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Zimbabweans fear starving to death at home as 21-day coronavirus lockdown looms

Zimbabweans braced on Sunday for a three-week lock-down to curb the spread of the coronavirus which has killed one person so far and infected six others, and for many the lockdown means tough times ahead.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared a 21-day “total” lockdown from Monday that will curtail movement within the country, shut most shops and banks, and suspend flights in and out of Zimbabwe.

With independent sources saying the official number of infections is understated, the spread of Covid-19 could prove devastating for a country whose economy is crippled by hyperinflation and whose social health care systems are crumbling.

Poor rains have exacerbated the crisis, with half of the 15-million-strong population facing severe food shortages.

’21 days is too long’

“We are not against the lockdown,” said Isaac Sayeed, who runs a stationery stall in the capital, Harare.

“But 21 days is rather too long. We already have shortages of basic foodstuffs,” he said.

The looming lockdown has triggered panic-buying and a spike in prices, adding more upward pressure to an inflation rate that currently stands at 540 percent.

Price of cooking gas shot up almost 50 percent overnight.

Long queues have formed in supermarkets as people rush to buy whatever they can afford.

‘Starving in their own homes’

“We are supposed to stock up enough things to last us 21 days, but most of us live on what we earn daily, so we only manage a few groceries. I can see us facing tough times ahead,” said Sayeed.

The cash-strapped government will not be able to cushion businesses against the lockdown.

“If they failed to buy ventilators for the treatment centres, where will they get the money to shore up small businesses which are in the majority?” Sayeed asked.

Sayeed said his business would take a knock, but he did not dare ignore the lockdown, which will be imposed with both police and military patrols.

The lockdown will be “a huge challenge for most people who rely on their daily earnings to survive”, said Prince Gwanza who sells books and mobile phones.

“I can foresee people starving while confined in their homes. There are few people who can afford a square meal on an average day, to expect them to stock up for three weeks in to expect the impossible,” he said.

Economist Prosper Chitambara of the Labour and Economic Research Institute of Zimbabwe think-tank also warned that the impact of the lockdown would be “severe in terms of livelihoods. We are a highly informalised economy.”

According to independent statistics, as many as 90 percent of the employable population do not have formal jobs and many choose to emigrate.

“Most people have no access to social protection and companies are not getting the huge bailouts that those in other countries are getting.”

Trade unionist Japhet Moyo said that “most people are living from hand to mouth and some companies may not recover after this”.

“While we are aware of the disastrous effects of the lockdown on the economy, we are faced with a choice whether its better to save lives and rebuild tomorrow.”

Mnangagwa, who took over from long-time ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017 with the backing of the military, has struggled to revive the moribund economy and curb hyperinflation.

The public healthcare system already faces shortages of basic drugs and lacks essential equipment and running water. But doctors and nurses staged a walkout last week in protest over a lack of protective clothing to care for coronavirus patients.

On Saturday, Health Minister Obadiah Moyo made assurances that such protective gear has been secured.

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