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Some personal thoughts on Zimbabwe’s Coronavirus lockdown policy

The Zimbabwean coronavirus lockdown is due to end at midnight on Sunday April, 19 April.

By David Coltart

President Emmerson Mnangagwa has stated that his government is going to review that policy and has suggested he will make a decision on April 20, but if it is left that late that will only cause unnecessary confusion.

Businesses need to be able to plan ahead and the government should announce its intentions today.

It will cause chaos if the government waits until the weekend, or after the weekend, to announce its decision.

Be that as it may, any decision to end or extend the lockdown is fraught with problems.

On the one hand, it is clear that infections are rising and that Zimbabwe may only be at the early stages of its total number of infections, if statistics of other countries in the world are anything to go by.

On the other hand, it is clear that in many respects the lockdown is not working in Zimbabwe, and in any event is unsustainable.

Lockdowns may work in countries with resilient economies but the danger in Zimbabwe is that more people may die from starvation than COVID-19.

In addition, it is virtually impossible for poor people to remain in their tiny homes for weeks on end without any ability to make an income and feed themselves.

It is clear that we need to finesse our lockdown policy so that we limit infections as far as possible but ensure that poor people in particular are not in greater danger from malnutrition than they are from COVID-19

We need to move away from the two extreme ends of the policy spectrum to a balance between a total lockdown and no lockdown at all.

The current lockdown is clearly unsustainable but against that a sudden end to the lockdown could have catastrophic consequences.

Prior to making suggestions, I must state the obvious.

I do not have public health policy expertise, nor do I pretend to have it.

I simply have been reading the views of a wide range of experts both within Zimbabwe and worldwide and it seems to me that common sense dictates that the following broad principles should be applied:

It would be wrong to simply end the lockdown on Sunday.

With infections rising in the country, it will send a wrong and dangerous message to many Zimbabweans who are already not practising safe social distancing and personal hygiene methods, namely that the danger is past.

The current lockdown should be extended to the beginning of the next school term – May 5 – and during that extension, the government, the international community and the private sector must work vigorously on the following measures.

The government, in conjunction with the international community, must urgently ramp up testing of front line medical staff and those still working in public.

As resources and testing kits become more freely available, testing must be extended to all displaying symptoms of COVID-19.

The government, in conjunction with the private sector, must use this period to produce face masks on a massive scale, which should be provided free to unemployed people and at a subsidised cost to others.

By May 5, it must be made mandatory for all people to wear masks in public places.

The government should avail clothing manufacturing companies throughout Zimbabwe the necessary financial support to manufacture hundreds of thousands of masks in the coming weeks.

The government must immediately commence a massive education policy regarding social distancing and compel all government institutions and businesses to mark out two metre distances for customers in all public places.

A range of new laws should be enacted to compel social distancing in all public places.

Laws will have to be introduced to stipulate maximum numbers of people who can travel in various categories of public transport.

The government, in conjunction with the private sector, must ramp up the production and importation of hand sanitisers and laws must be introduced to compel all businesses and all institutions to use sanitisers at all entrances to all public buildings.

All efforts to expedite the refurbishment and fitting out of hospitals countrywide to accommodate COVID-19 patients should be made by the government, the private sector and the international community.

The Finance minister should regulate that any donations made by private citizens and companies towards recognised government hospitals or charities involved in this exercise should be tax deductible.

UN agencies have recently warned that over 5 million Zimbabweans are food insecure and many are malnourished.

If we are to avoid widespread looting of stores during the lockdown government, with its international and civil society and church partners, must urgently designate food outlets throughout urban areas (particularly in high density areas) well controlled by the police, where basic food such as mealie meal, vegetables and cooking oil can either be provided to poor people for free or at minimal cost.

The private sector should be engaged to assist in the transportation of food to the outlets and the general organisation thereof.

A critical complementary policy to making general food available must be a policy to boost as far as possible the general immunity of the population particularly through the provision of citrus and supplementary vitamins.

Zimbabwe’s citrus crop is being harvested at present.

Whilst it is important that the export crop not be affected, there is available sub export standard citrus which is either juiced or in some cases dumped.

An urgent investigation should be conducted to see whether this crop can be transported to and distributed in high density suburbs.

Likewise, the government should engage pharmaceutical manufacturing firms in Zimbabwe to see whether production of vitamins recommended by medical experts can be ramped up and distributed to particularly vulnerable sectors of the population.

The government, in conjunction with the private sector, must rapidly escalate the production/ importation and supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for front line medical staff.

The police and army must immediately be clearly instructed and educated that their role is to enforce the lockdown humanely.

The widespread reports of soldiers beating innocent civilians over the last few days are unacceptable.

Those responsible for these beatings should be suspended and charged and statements should be made from the highest authorities that the role of the police and army is to assist the public to ensure that social distancing and hygiene measures are respected.

The lockdown provisions should be relaxed to the extent that people be allowed to exercise for two hours daily so long as they do not participate in groups of more than three people, practice safe social distancing habits and wear masks.

This should be implemented immediately – poor people in particular cannot be expected to remain cramped up in tiny flats or homes for weeks on end.

The existing policy is not working and is impossible to enforce.

The lockdown should be reviewed at the end of April and businesses given adequate warning if the lockdown is to be varied on May 5.

In any event, if the lockdown is varied, or reduced, on May 5, provision must be made to extend the lockdown and protection of all institutions catering for particularly vulnerable people such as old age homes.

Policies must be implemented to ensure that other vulnerable people, for example those suffering from diseases such as lung disease and diabetes, are protected as far as possible.

In any event, all large public gatherings, where there is close contact of people in confined spaces should be banned indefinitely pending confirmation that infections are under control.

In closing, it is clear that the government does not have the resources needed to implement all of the policies suggested above.

This can only be achieved if we get the support of both the private sector and the international community.

With regard to the latter it is important that the key political leaders from across the political spectrum make a combined appeal and approach to the international community for assistance.

David Coltart is a former Minister of Education. He is the MDC-Alliance’s treasurer general. This article first appeared on his website

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