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Zimbabwean Government Needs to Contextualise COVID-19 Lockdown Protocols to Fit Local Conditions
Governments all over the world have imposed lockdowns of varying intensity limiting movements of people within and across national borders, ordering people to stay at home and practice social distancing to curb the spread of the highly infectious World Healh Organisation as a global public health emergency. WHO has gone on to issue protocols for the national lockdowns and quarantine of infected and suspected people-effectively placing 80 percent of the global population under house arrest-limiting personal travel to essentials such as shopping of food and seeking medical attention.

The Coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc in developed countries with advanced health systems such as China, Italy, Spain and lately the United States of America. Health systems in those countries have been inundated with patients needing critical care, overloading their capacities leading to grim death tolls and unprecedented public health crises. The US alone recorded more than 2 000 deaths in 24 hours on Easter Good Friday - a somber milestone and deafening warning for countries in the developing south with weaker health systems characterized by shortages of  human resources, drugs, consumables and critical-care equipment. Medical experts predict that COVID-19 will overwhelm countries in Southern Africa with dire socio-economic and humanitarian consequences given the parlous state of health delivery systems in the region.

In Zimbabwe - the government has imposed a strict 21-day lockdown period which began on 30 March and due to end on 19 April 2020. Public transport has been banned from operating except buses from the state-owned ZUPCO Company who are ferrying staff deemed to be providing essential services such as medical workers, members of uniformed forces and security guards. Armed police backed by members of the feared armed forces are enforcing the lockdown rules, sometimes with the assistance of municipal workers. Police and army should not just be mere enforcers of a lockdown but act as custodians of public health in this situation, therefore they should restrain violence, respect human rights, enable essential services and always be considerate of health and safety precautions in dealing with anyone contravening the lockdown situation.

While most Zimbabweans accepts that the national lockdown, stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures are necessary to safeguard public health by curbing the spread of COVID-19, the measures have imposed socio-economic hardships on the majority of citizens in urban areas who make a living from the informal sector. Given the highly informalised nature of the Zimbabwean economy, many urban dwellers do not have savings of any kind to fall back on and they literally live from hand to mouth. Most are engaged in the retail trade as vendors and the lockdown rules prevent them from working and providing food and other basics to their families.

Others work in the transport industry as drivers, conductors and touts.
These daily wagers are caught between a rock and a hard place as complying with lockdown regulations which means starving their families and defying them puts them in conflict with the law, risking assaults by security forces, arrests and $500 fines or imprisonment for up to two years.

The negative socio-economic effects of COVID-19 will persist beyond the formal lockdown as economic activity takes time to recover. Formal companies are likely to down size and retrench staff after the outbreak while some might not recover and permanently close leading to job losses. Investors are likely to shun countries that are hard hit by the Covid-19 pandemic leading to economic depression and stagnation.

As Zimbabwe enters its third week of the 21 day COVID-19 lockdown with a possible extension, the likelihood of state-society conflict is growing with each passing day as hard-pressed daily wagers are forced by hunger to defy lockdown rules. The number of violent incidences between ordinary citizens is likely to grow and may lead to breaches of peace and gross human rights violations similar to the January 2019 shutdown atrocities.

To maintain peace and public order in the coming days, there is need to review and reformulate the lockdown protocols to fit the peculiarities of Zimbabwean life. For example, government can allow vendors to work on alternative days for a limited number of hours in their neighborhoods. Government must put in place social safety net to cushion the poor and needy from hunger.

Basic income grants, which are direct cash transfers to the neediest families are the most effective measure to ensure food security for urban dwellers. The distribution of relief food aid in communities is likely to be problematic as it draws huge crowds to the distribution points, violating social distancing and creating conditions conducive to the spreading of the COVID19 disease.

The lockdown protocols must also respond to the spike in cases of domestic abuse reported during the lockdown. The long periods in confinement within homes has raised stress levels, tempers and predictably women and children have been at the receiving end of domestic violence.

The state also needs to intervene in this arena and ensure the rights of women and children are safeguarded to ensure peace at home during the lockdown period. A sustained domestic violence public awareness campaign centered on the Domestic Violence Act and its stiff penalties will certainly deter would be perpetrators. Women must also be encouraged to speak out and dedicated police units must be set up to deal with this scourge.

Finally, government must open channels of communication and consultation with various stakeholders so that they can receive feedback on the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and control measures and review lockdown protocols accordingly. Consultation and continuous dialogue is the best foot going forward in maintaining state-society harmony and cooperation in the fight against COVID-19, described as the greatest challenge to humanity since the Second World War.

There should also be certain protocols for engagement, trainings and complains mechanisms.  

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