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COVID-19 and hyperinflation leave hunger and few options in Zimbabwe

‘People are doing anything to survive.’

Philimon Bulawayo/REUTERS
A total of seven million Zimbabweans in rural and urban areas can't afford to meet all their food needs.

The Zimbabwean government’s coronavirus stay-at-home message is hard to bear. Signs of a country coming unstuck are everywhere: daily shortages of electricity, fuel, basic goods, even mains water – local councils have no money to maintain aged pipes or invest in infrastructure.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa said in a national broadcast on 16 May that although established industries like mines, supermarkets, and banks could extend their operating hours, informal street businesses – with the exception of fresh produce markets – would remain shut. It’s in this informal sector that millions of Zimbabweans eke out a living.

Mnangagwa said the lockdown measures, introduced on 30 March, would be reviewed every two weeks, adding, "the country needs to ease out of the lockdown in a strategic and gradual manner".

The government is trying to restart an economy that was already imploding well before the coronavirus crisis. Hyperinflation, running at 676 percent in March, means most urban Zimbabweans can’t afford all their food needs. Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second city, is having to ration running water to one day a week despite the extra sanitation needs of the coronavirus crisis.

In the countryside, 4.3 million people – one in three Zimabweans – are facing food shortages as a result of a punishing drought last year, among the worst in a decade, and there’s uncertainty over the success of this month’s harvest.

A disappearing economy

Zimbabwe’s economy shrank by eight percent last year, and the government fears it could contract by up to 20 percent by the end of 2020.

It blames the freefalling economy on “sanctions” imposed by hostile Western governments, consecutive droughts, and now COVID-19. Its critics argue the collapse is the culmination of years of mismanagement by the ZANU-PF party that has ruled since independence.

Maize flour is especially in short supply, and people spend hours in queues to buy the government-subsidised staple.

The New Humanitarian witnessed police in Harare last week use tear gas to clear a desperate crowd who refused to believe the maize flour in the shop was finished. They were convinced the staff were going to sell the remaining stock on the unofficial market, where it retails at five times the controlled price.

“People have to travel around looking for basic foodstuffs; there is crowding and people are neglecting social distancing,” said Godfrey Kanyenze of the Labour and Economic Research Unit of Zimbabwe, a trade union-linked think tank. “But you have to choose; you either stay at home and starve or come out to try to survive.” 

A disposable mask costs $1 – a significant outlay in a country where 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

“You have to choose; you either stay at home and starve or come out to try to survive.” 

So far, there have been 46 official COVID-19 cases and four deaths. The absence of discernable clusters of infection “may suggest that, despite the small numbers tested, our country might have a reduced COVID-19 trajectory," Mnangagwa said in his broadcast.

Hustling to survive

Agnes Shumba is among those struggling to make ends meet in coronavirus times. “I am a qualified professional teacher, and yet I can no longer feed my three children because of the price increases which followed the COVID-19 lockdown,” she told TNH.

Shumba has been forced to break the law and sell blackmarket petrol to support her family. A contact at a filling station reserves fuel for her; she then drives back to her township home in the Harare suburb of Kuwadzana and resells what’s in her tank.

In her boot she carries vegetables, bought in the capital’s main market, on which she can also turn a small profit.

In Kuwadzana, shebeens – unofficial drinking spots – have sprouted, and there’s a worrying rise in sex work, in a country with a 13 percent HIV prevalence rate. “People are doing anything to survive,” Shumba said.

Like many Zimbabweans, she had a lifeline, until recently, across the border in South Africa. Her mother, a domestic worker there, used to send food parcels, but the South African government closed the busy border in March as a coronavirus lockdown measure.

Read more → Zimbabwe’s triple threat: Coronavirus, food shortages, and an economy in meltdown

That has dented Shumba’s household budget, but also put Johnson Ndlovu out of business. For five years, he delivered groceries bought and paid for by relatives and friends in South Africa to families across Zimbabwe. The pick-up vans crossing the 24-hour border station at Beitbridge were a mobile industry that helped sustain people through the economic hardships.

“Thousands of those vehicles are currently parked and not moving, which means many families in Zimbabwe are feeling the impact of food shortages,” Ndlovu said.

Remittances from Zimbabweans working in South Africa are also drying up as the South African economy slows. “Some Zimbabweans working here have lost their jobs, while others have fled back to Zimbabwe,” Simiso Sibanda, based in Johannesburg, told TNH. “It is safe to say that COVID-19 has disrupted many things.”

The Zimbabwean embassy in South Africa says it has been inundated with distress calls from Zimbabweans asking for help to return home. The UN’s emergency aid coordination office, OCHA, said in its latest bulletin it was expecting an influx of 8,000 Zimbabwean migrants from neighbouring countries – with numbers set to rise in the coming months.

Rural needs

The crisis is far from just being an urban problem. Zimbabwe essentially has a rain-fed agricultural economy, but the country has experienced drought in three of the last five growing seasons. As a result, 1.1 million people in rural areas have reached “emergency” levels of hunger usually associated with war zones.

And it’s likely to get worse. The harvest of early planted crops is below average, according to FEWS NET, a US-funded famine monitor. Pasture for livestock is “deteriorating fast” and livestock losses are being reported.

A total of seven million Zimbabweans in rural and urban areas are currently in need of food aid, and the World Food Programme is reaching just over three million of them. The government’s food safety net operations struggle to cover the remainder.

In response to the country’s swelling needs, the government has launched a $720 million economic rescue plan – but it doesn’t yet know how to pay for it. The initiative, which represents nine percent of the country’s GDP, aims to revive small- and medium-sized enterprises, expand health delivery services, and provide relief to the millions in need.

In a bid to win external backing, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube wrote in April to the heads of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the African Development Bank warning that COVID-19 was the final blow and appealing for help to avoid economic collapse – which, he said, could threaten regional security.

While other vulnerable countries have been able to access billions of dollars in emergency COVID-19 credit, Zimbabwe cannot: its $2 billion of arrears to the World Bank and the African Development Bank make it ineligible for further funding or debt forgiveness.

Zimbabwe, nevertheless, is looking for a loan to clear the backlog. In return, Ncube – who admitted to “recent policy missteps” in his letter – offered to implement economic reforms long-sought by donors.

That is a nod to the “corruption and the cartels” that have scuppered earlier promises of reform, the president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, Peter Mutasa, told TNH. Those “missteps” included payouts queried by the IMF to the fuel importer Sakunda, a company that enjoys a close relationship to the ruling party.

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Don’t waste a crisis

Kindness Paradza, chair of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the government isn’t getting enough credit for the economic measures it has already put in place.

“Despite being under sanctions, Zimbabwe has managed to pay off its debt to the IMF, and, for some reason, many people choose to ignore that fact,” he told TNH.

The World Bank this month granted $7 million to help Zimbabwe fight coronavirus, using a trust fund to circumvent its own rules, and the African Development Bank has approved a further $13.7 million grant to strengthen the underfunded health system.

“The crisis is an opportunity for everyone to close ranks and come together, and the starting point is political dialogue."

But that is well short of the amount Zimbabwe is looking for. “Very little is coming from external sources, and the government is essentially on its own,” said Kanyenze.

Without donor assistance, Ncube warned that Zimbabwe would resort to printing money – a move Kanyenze described as “a recipe for disaster”. Independent analysts believe the real rate of inflation is already double the official figure.

For Kanyenze, “the crisis is an opportunity for everyone to close ranks and come together, and the starting point is political dialogue”.

But that would involve negotiations between ZANU-PF, Zimbabwe’s opposition – which accuses the ruling party of systematically rigging elections – and civil society, with a role too for the influential church as mediators. And there is hardly any dialogue right now, Kanyenze noted, adding: “Zimbabwe is highly polarised, even at this time of COVID.”


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