By Paidamoyo Muzulu
DISASTERS have a tendency to show the best and worst of humankind. Wars or natural disasters usually create new heroes/heroines and villains and Covid-19 pandemic has done exactly that.
Disasters expose the inner selves of people – whether they are empathetic or indifferent. In some cases, disasters reaffirm and strengths perceptions already held by the people.
Towards the end of January 2020, the World Health Organisation declared Covid-19 – a flu-like health crisis a pandemic – forcing many governments across the globe to declare states of disaster or emergency depending on their statutes.
Many countries, including Zimbabwe, declared national lockdowns – laws that closed everything else except essential services. Citizens were ordered to stay indoors or withing their properties, workers were ordered to work from home if they can or just sit out the pandemic and people could not travel across cities or towns.
The initial lockdown in Zimbabwe was declared on March 27 and was for two weeks effective from March 30, 2020. The government in announcing the lockdown cited the reason of flattening the curve of infections. Zimbabwe wanted to flattening the curve when at that moment it had nine cases and one death.
Zimbabwe economy is fragile from lack of investment and reduced production in the past five years or so and lack of policy consistence even on crucial issue like currency to use.
Nearly 90% of the working population, according to the International Labour Organisation, are engaged in the informal economy – meaning they survive generally from hand to mouth. The few that formally work are mostly underpaid and as high as 85% of them earn below the datum poverty line that currently stands at ZWL$8 000 a month for a family of six.
The International Monetary Fund estimates that nearly 70 percent of the population in Zimbabwe are abject poverty as they live on less than US$2/day – the scientific threshold of poverty across the globe.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa regime made the perfunctory promises to help the indigent population by introducing social safety nets. It proposed to give cash transfers to the most affected one million families a $200 grant for a period of three months.
Finance minister Mthuli Ncube in announcing the monetary support said: “Vulnerable groups in our society are the most exposed under this Covid-19 crisis. Accordingly, Treasury has set aside resources to cover one million vulnerable households under a Cash Transfer programme and payment will commence immediately. The Social Welfare Department will use its usual mechanisms to identify the beneficiaries.”
The value of the grant at the time it was announced was equivalent to US$8, an amount so meagre that it cannot buy breakfast for a week especially in the hyperinflationary economy that the country is going through. As of Tuesday, this week, the grant value was more than halved to US$3,20 after the dollar traded at 1:57 to the local currency at the inaugural forex auction trading system.
Ironically, it is the same Tuesday that Cabinet announced the bombshell that it had massively failed to reach out to the one million families who needed support most.
Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa in a post-Cabinet briefing said: “Under the Cash transfers to the informal sector members affected by COVID-19, the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare has paid cushioning allowances to a total of 197 000 people. The target is to reach one million beneficiaries.”
From the Cabinet briefing, it is clear that government has only able to assist less than one in five (>20%) of the most vulnerable people. By any stretch of imagination this is a monumental failure by the regime and most now depend on the generosity of their neighbours to live.
It is in this circumstances that a heroine has emerged in Chitungwiza – a dormitory town of just over half a million residents. Samantha Muzoroki, a migration lawyer has started a soup kitchen (Kuchengetana Trust) that is feeding about 2 000 people with a hot-meal each day since the declaration of national lockdown that has since become indefinite.
The same initiative has been replicated in the sprawling informal settlement of Epworth, giving hope to the poor despite the failure by the regime to look after its own citizens.
Does the country need a government if the same cannot take care of its poor? It is rare for lightning to strike twice in the same place, but Zimbabwe has had successive disasters – Cyclone Idai and Covid-19 – and on both occasions the regime has been found wanting in its disaster preparedness.
It is a good thing that angels and heroines have arisen to fill in the gap, but it remains essential that a government has to take care of its people. Probably, it is time the country relooks at is social welfare policies and probably the National Social Security Authority develop an unemployment benefit fund to tackle poverty.
But above all, Zimbabwe needs an empathetic government that cares for its people not the indifferent regime.