On 11 March 2020 when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID -19 as a pandemic no one envisioned the social and economic degradation that would follow. This was a start of a historic economic and social melt down which has left billions of people vulnerable. Zimbabwe has not been spared in this scourge. New cases continues to rise. The government is failing to adequately deal with the outbreak as highlighted by its failure to meet testing demands, provide adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) as well as satisfactorily deal with the health sector wage crisis. Social and economic problems have been there since time immemorial, however the social and economic welfare of the citizens during this era is deplorable and has exposed serious inequalities and the fragility of the Government. As if this was not enough, the Zimbabwean government is caught up in allegations of corruption in the use of funds meant to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID -19 pandemic has exposed the social and economic inequalities that can largely be attributed to our incomprehensive social protection systems. Vulnerable groups such as women, informal traders, people living with disabilities, food insecure families and those suffering from chronic illnesses have been left exposed and they bear the full brunt of the pandemic. It is imperative that we ask ourselves these questions, how do the vulnerable groups and the rest of the citizens stay afloat? and who is responsible for ensuring that their social and economic rights are granted?
Food security is a pertinent issue during this pandemic and beyond. The Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVac) estimates that 5.5 million people in the rural areas as well a 2.2 million in the urban areas are food insecure. When the lockdown was initiated in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19, the government and the citizens alike where ill prepared to deal with food insecurities that emanated from the loss of livelihoods. The monthly COVID-19 relief package of $ZWL 200 per household falls way far below the poverty datum line which stood at $ZWL 7 426 (Zimstat:2020), In fact at that time it was just enough to buy 2,8 loaves of bread. The sincerity of the government in dealing with food security therefore became questionable.
The water shortages in most cities and towns are a cause for concern. One of the WHO guidelines in the prevention of the spread of the COVID-19 is to regularly wash hands with soap and water. The shortage of water has negated the efforts in fighting the spread of the virus. Rampant allegations of abuse of women and children have been reported at water points and campaigns such as Borehole diaries “Unearthing and addressing the hidden and complex Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) against girls and women at public water collection points in Chitungwiza have clearly depicted the abuse that is happening as a result of government’s failure to address the citizens water rights. Furthermore, women continue to bear the brunt of unpaid care work that comes with the extra burden of having to queue for water well into the night. Reports also suggest that women are giving sex in exchange for water, a threat to their Sexual Health and Reproductive Rights. Alternatively, women and children find themselves drawing water from unsafe sources such as burst water pipes. This is despicable considering that Zimbabwe is still recovering from the cholera outbreak of 2018. The summation of water rights violation also includes the commercialization of water; water is now being sold using the bidding style where the individual who offers more gets to buy. It is important to highlight that these are long standing issues that have not been addressed for decades.
Furthermore, communities are threatened by forced evictions which continue to take place in the face of such dire circumstances. According to Masvingo Centre for Research Advocacy and Development (MACRAD) over 300 people from Gutsaruzhinji village, ward 23, Chiredzi North where evicted in July after a land dispute. The villagers have since lost their sources of livelihood and remain vulnerable. The issue of forced evictions is a direct violation of human rights and highlights gross incompetency in those who are tasked with ensuring their protection.
Against a background of micro and macro-economic woes, the Zimbabwean government has not been aggressive in trying to rectify the economic injustices that are ongoing. Since initiating a country wide lockdown on March 21 2020 the informal sector which is largely dominated by women is still yet to open. This has had a major impact on informal traders and their families. The stimulus package announced on 4 May 2020 of ZWL$18 Billion sounds quite ambitious as this is almost 9% of the country’s GDP. It is still not clear how the citizens relief package of ZWL$200 is being distributed.
The IMF estimates that Zimbabwe’s real GDP will contract by 7.4 percent in 2020. This is a cause for concern because a GDP contraction of this magnitude is a clear indication of the catastrophe ahead. The general population will once more absorb the full impact of the contraction, in particular, the youth who make up 67% of the population will bear the consequences going forward.
Moreover, corruption and Illicit Financial Flows continue to haunt the country. The pandemic has allowed corruption and Illicit Financial Flows to flourish. Zimbabwe recently fired the health minister Obadiah Moyo over alleged involvement in a 60 million USD scandal meant to address the COVID -19 crisis. With Zimbabwe currently in debt distress (ZIMCODD 2020) and failing to service its debt, lending opportunities are thwarted therefore there is need to plug the flow of illicit funds.
The discussion above highlights the social and economic injustices currently faced by the Zimbabwean people but whose mandate is it to safe guard these rights? The government is obliged to ensure that the people’s rights to a decent standard of living are maintained. These rights are absolute and binding to all people and at all times. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948, Article 25 (1) clearly states:
‘’Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.’’
Therefore, under human law the Government is mandated to protect social and economic rights to its citizens. It must ensure everyone accesses social services and clearly outline non-discriminatory policies in these provisions. Countries with limited resources such as Zimbabwe are still obliged to meet its citizens provisions even during times of crisis. The social contract that exists between the citizens and the government should be reason enough for government to meet these needs. In as much as citizens have an obligation to pay taxes and meet their citizenry obligations set out by the constitution the government on the other hand should meet its end of the bargain and ensure fairness, constitutionalism, accountability and good governance.
Citizens must demand accountability from the government as these rights are basic and should not be mistaken for political nuisance. Civil Society Organisations must continue educating the citizens about their rights, the constitution and ways of engaging with the government to ensure their rights for all are observed. This will enable citizens to interrogate and speak out against injustices and further seek to correct them. Civic engagement and setting new narratives should be a priority during and beyond the pandemic.
Roselilly N. Ushewokunze is a Youth Social and Economic Justice Activist, based in Victoria Falls. Mat North