COVID-19 lockdown in Zimbabwe: a disaster for farmers

Written by Ian Scoones


Over the last few weeks we have been tracking what’s been happening in our rural study sites in Zimbabwe as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown (see the earlier blog too). Last week, I caught up with a colleague in Masvingo who had been recently in touch with others in our team in Chatsworth, Chikombedzi, Hippo Valley, Matobo, Mvurwi and Wondedzo. This blog is a report on current conditions, summarising a long phone conversation.

The lockdown was first announced by the President Mnangagwa on 30 March, and was subsequently extended on 19 April for a further 14 days. As of April 26 there were 31 reported cases and 4 deaths, spread unevenly across the country. But of course the fear is that the disease will spread and strike hard. The lockdown measures have been heavily enforced and have caused massive hardship, particularly in the poorer urban areas, where informal traders in particular have been targeted. Farmers have suffered too due to movement restrictions and the collapse of markets.

As my conversation last week revealed, Zimbabwe’s experience, like elsewhere in Africa, raises questions as to the costs of a heavy-handed lockdown, particularly on the poor and marginalised, and whether there are alternative approaches both to confront the virus now and for different approaches to society and economy in the future.

How have movement restrictions affected people’s lives in the rural areas?

Massively. Although you can go to the local shops (between 9am and 3pm) and move about your area, you cannot move further without a permit, and have to prove that travel is essential. Security people can stop you at any moment. You can get a permit from Agritex (extension service) locally for agriculture-related movement, or from the councillor or police. But if you have to move further you have to go to the provincial level. It can take days. You can try your luck and negotiate at the road-blocks, but you will likely be turned back. There are so many police out – they’re everywhere! There is no public transport these days. If you travel in your private vehicle, you can only have two people. All the private Kombis and buses are grounded. ZUPCO (a government-owned company) operate buses, which are disinfected after each trip, but there are very few. This has had a disastrous effect on business, and farmers cannot get crops to market. Right now people need workers to help with the harvest, and although this is allowed as agriculture is essential, you can easily be stopped, and it makes getting help on the farm more difficult than before.

So what about agricultural produce markets?

It’s a disaster. All the main ones have been shut down. There was an outcry and they opened them again for a bit, but people crowded there. It was chaos, so they shut them again. This means for horticultural farmers in our study areas things are tough. Vegetables, especially cabbages and tomatoes, are rotting at their farms. In the south, huge number of melons have gone to waste. For some, vegetable-drying is possible, and people are creating ‘mufushwa’ in large quantities. But overall it’s a disaster. Some are selling individually, travelling to the ‘locations’ (high density suburbs) and selling from their pick-ups. Some can sell to the supermarkets if they have contracts, but demand has gone down. You can’t move from the location to town in Masvingo without permission, and so people just buy locally, informally. Other markets have also dried up. The boarding schools are closed, so are the universities, along with all hotels, restaurants and so on. These all used to be so important for horticulture markets, as well as for poultry. Income from these sources has ceased. Same too with the massive church gatherings, attended by thousands. In some of our sites, people had been growing for the Easter gatherings, but now they have had to dispose of the produce. It’s a disaster for farmers.

What about businesses more generally?

Most of these are closed. It means that as a farmer you can’t get your pump repaired, or a car fixed. You can’t go and buy key bits of equipment. Even if the shop opens for a short time, which some are allowed to, getting a permit to travel from you rural farm and ensuring you are there at the right time is impossible. A big problem is cash. This has been a problem for a time. The electronic RTGS Zim dollar is worth less than the Zimbabwe bond notes, but people are not keen to use cash notes as it might transfer the virus. Even if you have money in the bank, you cannot get it. They’ve opened banks only for forex, and for short periods, to allow remittances from the diaspora to be paid. This is vital for many of us, including farmers.

How are people surviving?

The rural people are on their own. There is a big chain reaction – without markets, producers, transporters, and all others suffer. And then there is no cash to buy food or other inputs. For example, there is a big theileriosis disease outbreak among cattle currently, but people have not been able to buy spray dip chemicals and cattle are dying in numbers. They cannot be driven to other places to avoid the ticks, so they just die. Of course people in the rural areas are in some way better off. It’s the beginning of the main harvest season and, although the season was bad, people at least have something. It’s much tougher in town. There’s subsidised mealie-meal, but a packet of 10kg that should be Z$70 it’s being sold for Z$90. Traders are exploiting the situation. Some are illegally doing business. In one study site the grinding mills open at night to allow people to get food. The money changers operate under cover and there is a growth of private business, from people’s homes, including brewing beer, baking and selling food. In the south, some are even risking crossing the border to get supplies for resale in South Africa. The danger is that they can smuggle the virus too.

What are some of the social issues emerging?

Certainly there are reports of increased domestic violence. People cannot go out, and tensions rise. Some are consuming illegal brews – including spirits made at home. This can be dangerous, just like we are seeing increased drug use among the youth. Normal life is disrupted. You cannot even bury the dead – you again need a permit, and a health worker has to be present to supervise the burial, and a maximum of 50 can attend, but following social distancing rules. Travelling to funerals is impossible if outside your area. Family relations – and life in general – are being challenged by this virus.

What about health services?

Yes the clinics and hospitals are open. The problem is that you have to get a permit to move. And then the nurses at a clinic may not see you. They don’t always have the full personal protective equipment (PPE) and are really scared. Even though there are no cases in Masvingo as yet, people may be dying of malaria or childbirth complications or whatever, because of the lockdown. It’s killing people. The government is investing seriously in the health service, even employing more health workers. They are creating emergency beds, even in the rural areas, but it may not be enough. We have seen what has happened in Europe and the US on the news.

What are people’s attitudes to COVID-19?

People ask, what disease is this? Where has it come from? It is such a shock! There are so many rumours. People say it’s God’s revenge; they blame the superpowers; they say it has been manufactured to kill us. But mostly people are just scared. They have seen the news. We know pandemics, we had HIV/AIDS, but this is worse. It’s the number 1 disease. With AIDS people died over a long time, but this is sudden. With HIV you knew how it was transmitted, and people changed their behaviour. It could be avoided. This is just meeting someone – it’s so contagious. Even thought he’s allowed, one of our colleagues who works with Agritex was moving around and was told in one village to go home – to ‘keep to your place’!

Who are the main people involved in the response?

There are so many. The government actually has organised quite well, it is doing something. Before they’d forgotten the health system – there was a freeze on health posts, people were paid badly and the hospitals and clinics were in a terrible state. Now they see the importance. This crisis has at last awakened the administration. For years we haven’t had an effective health service, but now something at least is happening. In each area there are COVID-19 task-forces – and mines, business people, well-off individuals and others are contributing resources. The universities and some business are making things – sanitiser, masks, PPE materials and so on. It’s a joint effort with government. The chiefs are involved too, and so are the spirit mediums who are seeking spiritual help to get through the crisis. The churches are doing the same; although they are not meeting, the church leaders, prophets and others are mobilising. Everyone is praying! There are WhatsApp groups giving advice on what to do, including some ideas for remedies. There seems to be a unified approach, and all the political parties are involved.

What next?

So far we haven’t suffered from the disease, only the lockdown. We have a few cases only. We accept that this lockdown period is for building the capacity of the health system to cope. Let’s hope that’s possible. It’s a Catch 22. We see what has happened in the UK, US and even South Africa. We don’t want this to happen here. But with lockdown most people are surviving hand-to-mouth. Life has become very, very difficult. There is mass suffering, and so far in Masvingo we haven’t had a single case recorded. Is it worth it? I don’t know, but everyone is very scared. Maybe there can be a process where kids can go to school, markets can open and we can move around because we cannot go on like this for long. There must be ways to make the places where lots of people gather safe – schools, transport hubs, markets, shops, religious gatherings and so on. Surely we can think of ways. Good hygiene, distancing and so on. Once the health service is adequate and built up things will be better; maybe there will be some anti-viral medicines too, like we have for HIV. Hopefully we can then live with the virus, and still survive.

What lessons can we draw from the experience so far?

We know that health services are important, and the government needs to invest. We know that farmers are essential and contribute to combatting a crisis, especially getting food to urban areas. We also know that lockdowns are really impossible – and they can kill. They may be worse than the virus! We also know that we can do things ourselves. Good diets bring immunity. There are traditional remedies that may help. And hygiene in the home and at work is always important. In the past we used to be self-reliant, making and selling things locally. There were often big crises, such as droughts, but our parents had granaries to tide them over. In future, we have to be prepared, we have to use our own resources. In the past we used to make things ourselves, not go to the shop to buy. Why are we importing so many things like face-masks? We can make them. We produce huge amounts of ethanol from sugar, so we can make sanitisers. We have forgotten self-reliance. We have been taught a very big lesson by this virus. We should not rely on the outside, and individuals and households have to take the responsibility ourselves.

This blog first appeared on Zimbabweland. It is a summary of a recorded conversation on 23 April 2020. Thanks to the whole team form across Zimbabwe for their contributions. Future posts will offer more updates and detailed cases from our field sites in Masvingo, Matabeleland South and Mashonaland Central provinces of Zimbabwe.