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Big Saturday Read: Oppah’s “moment of madness”

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By Alex Magaisa

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing fundamental disruption in the lives of many people around the world. The situation in many countries is akin to what you would normally see in science fiction films and literature. Quite predictably, there is no shortage of conspiracy theories. The absence of conclusive scientific explanations of the pandemic creates fertile ground for conspiracy theories and accusations.

Zimbabwe has had its fair share of absurdities concerning the pandemic in the past week. It started with the bizarre statement by the Minister of Defence, Oppah Muchinguri who told a political gathering in Chinhoyi that COVID-19 represented the wrath of God upon Western countries that have imposed sanctions on Zimbabwe. “Coronavirus is the work of God punishing countries that imposed sanctions on us. They are now staying indoors. Their economies are screaming just like they did to ours. Trump should know that he is not God. They must suffer just like they have caused us to suffer,” she told a meeting of war veterans.

Muchinguri’s statements were provincial, callous and insensitive. State media ignored them, most probably because they were too embarrassed to report. But they were reported by Studio 7, which broadcasts from Washington DC. Unsurprisingly, they made it to social media and soon they were being reported by global media networks. Many Zimbabweans found it very embarrassing. It’s not the kind of thing that you want your country to be associated with.

Muchinguri’s boss, President Mnangagwa issued a statement in which he said that the pandemic was a threat to everyone and had a scientific explanation. It was not a direct retraction or an apology but it was clearly in response to the backlash after his Defence Minister’s ill-advised comments. However, the horses had already bolted and Zimbabwe was, once again, associated with an utterly ridiculous and parochial image.

The ruling party cavalry that attempted a feeble and ill-conceived defence of Muchinguri argued that her comments were directed at a “specific constituency”. An editor at The Herald, the state daily which holds the propaganda brief for the ZANU PF regime described Muchinguri’s comments as “clear banter”. But ignoring the old adage that when in a hole you must stop digging only made them look more ridiculous. The notion that Muchinguri’s statements should not be taken seriously because they were directed at a “specific constituency” is very patronising. It treats her audience as stupid enough to deserve being fed provincial views.

The view is also dangerous because it justifies spreading false and misleading information to the poor and vulnerable in the name of banter. Muchinguri is the chairperson of the ruling party and it is irresponsible for her to spread myths concerning a pandemic which poses an existential threat to humanity. She should not be making light of a serious matter let alone creating fictions which will make the task of educating communities about the risk of COVID-19 more difficult. It also shows the disregard with which ZANU PF and associated intellectuals treat ordinary people. In their view, they can be patronised as long as it scores political points for ZANU PF.

It also revealed Muchinguri’s myopia and a lack of awareness which is associated with sociopaths. As she mocked America and other Western countries, she was oblivious to the fact that China was the first country to be affected on a grand scale. By describing COVID-19 as God’s punishment of the West, she was by implication also mocking the Chinese and yet ZANU PF likes to present China as an all-weather friend. China has literally taken over the rehabilitation of Wilkins Hospital, one of Zimbabwe’s main infectious diseases public medical facilities. The US is one of the major contributors to Zimbabwe’s long-standing and commendable fight HIV/AIDS. Britain has just donated £1.7 million through the World Health Organisation to help Zimbabwe’s fight against the pandemic. Muchinguri may have thought she was scoring a political point against America, but she was biting the hand that’s feeding the national health system. It shows why this is not the time for petty politicking.

Senior diplomats at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Trade must have winced upon hearing Muchinguri’s diabolical comments. They have been working hard on re-engagement, paying millions of dollars to lobbyists in Washington DC. To see these efforts being undermined by one misguided and totally unnecessary comment by a senior minister who remains caught up in the old politics of Western-bashing and confrontation must be utterly frustrating. Citizens expecting tough action from Mnangagwa were in for a big disappointment. He responded only because foreign diplomats raised strong objections to Muchinguri’s comments and the remarks hurt the Chinese, but he was never going to directly and publicly censure Muchinguri, let alone sack her. Taking or enforcing responsibility is alien in Zimbabwean politics.

In any event, as I pointed out in last week’s BSR, Mnangagwa himself is an undisputed master of gaffes and political awkwardness. This was after he spoke excitedly about mortuaries and how he had once offered a prize to the family that brought the first body to a new mortuary that he had helped construct. He lacks the moral authority to take tough action against his ministers who go astray in their remarks. Therefore, the likes of Energy Mutodi, who is the Deputy Minister of Information and Publicity can make diabolical statements on a regular basis and none of that moves Mnangagwa. Therefore, while Muchinguri may have caused great reputational damage to the government and the nation at large, she had no reason to worry about her job. The boss had made the absurd look normal.

Rusty wheels of communication

The handling of the pandemic has attracted a lot of commentary among Zimbabweans at home and abroad. Public reaction on social media is marked by doubt and mistrust over the government’s response to the pandemic. This is partly because of a communication weakness on the part of the government. This is something that I covered in a recent BSR. I pointed out that there were multiple channels of government communication which created different streams of information which lacked consistency and led to conflicts. Therefore, you have the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Information, the City of Harare and senior government officials all communicating on the same issues but without message unity. The result is a mess and low public confidence in what the government says.

Sometimes the information is unclear and improbable, leaving the more discerning and critical part of the social media community in doubt and concerned that the government is withholding crucial information or simply covering up. This, admittedly, is also a symptom of general mistrust in government which predates the current pandemic.

The government must sort out its communication concerning the pandemic. There is a need for clarity, consistency and accuracy. This is not a competition of who is first to disclose the latest information. Public trust will grow if there is a single credible voice which appears at regular times each day, presenting the latest information on the pandemic. This voice should preferably be a person with a scientific/medical background who knows what they are talking about. Communication regarding the pandemic is not a political job and it’s certainly not one for so-called spin-doctors.

Action is louder than words

Communication in times like this is not just confined to words. It is also about conduct. This is why most people were taken aback by President Mnangagwa addressing a political rally barely twenty-four hours after he announced a ban on public gatherings. His advisers tried to justify it by saying the ban was due to begin three days after the announcement, but it made no sense. First, it contradicted the initial statement and second, they were rationalising it as if COVID-19 had set a date of arrival in Zimbabwe.

More importantly, Mnangagwa and his advisers failed to appreciate that cancelling a non-essential presidential engagement of a public nature would have sent a powerful message of urgency and seriousness to the local community and the nation at large. The announcement seemed like one that had been made on account of peer pressure, merely because everyone else around the world was doing it, not because there was much conviction.

During the week, people saw pictures of Mnangagwa’s Minister of Finance, Professor Mthuli Ncube in European countries meeting and shaking hands with officials even at a time when everyone is working hard to send the message to reduce such type of contact. Worse, he returns to Zimbabwe and he does not self-isolate but goes into communities meeting people despite the fact that he was coming from countries that have already reported infections. It smacks of recklessness and disregard for the welfare of others and it certainly doesn’t send the right message to the people.

We have been here before and we don’t like it

Observers of older and more experienced stock are concerned because they have seen this lackadaisical approach to a pandemic before and it had devastating consequences. Back in the 1980s, the Zimbabwean government was in denialist mode concerning the nascent HIV/AIDS pandemic. The denialism meant government policy to combat the HIV/AIDS pandemic was weak. It led to complacency among the population, resulting in high infection rates.

Many myths were allowed to fly around, generated by conspiracy-theorists for whom it was a foreign disease. In the social parlance of Zimbabwean teenagers in the eighties, AIDS was regarded as an acronym for “American Idea of Discouraging Sex”. It wasn’t taken seriously. Government Ministers or officials who died of HIV/AIDS-related illnesses were described by the propaganda machine as having succumbed to a “long illness”. It was taboo to mention the actual cause of death. It was as if it was something that never happened in Zimbabwe.

The result was that a pandemic that could have been nipped in the bud spread like wildfire throughout the nation. The government was negligent. It was only after Dr Timothy Stamps became the Minister of Health in Zimbabwe that the government adopted a robust and scientific approach to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. By then, most of the horses had already bolted. But it was a critical turning point for the nation.

It is this experience that causes long-term Zimbabwe observers to be concerned by the way the current government is handling the COVID-19 pandemic. There is a world of difference between being calm and being complacent, and so far the government’s approach has tended to lean towards the latter. The fact that there was no reported positive case until 20th March was not a good reason for the apparent casual approach. The absence of evidence of infection did not mean there was no infection. It may just be a case of limited or poor testing facilities which means cases may have gone beyond the radar. After all, at least two persons had reportedly tested positive not long after leaving Zimbabwe – one in Britain and another in Namibia. The government should be mobilising resources for more testing equipment and centres around the country. Richer countries are having serious challenges and it’s not a weakness to declare incapacity and seek help.

More importantly, it should be using the absence of infections as a window to prepare robustly for the winter period instead of carrying on with a “business as usual” approach. It’s embarrassing that the government spends scarce resources on pointless ceremonies while a foreign government, China is refurbishing the main infectious diseases hospital in Harare. There is a need for more health-care centres in small towns across the country. Our public health system is already decrepit, and this is the time mobilise and divert resources to that sector to make sure the country is ready for when the deluge comes. Preparation requires a robust public education programme, with leaders leading by example both in words and deeds in order to enhance prevention.

Legal aspects of handling the pandemic

When President Mnangagwa declared a state of national disaster in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, he did not specify the legal basis of the declaration. However, it may be safely presumed, going by precedent that the declaration was in terms of the Civil Protection Act. This is the legislation under which previous similar declarations have been made in the past. Such declarations trigger the setting up of militarised national machinery which includes various arms of the state, for purposes of handling the disaster. It also opens channels for the mobilisation of resources needed to deal with the disaster and to provide state assistance to affected communities.

The current pandemic is, however, a unique and unprecedented emergency. The prohibitions that the government is imposing and the powers that it needs to enforce those prohibitions affect fundamental rights and freedoms which are protected by the Constitution. These rights and freedoms include freedom of assembly, freedom of movement, property rights and right to liberty. It is important for the government to ensure that these restrictions are done in terms of the law. As it stands, the presidential statement is no more than an arbitrary decree. It needs to be set out in an appropriate legal instrument in order to give it the force of law.

In doing so, Zimbabwe would not be breaking new ground. Many countries around the world, including our neighbour South Africa with a strong record of constitutionalism, has imposed tough laws which limit some freedoms. Most citizens accept this as a reasonable step to combat the spread of the pandemic if the measures are proportionate to the potential harm posed by the pandemic. One thing that has become apparent during this crisis even in countries like Britain is that the State needs to show a firmer hand because left to their own devices people will continue to behave as if they are invincible in the face of a real and present threat. Liberal democracies like France and Italy have imposed tough rules and penalties to enforce compulsory lockdowns. Citizens are going to have to brace themselves for serious derogations from fundamental rights and freedoms as the State ramps up the fight against the pandemic. It is fair to say in the midst of this pandemic that the demise of the sovereign state may have been exaggerated.

Of course, it will be necessary to maintain the checks and balances to prevent disproportionate measures and abuses carried out in the name of fighting the pandemic. Even though it has adjourned and will have to comply with the social distancing rules to prevent spreading the disease parliament must retain its role to monitor and approve any legal instruments. Judicial remedies must remain available, even if it is on a limited basis, to ensure the right to protection of the law.

Poverty and COVID-19 create a perfect storm

Most countries which have imposed lock-downs are having to grapple with the question of what to do with businesses that have had to change the way they operate or close shop altogether and workers who are being asked to stay at home. Where the nature of the job allows them to work from home, there might be some continuity. But this is not the case for most jobs in factories or trades which require the presence of workers on-site. This is an unprecedented situation which is causing enormous headaches for governments and businesses.

Most industrialised countries are taking special and extraordinary measures to cushion private companies and workers. In Western Europe, the liberal capitalist State is intervening in the economy and in private businesses in ways so drastic that they go way beyond the Communist rulebook. The State is being asked to do things and it is doing things that capitalists would frown upon and condemn in normal times. These are rich countries with enormous amounts of resources for these situations. But, even for them, this is very difficult and unsustainable in the long run. The world is in uncharted territory and this pandemic will redefine the way the world works in a fundamental way.

Poorer countries, on the other hand, find themselves in a far worse position. The sheer lack of resources makes the challenge of combating the pandemic more difficult. These countries do not have the resources to pay people sitting at home. Many of them do not even have a decent social safety net in normal times. In Zimbabwe, an average pensioner gets the equivalent of less than US$5 a month from the state pension. More than 90% of the population is not formally employed. The majority make a living doing odd jobs in the informal sector. A significant portion, especially women, has been buying and selling goods in South Africa. The closure of borders and businesses in South Africa will obviously affect their trade.

Many families have been supported by Zimbabweans in the diaspora but remittances are set to decline as they too lose their jobs and currencies fall in value. It’s hard enough to send money home at normal times and the pandemic makes it harder. In short, most Zimbabweans have been “staying at home” on account of economic challenges long before the COVID-19 pandemic. The government will struggle to pump money to support businesses like Britain is doing. Since the government cannot afford to extend a social safety net to all or most of them, they have no choice but to continue as they have been doing in normal times and hope for the best.

Ordinary people in these poor communities find themselves between a rock and a hard place. If they avoid the wrath of COVID-19 by staying at home, they will find poverty staring them in the eye in those homes. But as they take a gamble and continue working to fight poverty, they get exposed to the pandemic. The great literary giant, Chinua Achebe once wrote, “When suffering knocks at your door and you say there is no seat for him, he tells you not to worry because he has brought his own stool”. The line encapsulates the situation for many citizens around the world right now, but more so for citizens in poor countries and communities.

Sometimes, it’s not even a matter of choice. Half the time people are queuing in their hundreds for basic commodities like maize meal or to withdraw money from the bank, all because of shortages. This places the ban on large public gatherings at odds with the economic reality of the people’s lived realities in poor countries. People gather in large numbers not because they want to, but because of dire social and economic conditions. Even if they stay at home, they are so crowded that the notion of social distancing becomes an elitist label. A family of four in Mount Pleasant can manage social distancing in their six-bedroomed home. But two families dwelling in an apartment meant for a bachelor in Matapi Flats in Mbare would be hard-pressed to manage social distancing.

In this regard, a combination of poverty, bad governance and a pandemic like COVID-19 create a perfect storm which threatens the very existence of the poor members of society. The prevalence of HIV/AIDS infections in these poor countries makes it worse. While COVID-19 is indeed an existential threat to humanity, most of the well-off will find to their surprise that the poor have had to contend with existential threats such as poverty for most of their lives. Part of it is due to natural disasters, another part due to poor governance, greed and corruption by elites. They have not invested in public health facilities. Why would they when they could fly to other countries to rely on their medical facilities? Now, however, the entire world is a high-risk zone, with countries putting up barriers on their border posts. The problems for the poor are also a result of a skewed global economic system which benefited a few at the top of the food chain while paying only lip-service to the plight of the poor.

In the past, it has been easier to conceal the deep divisions because when disasters have struck, they have usually been in one part of the world. People in other parts of the world have mobilised support to help those in need and it has all worked out well. We saw it when Ethiopia faced a famine in the eighties; when a tsunami hit countries in the Far East nearly two decades ago and last year, when Zimbabwe and Mozambique had to deal with the devastation of Cyclone Idai. The COVID-19 pandemic is different because the entire world is affected and nation-states are retreating, shutting borders and focussing largely on their own citizens. This leaves people in poorer countries more exposed and vulnerable to the ravages of the pandemic.

Conclusion

All this is a reminder to local political actors that they must pull together. These are extraordinary times requiring novel approaches to the challenges. It is easy for both the ruling party and the opposition to fall into their binary positions and seek to make political capital out of this calamity. This is not the time for it. The entire nation is at risk. The Coronavirus does not carry a political party card. The ZANU PF Chairperson was widely condemned because she made a stupid political statement hoping to score a cheap goal against the Americans. There is no need to engage in politicking at this stage. This does not mean the ruling party has a free pass, no. The opposition must continue to hold the government to account.

The opposition and anti-corruption watchdogs must remain vigilant to prevent corruption and abuse of resources intended to help in the fight against the pandemic. It’s ironic that conditions of crisis also present rent-seeking opportunities for greedy political elites. They always try to maximise in their role as middlemen between donors and the community. A few years ago, a former government minister was found with several unused wheelchairs gathering dust in a shed on his farm. They had been donated for public use, but he kept them for himself. He had probably hoped to use them to buy votes in a future election, but he may have forgotten that he had them.

It’s going to be a very difficult period, exacerbated by poverty and a declining global economy. The government must make serious preparations to educate the people. Myths and conspiracy theories being peddled as facts on social media must be robustly debunked. The government allowed myths concerning HIV/AIDS to flourish in the 1980s and this had calamitous consequences. This must not be permitted to happen again concerning the COVID-19 pandemic.

WaMagaisa

wamagaisa@me.com