Tightening Lockdown in Zimbabwe: A Case of Restricting Civil Liberties or Just a Desire to Save Lives

By Prince Kurupati

President Mnangagwa sees the lockdown as an effort to curb the spread of COVID, his critics think he wants to stifle civil liberties
President Mnangagwa sees the lockdown as an effort to curb the spread of COVID, his critics think he wants to stifle civil liberties

In the past days, the number of positive corona virus cases being recorded in Zimbabwe has been rising exponentially. On average, the country has been recording 100 new cases in the past couple of weeks. This is certainly a major cause of concern for both the government and the general populace.

While both the government and the general populace view the exponential rise of COVID-19 positive cases as worrisome, differences have emerged over how to salvage the situation so as to prevent the worst from occurring.

On one hand, there is the argument by the government that the only way forward to salvage the situation and potentially flatten the curve is to tighten the lockdown restrictions. On the other hand, there is the call by the general populace as spearheaded by the media and civil society to force the government to be more responsible, proactive and accountable in its handling of the pandemic. The basis of the argument being that by tightening the lockdown regulations, the government simply wants to restrict civil liberties owing to the prevailing precarious security situation.

It’s all about flattening the curve – Government

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa during his nationwide tours to mining companies around Zimbabwe has bemoaned the exponential increase in the number of positive COVID-19 cases. In response, the President made it clear that his government is looking to tighten the lockdown restrictions with the aim of flattening the curve.

President Mnangagwa’s address on 21 July, 2020 to the nation in which he announced tighter lockdown restrictions, therefore, did not come as a surprise. In his address, the President said that only the working population is allowed to move within cities and towns. The non-working population must remain indoors except for the purposes of securing food, water and health services. All gatherings including church gatherings which had previously been allowed but under strict measures were banned with the exception of funerals. Business operating hours were cut from 08:00 am-16:30 pm to 08:00 am-15:00 pm.

Perhaps the most glaring regulation was the enactment of a dusk to dawn curfew. “With effect from tomorrow Wednesday 22 July 2020, all our security services must enforce a dusk-to-dawn curfew set to come into force daily between 1800 hours and 0600 hours.”

The tighter lockdown regulations according to the President “are being taken for our (citizens) collective safety. As Zimbabweans, we have to win the war against the COVID-19 pandemic.” He said it was prudent to implement such difficult measures so as to curb the spike in local infections. “Another worrisome development is that more and more cases of local transmissions are being reported at places of work. COVID-19 is thus no longer a problem out there, far and beyond our borders, rather it is now here amongst us and in our communities.”

Drawing comparison with the neighbouring South Africa, President Mnangagwa said that now is not the time to be complacent. South Africa, Zimbabwe’s neighbor to the south has been recording an exponential rise in cases, and now ranks fifth globally in terms of infections. Mnangagwa said the tighter lockdown regulations are justified so as to prevent against going the same route as South Africa.

A case of restricting civil liberties – civil society, private media and the general populace

 During the days leading to the President’s 21 July address and as it became more and more apparent that the lockdown restrictions were going to be tightened, civil society, private media and members of the general populace began to raise concerns that the government was looking at tightening the restrictions so as to restrict civil liberties and not to address the spike in COVID-19 cases.

The big question raised by government critics pertains to the issue of striking doctors and nurses. A couple of months back, investigative journalists in the country unearthed a massive scandal dubbed the CovidGate scandal in which government procured personal protective equipment (PPE) at overly inflated prices from a shelf company. Details emerged that the company had links to the First Family and as such, it was being used by the First Family and other linked officials to siphon money from the country.

Soon after the expose, nurses and doctors declared that they were going to undertake industrial action as they were working in the frontline under terrible conditions while others were corruptly benefitting from money meant for frontline workers. Since they embarked on industrial action over two months back, the government has remained quiet. The big question being asked by the critics is why the government is remaining quiet during a pandemic which requires nurses and doctors to be at the forefront fighting against COVID-19. The government’s reluctance to address the concerns of the health workers therefore paints a worrisome picture that it does not care about the health of the nation.

Concerns have also been raised by some saying the time that the country has started recording exponential rises in positive cases is suspicious. Several weeks back at the height of the CovidGate scandal, an opposition leader Jacob Ngarivhume of Transform Zimbabwe announced that his party in collaboration with others will be holding a nationwide protest on July 31. As many people were riled up by the corruption scandal, Jacob Ngarivhume quickly found sympathizers and his call for protests soon became an ‘anthem’ on social media platforms. It is at that same time that the Ministry of Health began to announce an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases. Government critics therefore argue that the rise in COVID-19 cases is a deliberate ploy by the government to prevent the protests as it under the impression of preventing the spike in positive cases would tighten lockdown restrictions and in turn, make it impossible for the protests to take place.

Jacob Ngarivhume is under arrest
Jacob Ngarivhume is under arrest

The recent arrests of Jacob Ngarivhume and journalist Hopewell Chin’ono who exposed the CovidGate scandal thus prove that the concerns of government critics may not be far-fetched. The imposition of the dusk to dawn curfew also partly vindicates the claims of government critics. This is because the protests will be hard to conduct during a curfew. Breaking the curfew will give the security forces legit reasons to clamp down on people as they will be judged to have violated the curfew. Regardless of the opposing views, the neutral view is that local infections are contained while at the same time; civil liberties are to be guaranteed.

*Culled from August Issue of PAV Magazine

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