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Why Zimbabwe needs a homegrown Covid-19 response

The eruption of the coronavirus (Covid-19) is a timely reminder of the structural faultiness and fragility of health care and social services delivery systems across the world.

By Taurayi Nyandoro/Albert Mashambanhaka

While Europe remains the epicentre, Covid-19 is threatening to flare up in Africa and to date about 80% of African countries are reporting a surge in cases.

It is not surprising that in the global West, the race to find a cure or at least a vaccine has gained prominence, not neglecting the need to arrest the alarming surge of new cases especially in Italy, Iran and the USA.

In Africa, the sudden urgency to prevent and control infections is borne out of the realisation that our health systems and infrastructure cannot cope with a fireball of Covid-19.

Zimbabwe, like the rest of the continent, stands on the cliff, due mainly to the myriad of socio-economic challenges bedevilling the country.

The inescapable truth is that both the productive and consumptive sectors will choke once the infection rate starts to skyrocket.

What is more worrying is the state’s incapacity to guarantee social protection through a range of services to vulnerable populations.

It is uncontestable that in the last few years the vulnerable groups’ category has widened and will further expand in the Covid-19 era.

Our situation is further exacerbated by a poor economic environment characterised by plummeting industrial capacity utilisation of about 27%, hyperinflation estimated to be around 1 000% and high levels of unemployment.

Whilst the public sector accounts for more than half of the people formally employed, nonetheless, across the board, the average salary is US$80, which is far below the poverty datum line.

This partly explains the unusually high dependency ratio of 79.5 against a paltry 19.7 potential support ratio.

Undoubtedly, the local population cannot sustain the financial costs associated with Covid-19.

Covid-19 gravely affects older persons and in Zimbabwe they constitute about 4.5% of the population and, majority of them depend on both the state and family members for social protection.

The state is unlikely to extend services beyond the current basket, leaving vulnerable populations looking to the family for support through remittances and monthly pension.

With Covid-19 wreaking havoc globally, remittances are likely going to dissipate as the benefactors come to terms with the financial ruin accompanying the pandemic.

Sadly, monthly pension payouts of around US$20 are pitiful and the value continues to be eroded by hyperinflation and other competing demands.

In the global West, governments have come up with stimulus packages to cushion citizens and offset the immediate costs of Covid-19, for instance, the USA and Swiss governments have each committed US$2 trillion and US$10.6 billion respectively.

Admittedly, Zimbabwe lacks the financial muscle to invest a fraction of what other governments are investing, however, the government has it within its powers to provide a homegrown financial package.

Ideally, this may include tax incentives for the corporate sector and at individual levels, but practically it remains an outlier given the fiscus’ insatiable dependency on tax revenue.

For instance, in 2019, Paye and excise duty accounted for 27.5% and 20% respectively of the total tax income.

With the economy teetering on the brink in the face of the escalating social crisis, the state should consider the following: stimulating the private sector’s participation in social protection and reallocation of subsidies to urgent social services.

To offset the inevitable financial and social burdens associated with Covid-19, Zimbabwe needs to place increased emphasis on prevention and case management through a raft of unpopular measures in the form of lockdowns such as has been seen in South Africa, China, Italy and many other countries.

This entails restricting utilisation of places of high population concentration, including cross-border corridors and open markets.

Nonetheless, this presents a complexity for the world’s second largest informalised economy, whose protagonists live from hand-to-mouth.

As such, halting informal activities which accounts for at least 50% of employment and about 48% of the gross domestic product, will be catastrophic, given the state’s incapacitation to provide wide-scale social services.

Predictably, the government continues to dither on this decision.

At the same time, the protagonists themselves have a diminished appetite to temporarily cease production and withdraw from what they consider their economic blood line even if the state were to guarantee financial cushioning.

This leaves the government in an unenviable position and more so given the ages-long mistrust between the two on one hand and with the general population on the other.

These challenges stem from the state’s inertia in the face of outbreaks of cholera in 2008 and 2018 and typhoid in 2019, only to respond as the fatalities continued to grow, increasing domestic and international pressure.

Another case in point is the recent Cyclone Idai catastrophe, which affected Chimanimani and Chipinge districts and parts of Masvingo province.

One year down the line, affected populations have limited access to basic social amenities.

Clearly this is demonstrable of the fragility of our social protection arrangements, which ironically remain largely underfunded, accounting for a meagre 4% of the 2020 national budget.

The supreme action for the government is to convince a sceptical population, which is strangely familiar with the limitations of our social protection and health care delivery system, that the Covid-19 response will work.

Responding to Covid-19 should transcend the rhetoric of plans to building and sustaining demonstrable social, economic and political solidarity with the population.

Doing this will catalyse citizens’ rationalisation and increase the likelihood of reciprocal behaviours, which augurs well for the response.

What is abundantly clear is that, the next two weeks are crucial for Zimbabwe if we are to disrupt the tide of Covid-19 and flatten the curve of infection through enforcing social distancing.

In Zimbabwe on week one the country had recorded two positive cases and one of them has resulted in death.

The cases tend to rocket in week three as shown elsewhere; New York week one had two cases, week two had 105 cases and week three reported 613 cases.

Regarding France, from week one to week for 12 191, 653 and 4 499 cases were reported, respectively. In South Africa 13 cases were reported over the first week and 116 cases on the second.

Opportunely, Zimbabwe can draw lessons from the experiences of other countries and implement a unique homegrown Covid-19 response.

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