Covid-19 lockdown: Spare a thought for the informal sector

BY STANLEY GAMA

WHILE Zimbabwe battles the global coronavirus pandemic, which coupled with the economic collapse and recent drought with attendant food shortages have made life for the majority hell on earth, a new problem has emerged in the aftermath of the lockdown — plight of the populace, that survives on informal sector activities.

There can be no doubt that the Covid-19 wave has left a trail of deaths and infections, and hence it needs to be contained by all means necessary, but in the process of ensuring that people are restricted to stop the spread of the disease, this has left the majority who earn a living from the informal sector stranded at their homes with little or no food to eat.

The majority of Zimbabweans, in a country with over 90% formal unemployment, live from hand-to-mouth scrounging for anything to survive on, from selling fruits, clothes and foodstuffs in the streets, to working in flea markets, scrap-yard home industries and township markets, among other areas.

This is where most people get the little for the day’s meal, to pay their rentals, school fees, utilities, buy food, transport money, and settle all the other bills that have to be regularly paid monthly, weekly and some daily.

As a result, the lockdown for them is a double-edged sword: it protects them from Covid-19, while also leaving them exposed to hunger and other problems of deprivation.

Where does a vendor in Mbare get money to buy food and other basics if the market is closed? How do they survive?

It’s important to contain the virus, but we also have to spare a thought for the poor and vulnerable communities who depend on the informal sector for survival.

While we fight the virus we must also make interventions to assist the disadvantaged communities.

Stopping the disease alone while leaving people starving could be catastrophic. These problems have to be tackled simultaneously so that we don’t resolve one problem while creating another.

That is why government, the private sector and humanitarian organisations’ interventions to protect the vulnerable people are as important as the measures to fight the coronavirus itself.

Government has appealed for US$2.2 billion and set aside $100 million to fight the disease and protect the poor.

The private sector has also chipped in with companies like Access Forex coming up with a welcome US$200 000 donation to also help.

Access Forex has set a great example and this should help encourage other bigger companies to provide resources to help poor communities.

Zimbabwe is going through a prolonged recession amid a shattered economy characterised by massive de-industrialisation, company closures, foreign investor flight, job losses, and decline in agricultural productivity and escalation in poverty levels. There is also hyperinflation.

Current salaries for most workers have fallen below the poverty datum line.

Salaries in Zimbabwe’s public and private sectors have been eroded almost 40-fold, further condemning even the employed deeper into poverty.

A few private sector organisations are offering discretionary allowances to cushion employees, but the rate of inflation has wiped those financial cushions.

People living in poverty are those who are considerably worse-off than the majority of the world population. Their level of deprivation means they are unable to access basic goods and services necessary for a decent standard of living.

The 2017 report by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency pointed out that 71% (over 10 million) of the Zimbabwean population live in poverty. Extreme poverty numbers were 30,3% in rural areas compared to only 5,6% in urban areas.

Poverty levels in Zimbabwe increased slightly in 2018, but are spiking in 2019 as access to good schools, health care, decent accommodation, electricity, fuel, gas, safe water and other critical services such as insurance remain elusive for many people due to hyperinflation.

The country has until recently been plagued by 18-hour power cuts since May 2019 and unending fuel shortages, while public health infrastructure is in a dilapidated state.

This crumbling of the health sector and strikes by doctors and nurses has made the fight against the coronavirus very difficult.

However, the lockdown has also made survival harder than it has already been, especially for the multitudes who survive on the informal sector.

The informal sector, which employs over 90% of the total workforce, has already been hard hit by unrelenting power cuts and fuel shortages. The poverty levels have been worsened by Cyclone Idai, which devastated the eastern parts of the country in March 2019.

In February 2019, the Zimbabwean government launched a plea for international assistance to the tune of US$3,2 billion to feed over 7,5 million citizens who are food-insecure.

To avert starvation, government has channelled more than US$300 million to the importation of more than a million metric tonnes of maize before the 2019/20 harvest.

Now government needs US$2.2 billion to deal with the current crisis.

Government urgently needs to intervene to avert the rising extremes of poverty in the economy and the new emergency of starvation caused by the coronavirus.

One way of doing this is to provide food relief and also help the poor to access utilities at subsidised costs during the lockdown since they can’t pay by themselves.

The statistics for poverty in Zimbabwe are damning evidence of mismanagement and failure by the current regime, and its predecessor.

Over five million people in the country are living in extreme poverty.

That is why Access Forex’s “Feed-a-million” campaign, which has committed an initial US$200 000 to assist the most vulnerable segments of society and communities across Zimbabwe reeling from the negative impact of coronavirus, is commendable.

Access Forex, a product of Access Finance, providing bureau de change and remittance services for Zimbabweans in the Diaspora, mainly in the United Kingdom and South Africa, has taken the move to complement efforts by the government and various other humanitarian organisations to help mitigate the devastating negative impact of the virus.

In partnership with churches and the NGO community, as well as government, Access Forex will provide food aid in the form of hampers to the vulnerable and needy in society.

Together, we can help mitigate the effects of this deadly and invisible pandemic.

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