Opinionista Min’enhle Ncube 6 August 2020

Covid-19 is just the latest in a long line of pandemics to have struck Zimbabwe

Since independence, pandemics in Zimbabwe have manifested in myriad ways. Beyond epidemiological disease and related deaths, the chronic plagues are metaphorically state corruption, a disintegrating economy, police brutality, unwarranted arrests, abductions, poor education, and an appalling healthcare system.

The maladministration of Zimbabwe under Zanu-PF has been frequently documented as one of southern Africa’s worst tragedies. This state chaos impacting all areas of human life inspired my past research in anthropology that analyses child health and disease at Maphisa growth point in rural Matabeleland South.

Being my familial homeland, I have observed its decline since my childhood, an area whose physical realities illustrate the vulnerability of the Zimbabwean body. 

The weakness of this region after Zimbabwe’s independence dates back to the mid and late 1980s, during which the Gukurahundi occurred under the Mugabe administration. During the time of my research, 30 years on, Matabeleland South not only suffered the traumatic aftermath of a politically motivated ethnic genocide, but also a heavy burden of tuberculosis (TB) and HIV-Aids, which for years have been the most prevalent in this province.

Even before Covid-19, the country suffered multiple pandemics that I unpack below. More than ever, Covid-19 exposes the country’s plagues and looting of lives.

As I frequently sat at Maphisa’s post office writing field notes, what underpinned my observations in 2014 and 2016 was the idleness of this township’s postage facility and the booming informal “post office” outside, where omalayitsha distributed goods laden with multiple transactions between the residents and their relatives across the borders.

For decades, they have been the trusted informal diasporic transporters of groceries and other essential goods for locals. While they often courier goods from neighbouring South Africa and Botswana, they also facilitate illegal border crossings for those seeking economic opportunity outside Zimbabwe’s borders. Matabeleland South’s proximity to the South Africa and Botswana borders increases the likelihood of migration of its locals into the neighbouring diaspora.

For the working population, egoli – a metaphor for Johannesburg – has been an ideal modernist dream, filled with hope, success, financial freedom and the ability to send goods to kin at home. Encountering TB and HIV, however, complicates these ambitions.

Medical research shows that migration often worsens the TB burden in migrant populations, thus impacting on the TB epidemiology. Narratives in Maphisa revealed the hardship of life egoli, which for many of my research participants or their children resulted in the contraction of HIV and TB in diasporic inner cities. When HIV or TB-affected breadwinners or their babies egoli, this disturbed the remittance expected by families back home.

I learnt during my fieldwork that, due to the scourge of TB and HIV in diasporic cities, their couriered goods also constituted ill workers or babies needing care from relatives back home. With structural violence and poverty woven into society, sustaining their lives was hard, making death a familiar song in Matabeleland South, also resonating across the country.

Today, another pandemic exacerbates Zimbabwe’s insecurity. Strict control at the Beit Bridge border post during the Covid-19 lockdown has resulted in critical food insecurity for families needing remittance. Increasingly, families are losing their loved ones in the diaspora from Covid-19 and wish to bury them on home soil. With the strict requirements necessary to transport the deceased across the border, numerous families have sought alternative assistance from omalayitsha, who hide corpses alongside groceries and other consumables for smuggling.

A media report has exposed extreme cases of food items stashed into coffins alongside dead bodies en route for burial, as families at home wait desperately for goods. Such incidences at the height of this pandemic pose drastic consequences for public health in a country suffering from debilitated healthcare.

In the past week, a public hospital in Harare saw seven stillborn babies in one night because of poor health infrastructure. In a country with chronic hunger and rampant inflation, it becomes challenging to exercise Covid-19 prevention measures when food on the table must be sought. 

A myth spreading in some communities that the virus does not affect black Africans dampens efforts to control Covid-19. The situation proves even more dire when some citizens have lamented their preference to die from the virus rather than from hunger.

This repression limits political efficacy from the citizenry that becomes politically alienated because of deep frustration from oppression, maladministration and the plundering of resources. Cracking down on dissent is accordingly a means of nurturing this apathy into place.

With the continued state looting under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, such as a misappropriated $60-million contract for Covid-19 medical supplies, there’s no telling how severe this pandemic might impact on Zimbabwe. Beyond thirst, millions in the country suffer shortages of clean, affordable water, threatening individual and public health.

In Maphisa, for instance, residents of Garikai/Hlanani Kuhle township rely mainly on the murky water flowing from Antelope Dam to the neighbouring Agricultural and Rural Development Authority, an under-performing crop-producing estate. With this lack of hygiene, waterborne diseases such as cholera and dysentery compound the Covid-19 crisis.

Since independence, pandemics in Zimbabwe have manifested in myriad ways. Beyond epidemiological disease and related deaths, the chronic plagues are metaphorically state corruption, a disintegrating economy, police brutality, unwarranted arrests, abductions, poor education, an appalling healthcare system and so forth. 

The government’s tendency to use violence to silence dissent has in recent months seen the sexual assault and torture of female MDC activists, the arrest of journalists for exposing government corruption – while being accused of inciting public violence themselves – and the arrest of prominent political figures and ordinary citizenry in peaceful protests in the past week.

Conversations under the widespread hashtag #ZimbabweanLivesMatter unearth the plight of Zimbabwean bodies inflicted by these illnesses, becoming victims of the authoritarian regime.

The moral question once again emerges in the response of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to the human rights violations and other atrocities within the former breadbasket. Outsiders have often questioned the political apathy of Zimbabweans, and I argue that authoritarianism has nurtured it strategically through traditional domestic structures of subordination, exercising restraint over any engagements or freedoms of Zimbabweans.

This repression limits political efficacy from the citizenry that becomes politically alienated because of deep frustration from oppression, maladministration and the plundering of resources. Cracking down on dissent is accordingly a means of nurturing this apathy into place.

When reflecting on Zimbabweans, it is thus challenging to focus on one aspect of disease when others also plague their humanity. DM

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