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Separated by a river, but worlds apart

27 Apr 2021 at 14:40hrs | Views
Depending on one's propensity to follow the news, the world, at varying days of December of 2019 was introduced to the novel corona virus, a highly contagious and deadly virus preliminary reports at that time pointed to have started in China's Hubei province. The virus spread across Wuhan city, and without any medical remedies known to deal with it, the People's Republic of China imposed a sweeping lockdown across the country. As the virus spread across the globe, governments also imposed lockdowns in an effort to stem the tide of the virus' spread. Zimbabwe was not spared, confirming its very first official Covid 19 case on the 20th of March 2020, the first death coming 3 days later on the 23th, claiming the scalp of popular journalist Zororo Makamba. Ten days later, the government emulated what most of the world at that time had done to curb the spread of the virus, introducing the only weapon humanity had against the virus through promulgation of a series of statutory instruments that began a 21-day nationwide lockdown.

Zimbabwe's southerly neighbour, South Africa, had also confirmed its own case number 1 on the 3rd of March 2020, a 38-year old man who had recently traveled to Italy, at that time the epicenter of the virus, and also announced a strict nationwide lockdown, coming into effect on midnight of Thursday 26 March to prevent the further spread of the virus. At this point, the interventions to try and stem the tide of cases were quite similar for the countries which share much more than just a border. South Africa, largely regarded as Zimbabwe's more wealtheir brother, is seldom used as an example of how a country should be governed, with Zimbabwe used an an example of how not-to run a country. As such, as the year wore on, comparisons in the way the respective countries responded to the scourge became inevitable. It led to Zimbabweans, as usual the jokers, chiding and christening their president, Emerson Mnangagwa, with the name "Rama-coper" (the one who 'copies' Ramaphosa), apparently for seeming to be adopting measures quite similar to those adopted by South Africa's with regular consistency.

The similarities: Lockdowns

After the initial strict lockdown periods lapsed, the two countries kept extending the lockdowns albeit in gradual adjustments, and phases, in somewhat similar fashion leading to the phased reopening of their respective economies, in a delicate balance between keeping the wheels of commerce going and curbing the spread of the virus. These lockdowns and restructions, were met with somewhat relative success in bringing the numbers of new cases down.

The differences: Response to the adverse effects of the lockdown


However, as was the case across the globe, the lockdowns were and still are, quite uneconomic, and resulted in a massive loss of revenue for governments, private entities and citizens, accompanied by huge job losses which saw the vulnerable in society being the hardest hit. With this in mind, South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa announced the country's biggest economic bailout and stimulus package, amounting to a staggering R500 billion (approx. USD $24 billion). The Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP) announced on April 26, approximately 10% of the economy's GDP, was the largest in the emerging markets and astonishingly larger than several high income countries. The country took a huge gamble in its bid to the get the country back in its feet. Based on the figures alone, the SA government exhibited an enthusiasm and genuine intent to pull the country out of the abyss, not only clearly outlining how the money was to be utilised, but how and where it will be sourced. Of the R500 billion, R130 billion was to be sourced locally through reprioritisation of government funds, and the remainder sourced from regional and international funders and development banks. Zimbabwe on the other hand announced its own economic recovery and stimulus package of ZWL$18 billion (USD $720 million). Missing from Zimbabwe's package, however, were modalities on how the package was to be funded. Examining the funding modalities only, one could deduce which of the two would fail or succeed. One was sincere, a well thought out earnest attempt at bringing relief to the economy and providing social safety nets for the hardest hit of society, whilst the other was a mere face saving stunt to imply a willingness to prop an already hamstrung economy and economic agents.

Approximately 90% of the SA package was set aside for additional health support, assistance to local authorities for the provision of basic services, wage protection, financial support for small and informal businesses. The largest portion went to the credit guarantee scheme for large corporates. Impressively, 10% of SA's package was chanelled to social assistance. This saw the amount vulnerable people received from preexisting social grants increased. The child social grant received a bump of R300 for May 2020, caregivers of around 12.5 million children received an increment of R500 per month til October. All the other grants were inflated by R250 per month for 6 months. A new special R350 Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress grant was also introduced, for 6 months from May to October 2020. This targeted anyone above the age of 18, unemployed and ineligible for any other grant or support from UIF. The grant was further extended in October 2020 and also February 2021, after noting its extensive and demonstrable reach in light of the continued spread of the virus which made it impossible for the economy to fully open. In comparison, though Zimbabwe's package as well was mainly targeted at bailing out formal businesses, it also sought to provide cover for the unemployed and vulnerable through electronic monthly cash payments targeting only a million vulnerable 'households' and informal traders. Monies were to be sent via state owned telecommunications company Netone's One Money. But the reality on the ground was quite detached from what the minister of finance Prof Mthuli Ncube had announced. Considering that, give or take, 90% of Zimbabweans above 18 are unemployed and or engaged in some form of informal trading, the news of the relief aid was widely welcomed and met with a degree of gratitude since the lockdown had deprived many of a means of livelihood.

However, the figures announced turned out to be a mirage that soon evaporated as only a few people reported to having taken receipt of the relief funds. To the few who did receive the funds, the monies offered little value in real terms, with the ZWL$600 earmarked for each household per month equating to USD$24 using the interbank rate, or USD$10 using the widely-used and accepted informal rate at the time of announcement. Nevertheless, even if the funds had been allotted to all beneficiaries, hyperinflation would have eroded the funds quite exponentially and rendered them worthless. The money, per 'household', was a far cry from the R440 per 'child' received in South Africa under the child support grants and the R350 per 'every' unemployed adult. It goes without saying that  though the child support grants are not a complete substitute for sustainable household income, they brought much needed relief during the lockdowns and their significance and impact can never be emphasised. In Zimbabwe, the government traditionally does not have in place meaningful social safety nets providing assistance to the vulnerable primarily because of decades of economic hemorrhaging as a result of poor policies. The need for such became even more critical during the pandemic-induced lockdown, but the situation remained largely the same, save for a few lucky ones whose number the government could not even confirm for fear of embarrassment. Citizens had to find means to survive without assistance from the state at a time governments the world over were going out of their way to mitigate against the adverse affects of the pandemic and interventions to curb its rapid spread.  

To further compound and entrench poverty and vulnerability on those who live a life without secure or long-term work, in stark contrast to what SA was doing, the government of Zimbabwe took advantage of the lockdown and decreed to local authorities after a cabinet resolution that all informal vending stalls be demolished. Effectively leaving them without a post-pandemic source of livelihood. Perhaps, the Zimbabwe government is the only government which chose to plunge its already unemployed citizens into further despair and distress. These are citizens who, prior to the lockdown, were frantically trying to bridge the gap by creating their own employment, are now having to further ponder on an uncertain future in the middle of a pandemic that has piled unprecedented emotional strain on people. They will now be forced to start afresh when the lockdown is lifted, sourcing for a new place to operate from and sourcing for material to reconstruct the vending stalls. Announcements by government that it will construct new stalls for the vendors were never to be taken seriously considering it was the umpteith time government had made such pledges that are never fulfilled. They call it the 'new normal', but for these informal traders, there will be nothing new. It will be a perpetuation of the hardships they faced long before Covid. It is needless to mention that the inhumane treatment meted out to these citizens, without consultating them, on top of not getting stipends to help them get by in the absence of income as announced by government, was simply unconscionable and not expected from a government led by a 'revolutionary' party.

Even from a formal business perspective, the bailout money was never received. The CZI (Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries), confirmed that none of its members had accessed the funds, proceeding to quiz the finance minister whether indeed he was being factual in the 2021 pre-budget strategy paper that government had disbursed ZWL$6 billion out of the ZWL$18 billion stimulus package. The stimulus package was, thus, more honoured on paper and state media outlets than in reality. Government unapologetically lied with a straight face. Clearly Zimbabwe's economy was in a precarious position. Rampaging inflation and minimal economic activity meant government had no revenue streams from which to draw the ZWL$18 billion it had announced. Analysts had immediately raised a red flag when the package was announced, pointing out that funding modalities were conspicuous by their absence, rendering the package a big fat lie and pie in the sky. Further, the conditions prevailing at the time were not conducive to an injection of liquidity, which would lead to an increased rate of hyperinflation. The minister was quite cognitive of that, but instead chose to play to the gallery and pretend to be doing what other governments were doing. It is quite disheartening that ours is 'government by deception', where the overall objective is the appearance of seeming to do something without necessarily doing anything. Such a government rarely achieves much, blaming exogenous variables when the chorus of accountability roars vociferously demanding answers.

And then there's the issue of the vaccines. South Africa has been at the forefront, in Africa, of acquiring vaccines for all its residents. The drive got off to a glitch which saw an oversight in the ordering of a vaccine that did not give comprehensive cover against the variant discovered there, derailing the vaccination drive. But as quickly as the anomaly was picked up, South Africa  shifted attention to other vaccines offering better efficacy. Presently, SA has signed an agreement with Johnson and Johnson for 11 million doses. Also secured are 20 million doses of Pfizer's vaccine, an additional 12 million shots from the World Health Organisation COVAX scheme and finalising its allocation from the African Union, with more to follow. The vaccination drive, which begun with bleeps and blunders has progressed well and gathered significant momentum. In contrast, Zimbabwe has made its choice for a vaccine not based on science or price consideration but based on politics. The government had assured the public, saying through the information minister Monica Mutsvangwa, "the choice of vaccines needs to science-based, with adequate researches and findings guiding decision-making and the course of action." However, receiving a donation of 200 000 doses from China's Sinopharm is all Zimbabwe needed in making a choice despite the earlier assertions that Harare will not be railroaded into making rash decisions. Our leaders proceeded to place an order of a million doses of the expensive vaccine, reportedly going for USD$30 per dose. It is rather interesting how a country which failed to give citizens and business any meaningful assistance during the lockdown because of empty coffers suddenly decides on buying probably the most expensive vaccine on the market. To appease its post-colonial puppeteer? The selection criteria was opaque and has not been communicated to the public despite earlier assurances to the contrary.  Once bitten twice shy, surely at the rate with which Prof Ncube et al have been economical with the truth in recent times, one can be forgiven to believe that the funds are not available and deliberations are taking place to get lines of credit extended to us for procurement. Not to say this person is against drawing a loan to puchase vaccines, but the emphasis is on truthfulness of government to the public. Harare had indicated that funds to the tune of USD$100 million had been mobilised, but the slowness in which the procurement process has dragged on is rather indicative of a country without the publicised funds. This is in spite of the finance minister claiming a surplus every year. Government, through its mouthpieces, is a raconteur of sorts, an amazing and eloquent storyteller narrating economic folklore that never happened and will not happen. It goes without saying that the finance minister intended on making Zimbabweans pay, only for the presidium to trip over each other doing damage control in a bid to quell the backlash that had followed the minister's utterances.

Skepticism around the vaccine has also been a thorn in the side for the ZANU Pf-led government. The vaccine has not yet been certified by WHO. Its assessment is still ongoing and certification expected early March. With access to information now a simple click of the button, people are quite aware of that, and that has fuelled the skepticism. You cannot blame them, China is, after all, synonymous with dumping substandard goods in Africa. As if that is not enough, the president, in his wisdom or lack thereof, chose to issue threats instead of allaying fears and striving to attain 'informed consent' of the people. He thundered in vernacular, in his typical antagonistic manner at an event in Nyamandlovu that, "vaccination is not mandatory. But in future you will not get a job, or get on a ZUPCO (state owned bus company) bus if you're not vaccinated. So you will have to decide." That is not the way to go Mr President, surely you should know better. Politics of persuasion should always supplant politics of coercion. Perhaps it is because of his preferred commandist style of governance that he feels it imperative to always have to force things on people. In this era of sensationalism, misinformation and growing awareness, it is better that you, Mr President, channel all efforts to educate the public on the pros and cons (if any) of the vaccine. The thrust right now should be to detangle the medical jargon into layman terms and translate into every language so that people make 'informed decisions'. The more you seem like you are forcing, the more people are likely to resist. 'Informed consent' is the biggest thing in the world currently, and a human right. Each person has a right to know what is being administered to him or her, reserving the right not to be subjected to medical or scientific experiment. H.E. should have taken a leaf from his South Africa counterpart, who, refreshingly, is on record as having said "I want to be clear. Nobody will be forced to take this vaccine. Nobody will be forbidden from travelling, from enrolling at school, or from taking part in any public activity if they have not been vaccinated", which represents a huge departure from utterances from Zimbabwe's CEO.

Conclusion

This brief comparison of these Southern Africa neighbours was used as a way of highlighting areas Zimbabwe is found wanting in terms of empathy, governance, truthfulness, integrity and cohesion taking particular interest at the Covid 19 pandemic period. This is not to say South Africa's responsiveness to the virus and vaccine program was and is top notch. The idea is to show the dichotomy between a government, which, in spite of its flaws and blunders, at least makes attempts at lessening the burden from lockdowns on the citizenry, ensuring that they endure as minimal disruption as possible in terms of livelihood and another which clearly has left the people to fend for themselves at a time they needed government the most. Clearly the Zimbabwe government has not been truthful to its citizens, and that lack of integrity leads to the skepticism we see now towards the vaccine. The lack of empathy for people's suffering shown by a failure to assist the vulnerable is indicative of and leads to a government whose actions are not in sync with the realities confronting the citizenry. National cohesion cannot be attained when ministers blatantly lie and the president issues chilling threats to the nation.  Governance bereft of integrity and not based on truthfulness can only lead to a waning of confidence in the leadership, with disastrous consequences.

Writing in her personal capacity and can be contacted at:
Ntsikane@yahoo.com


Source - Sibusisiwe Tshuma
All articles and letters published on Bulawayo24 have been independently written by members of Bulawayo24's community. The views of users published on Bulawayo24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Bulawayo24. Bulawayo24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.

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