention of Britain-based Zimbabwean Billionaire, Strive Masiyiwa who allocated $5.9 million to pay the doctors an allowance of $300 per month, over a period of 6 months. Nurses have continued to go on strike during the COVID-19 pandemic, striking against low wages and a lack of protective equipment by the Zimbabwean government. The remuneration of nurses in Zimbabwean currency means that they are unable to meet living costs.
The current COVID-19 curfew limits movement between 6 am and 6 pm, and restricts official business hours for non-essential services to between 8 am and 3 pm. Those that are the most affected are the majority informal workers, as public transport in town and to all rural areas remains banned.
The crisis of capitalism will further exacerbate this already collapsing political and economic system. Capitalist regimes all over the world have a proven track record of not only being unable to resolve their crises, but also of resorting to brute force to crush any legitimate and democratic calls by the people for the system to change. The solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe lies with the people. This entails unity among progressives in all quarters – from trade unions to social movements. This must include the employed and the unemployed. Zimbabwe has historically been known as the breadbasket of Africa. The irony of a breadbasket which breaks records in terms of hunger levels will not be lost on anyone. The true liberation of the people of Zimbabwe is a question for all progressive and justice-loving people and organizations. It is a task for the region, the continent and the world. We join the people of Zimbabwe in their struggle against multiple crises and stand firm that victory is as certain as our need to continue our struggle for an end to all oppression and exploitation.