Measures introduced by the government to minimise the spread of the coronavirus in Zimbabwe have seen prices of basic commodities shooting beyond the reach of many, while products such as mealie-meal are disappearing from the market.
Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) chairman Philip Bvumbe (PB) told our business reporter Fidelity Mhlanga (FM) in an exclusive interview that the national lockdown scheduled to end tomorrow has placed consumers between a rock and hard place as they struggle to access basics.
Bvumbe said the government needed to do more to protect consumers while the country fights the pandemic that has paralysed the global economy.
Below are excerpts from the interview.
FM: Has the CCZ done any awareness campaigns to encourage consumers to protect themselves against Covid-19?
PB: During this crisis, access to reliable information on health, safety and consumer rights is essential.
As CCZ, we have been playing a supportive role in protecting consumers during these challenging and uncertain times. Our concern has been over misinformation and businesses failing to follow safety advice.
CCZ has been working closely with the Ministry of Health and the World Health Organisation to ensure consumers receive reliable information, especially using their expert guidelines.
FM: Do you think consumer advocacy and awareness is crucial during the Covid-19 crisis period?
PB: As the Covid-19 pandemic sweeps around countries including Zimbabwe there has been a surge in prices and shortages of essential goods (ECGS) like health supplies and food across the provinces.
This calls for swift action to protect consumers from the unjust price increases so that they are able to access health products and also access essential goods and services like food, utilities, and internet connection at prices that take into account vulnerable groups and leave no one out.
As a result, we are continuing to carry out our surveillance mechanism through the consumer family basket surveys in order to inform government on the price movements of goods and services and also monitoring and acting on unfair business practices and criminal activities, exploiting fears over the coronavirus pandemic.
FM: How best can you describe consumer behaviour patterns during this lockdown period?
PB: Many consumers are risking going to get their essential products and services by going to public places.
As a result, in response to the call for a lockdown, consumers bought goods for stocking and also to hedge themselves against inflation.
This virus needs self-discipline and control. We have noticed speculative behaviour and some suppliers of essential goods and services hiking their prices to take advantage of the Covid-19 crisis period.
This has in turn changed the consumer behaviour patterns under lockdown resulting in long queues.
Panic-buying is a common phenomenon across the country and to a certain extent reliance on online purchases.
The coronavirus at first induced fear in consumers, but it was our responsibility to heed the call by the President (Emmerson Mnangagwa) to self-isolate and maintain self-discipline in order to prevent the spread of the virus.
As you are aware, our health system was already overwhelmed before the Covid-19 by communicable and non-communicable burdens like HIV/Aids, tuberculosis and diabetes.
There is, therefore, need to ensure that the patients continue to receive their medication so as to improve their health and wellness in this lockdown period.
FM: Do you foresee this pattern changing?
PB: It is doubtful that this new consumer behaviour pattern will change in the near future unless the food security, health and nutritional needs of the consumers are met by improving the production, supply and access to goods and services at reasonably affordable prices to both the urban and rural consumers.
FM: With experts predicting a global economic recession, which will consequently affect an already struggling Zimbabwean economy, what is your forecast on consumer buying power post-Covid-19?
PB: Coronavirus has brought financial misery to many consumers, as you are aware most of our people depend on the income from their informal businesses.
As a result of Covid-19, many businesses have been closed resulting in decline of consumer buying power.
Further, it is uncertain whether most companies will continue to pay salaries and wages if the lockdown continues without any adjustments.
You cannot rule out that a recession might be imminent and this will further affect both consumers and suppliers of goods and services.
The best thing to do is to avoid Covid-19-induced hunger.
FM: What kind of safety nets should government provide to protect consumers from the current and post-Covid-19 economic threats?
PB: There is need for stimulus programmes for essential goods and services so as to continue with the supply of these essentials in the market.
In a time such as this, there is need for business to be disciplined and stop their speculative pricing systems as this is causing suffering for the consumers as they do not afford the goods and services.
There is need for continuous dialogue between government and various stakeholders so that they stop further increase of prices.
It is encouraging to note that government has already started to provide social assistance to the vulnerable groups in society and SMEs.
They can improve on food distribution by moving food to the rural areas and ensuring that street vendors are given permits so that they will be strategically positioned closer to the customers during the lockdown to avoid shoppers travelling long distances to access food.
To ensure that those that are affected by the coronavirus receive the treatment they need, there should be no discrimination to access health facilities and treatment.
FM: Do you think it’s pertinent to give advice on eating habits in times like this?
PB: Nutrition education and awareness should be intensified during the Covid-19 lockdown period as failure to do so will result in the deterioration of the health and wellness of our citizens.
As you might be aware, the quantities that are depicted in the consumer basket are formulated on the basis of ensuring that consumers live a healthy life.
FM: With some companies increasingly adopting technology in delivering products at home, are consumers embracing online shopping, especially in this period?
PB: Online shopping has been part of our market changes that has been noticed in our country as we have been embracing the fourth industrial revolution.
The Covid-19 crisis has further increased the need for retailers and consumers to take advantage of the presence of these shopping platforms, but because of the increase in the cost of data, many consumers are not able to use online shopping to purchase goods and services.
The click economy — e-commerce — has affected the supply chain and online transactions have made everything much easier, but there are barriers to online transactions with regard to logistics, shipping, cross-border, compliance with rules and regulations, security of payments, website’s local language and local payment methods, which calls for financial players, government and consumers to get their act together to ensure that the e-commerce environment is safe and secure to all users as cybercrime is on the increase including fake news.
FM: Globally there has been an increase in consumer interest in health and hygiene products, leading to the purchase of safety items such as hand sanitisers and facemasks. Have you observed an inclination towards these products among Zimbabwean consumers?
PB: The Zimbabwean community has moved swiftly to embrace and advocate for the use of hand sanitisers, face masks, use of soaps and constant washing of hands to minimise the spread of coronavirus.
The use of adverts as a guideline for combating the virus where tips and free resources are being used to provide clear forecast, reliable, verified and timely information as the crisis develops has aided a great deal, but more still needs to done so that the communication reaches the most remote places in the country
FM: Compared to other countries, where do you position Zimbabwe in terms of consumer awareness?
PB: As you are aware, Zimbabwe is a member of the Global Solidarity Movement (the Consumer International), this year we have participated as usual in celebrating the Consumer Rights Day 2020, themed: The Sustainable Consumer, which is an annual event commemorated on March 15, and coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Consumer protection and advocacy in addressing the challenges that arise from Covid-19 remains our focus in ensuring that consumers are protected, informed, educated and are empowered to face the Covid-19 crisis for their survival.
This event provided consumers with information and discussions on measures to reduce the damages of over-consumption and how to take action on climate change.
We also wish to extend gratitude to health workers who are on the frontline for their sacrifices.