COVID-19, Hunger, and State Violence are on the Rise in Zimbabwe

Africa reports 1.3 million positive COVID-19 cases, leading some health officials to consider that the continent may have escaped the worst of the coronavirus.

In Zimbabwe, the health ministry reports low levels of the virus, with cumulative reports of 7,400 positive cases and 218 deaths by early September. Yet local sources believe that the infection rate is significantly higher and rising. The country’s coronavirus lockdown and curfew have worsened an already weak economy, and Zimbabwe is facing what the UN calls “desperate levels of hunger” exacerbated by a long-running governance crisis.

South Africa has meanwhile recorded over 640,000 cases and over 15,000 cumulative deaths.  The South African government has taken aggressive steps, including announcing a National State of Disaster, enacting lockdown restrictions, and creating a $26 billion special coronavirus budget, which provided cash benefits to at least 37 percent of the population.

The millions of Zimbabwean migrant workers in South Africa’s informal economy, however, were ineligible for those benefits. Without work and no ability to access funds, many migrants have returned home, leading some Zimbabweans to believe that the influx of returning residents has increased infections, particularly in rural areas.

The Zimbabwe government requires returning migrants to quarantine in government-run facilities. Those centers, however, lack testing equipment, running water, and hygiene supplies, and many quarantined individuals have fled these conditions before completing their quarantine. An unknown number of migrants have also re-entered the country through unofficial entry points, bypassing quarantine facilities and likely facilitating the virus’ spread to families and rural communities.

Anecdotal evidence indicates a high level of COVID-19 community spread and fears of significant undercounting. Families with symptoms are unable to access free testing and are unable to afford testing in private laboratories, which can cost $60 or more. In July, Zimbabwe’s parliament suspended activities after eight members tested positive. The country’s largest medical insurer, the Commercial and Industrial Medical Aid Society (CIMAS), closed after 27 employees tested positive, and several leading retail shops have closed for short periods after employees tested positive.

Economic upheaval and the pandemic threaten the global economy, but Zimbabwe was in economic freefall before the virus hit. The country’s health sector is broken, inflation stands at 319 percent, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports that drought, crop failures, and economic austerity are a daily challenge. “The delivery of health care, clean water and sanitation, and education has been constrained, and millions of people are facing challenges to access vital services,” the UN warns. Nearly half of the country faces severe food insecurity.

Since the 2017 military coup that removed President Robert Mugabe from office, attempts to shift to civilian-led government have failed. Instead, Mugabe’s successor, President Emmerson Mnangagwe, has consolidated and elevated a clique of military leaders, who have furthered the country’s decline.

Since Mugabe’s overthrow, opposition parties, trade unions, and social movements have organized, developed policy platforms (for example, the 2019 Citizen’s Manifesto), and held numerous public protests, demanding social and economic justice and adherence to the Zimbabwe Constitution.

Following these mass actions, soldiers and police have systematically raided, harassed, detained, and tortured known or perceived leaders.

Zimbabweans are frustrated with the country’s direction and rumors of a second coup abound, alongside calls from civil society, the labor federation, and progressive thought leaders for a transitional authority as the only way to prevent widespread violence.

There is no quick resolution for Zimbabwe’s dire situation. In the U.S., progressives are appropriately engaged in combating racist, right-wing authoritarian forces here. But can progressives, as one Washington, D.C.-based solidarity leader famously said, “walk and chew gum at the same time?” The fight for economic equality, shared prosperity, and dignity is global, and should be fought on multiple fronts. Zimbabwe needs urgent material aid and visible public support.

Material aid programs can create a lifeline, and the donor collaborative ZimAlliance has a solid track record of delivering financial and humanitarian support to community-based organizations in Zimbabwe. ZimAlliance also provides legal and bail assistance funds for police and military targets, including opposition party members, journalists, human rights activists, and labor leaders.

TrustAfrica, a Dakar-based 501(c)(3) philanthropy, serves as both fiscal manager and grants administrator for the Alliance. You can make a direct credit card donation to the ZimAlliance here.

Social media is also useful. According to one source, social media in Zimbabwe has flagged missing persons and ongoing abductions. The absence of immediate social media attention can lead to total disappearances or brutal murders that the state can simply deny any knowledge.

In response to police violence this summer, Zimbabweans launched the #Zimbabweanlivesmatter and #Zimbabwelivesmatter, which garnered tweets from national artists across Africa, Zimbabwe’s Diaspora, and global figures, including President Barack Obama. Use your social media platforms to keep the public eye on Zimbabwe. On Facebook and Twitter, share, tweet, and retweet: #Zimbabwelivesmatter and #Zimbabweanlivesmatter.

Imani Countess is an Open Society Fellow focusing on economic inequality.