Zimbabwe and Burkina Faso – no to police brutality, mass testing and treatment now
Tafadzwa Choto reports from Zimbabwe, and Didier Kiendrebeogo from Burkina Faso on the struggle of the poor for treatment, food and an end to police brutality during the Covid-19 outbreak. Both argue that social distancing must combine with social solidarity of the poor against the elite.
The struggle for survival: community committees must support one another
By Tafadzwa Choto
Thursday 9 April is day 11 of the scheduled 21 days of lockdown that started on the 30 March. Though I am slowly adjusting to this new life of being indoors in order to prevent the further spread of coronavirus it has been difficult and I can’t wait for the end when I can take a walk or run or just to get some fresh air.
On Wednesday 8 April, Zimbabwe had recorded 11 positive cases and three deaths. Yet no one is in any doubt that cases of infection are much higher as less than 500 people have been tested so far.
The slow approach and lack of transparency on the part of Ministry of Health in handling this global pandemic is likely to have a disastrous impact in Zimbabwe if drastic action is not immediately taken – the lock-down on its own is not enough. Once again, the victims of Covid-19 show that little has been done even after the Covid-19 task-force lead by the Vice-President Kembo Mohadi was set-up.
The second official recorded death to the virus was only revealed in an update of the Ministry of Health and Child Care on the evening of Tuesday 7 April, yet the person had died on the 4 Apriland tested positive on 2 April. The deceased, a 79-year old Bulawayo man, contracted the virus in Hwange, a tourist town. His death showed that the results are not coming out immediately. There are still no diagnostic facilities for Covid-19 cases outside Harare with all detecting is still done in the capital and then sent to South Africa for verification.
The second death also showed the continued lack of preparedness in handling severe Covid-19 cases in the country. This man died in an ordinary hospital after being treated by medical staff who were not adequately equipped with personal protective equipment (PPE). This incident demonstrates that medical staff and others are exposed to high risk of infection. The designated hospitals and clinics are still not fully equipped with necessary equipment including the PPE for its personnel.
On Sunday 5 April doctors represented by Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) launched a High Court appeal against the government, arguing that they are at risk of contracting Covid-19 as the state has not yet put in place adequate measures to protect health workers (doctors, nurses, nurse aid and pharmacists among others) against the deadly epidemic. The appeal also argued for the need to roll-out robust screening and testing of people with symptoms to prevent Zimbabweans from being exposed to the virus. As we have seen in other countries, in-country transmissions can spread like wild-fire and its now urgent to screen and test as many people as possible and track those who have been in contact with the infected.
The lockdown has also given the government the opportunity to crackdown on Zimbabweans, conveniently averting the danger of rebellion against economic and political crisis that the country has faced for years. Escalating police brutality is emerging. There have been innumerable cases of abuse by uniformed forces – humiliating people and making them do degrading physical exercises. So far more than 200 people have been arrested for failing to follow the lockdown procedures. Disturbing images are circulating of arrested people packed like sardines into police trucks with no physical distancing being observed. Worse still, the police who are making the arrests are not equipped with any PPE, inevitably leading to the further spread of Covid-19. Not only are people humiliated and ‘punished’ by the police but there are disturbing videos also circulating of people being beaten by police in most major cities of Zimbabwe. There have also been reports of teargas being fired in the major townships of Chitungwiza and Kuwadzana.
The lockdown in Zimbabwe comes against the background of a period of severe economic crisis with about 60% of the population being declared food insecure worsened by the drought that the country has recently experience. The drought has seen shortages of maize meal (the staple food) with long queues for the commodity now the order of the day and with no physical distance observed, or possible. There is hyperinflation with the prices of most basic commodities beyond the reach of ordinary people. The crisis has also seen people resorting to any means necessary to feed their families. In most cases those being harassed and arrested by the police are simply trying to eke out an existence with more than 80% employed in the informal sector. These people survive from hand to mouth and with the lockdown they are unable to earn anything, playing hide and seek with the police to continue their urgent and necessary trading operations. Last week a video circulated of the police destroyed fresh vegetables of the vendors in Mutare that attracted a huge outcry across the country forcing the president to allow farmers and traders to bring in their fresh produce into major markets such as Mbare Musika. This is a welcome move not only to farmers and traders but to the majority of township residents who rely on this produce, which is much cheaper than the large supermarkets such as Pick and Pay and Bon Marche, that have been allowed to continue operations without any state harassment.
The World Health Organisation anticipates that the coming weeks are key in Africa and the continent may become the epicentre for the virus. Already the infection rate and deaths are increasing in South Africa, where there has been testing.
Already the elite in Zimbabwe have started equipping their hospitals, the same globe-trotting class who brought the virus into the country in the first place. The working poor can only get the treatment and protection they need through solidarity, while using their community committees to support one another. Physical distance must combine with social solidarity.
Antonater Tafadzwa Choto is a well-known labour activist, researcher and currently a PhD candidate based in Harare. She was interviewed on roape.net; the interview can be accessed here.
Punishing the poor in the name of fighting the infection
By Didier Kiendrebeogo
By 6 April, Burkina Faso officially had more than 360 confirmed cases of people infected with the coronavirus (Covid-19), with 18 deaths. Several main cities in the country including Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso are locked down and inter-urban passenger transport is prohibited. The curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. decreed by the president on 21 March has led to massive violations of human rights with ‘caning’ and punishments of those the police regard as violating the law, including of the sick who have sought medical treatment. Often the ‘punishments’ have been perpetrated in private homes where soldiers have broken in.
For the past ten days the markets have been closed. This has meant millions of Burkinabès have been unable to provide for their basic needs. Armed groups active in the country have also increased their activities. In addition to the killings, they prohibit the entry of food into certain localities under their control.
We must recall that the government suspended the wages of 731 trade unionists in March and closed down almost everything else. The suffering of the populations is beyond our imagination. Difficulties in accessing drinking water, food, health care and electricity has spread across the country.
Faced with various criticisms, the President of Burkina Faso made a second address to the nation on 2 April. He did not say a word about the ongoing crackdown of his government on civil servants. Though he took steps to assist certain groups, unfortunately, these measures are favourable only to the wealthy. For example, with approximately CFA178bn (approx £1bn) of measures announced, CFA121bn are planned for hotel rentals to accommodate “patients”, or 70% of the total sum. The other measures concern free water at standpipes and the provision of electricity for a category of subscribers to the national electricity company. Unfortunately, water was already scarce at the fountains and the curfew no longer allows women to spend the night there to wait for the water as before. In addition, most people do not know how to access the support which the government claims is available.
Several civil society organizations denounce the measures announced, and the impossibility of actually accessing them. However, these measures are completely ineffective in relieving the suffering of the urban and rural poor living in increasingly impossible circumstances.
Didier Kiendrebeogo in a leading activist in the Organisation Démocratique de la Jeunesse (ODJ) in Burkina Faso.
Featured Photograph: Police round-up people who do not have permits to be in Harare during Zimbabwe’s Covid-19 lockdown (Tendai Marima).