Zimbabwe, like most countries, is facing the threat of an unprecedented pandemic in COVID-19. The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (the Forum) supports good faith, evidence-based interventions designed to slow down and respond to infections.
As Zimbabwe goes through an extended national lockdown, the Forum is concerned about the state of Zimbabwe’s response, in particular the effectiveness and adequacy of the measures adopted by the government.
The right to health
The extraordinary threats to the right to health that Zimbabweans face come on the backdrop of a distressed healthcare system. The country’s public healthcare system, upon which most are dependent, is severely underfunded, and the government is yet to meet its obligations to commit 15% of its budget to health, per the Abuja Declaration. While it is impossible to revamp the healthcare system overnight in response to COVID-19, the government is duty-bound to commit sufficient resource to confront this urgent need. This is yet to happen. While the Forum welcomes the judgment of the High Court in Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights v Minister of Health & Others compelling government to ensure capacitation of medical personnel and facilities, the Forum remains concerned that the government has not moved swiftly to comply with the order. More worrisome is that after the initial 21-day lockdown, meant in large part to slow infections while allowing for time to set up a robust response, we find ourselves largely in the same situation we were in at the beginning of the lockdown period. The levels of testing are low, meaning that Zimbabwe’s true rate of infection remains unknown, an extremely dangerous situation to be in, in a pandemic. This situation is compounded by the fact that the Ministry of Health’s current tally of positive cases includes cases of community transmission.
Access to information and freedom of the media
The right of access to information is central to the management and containment of the virus. It is reckless and irresponsible for the government to continually dismiss the harsh realities the nation is facing, and to fake satisfaction with the state of preparedness in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Transparency is key to ensuring that the government gets the necessary support and cooperation, and also for the government to remain accountable to the people. The Government Task Force on COVID-19 has not been providing the nation with detailed situational updates. Other than the daily summary report shared by the Ministry of Health, the government is not releasing substantive information and has not designated a contact person through which two-way communication is channelled, fuelling misinformation, speculation and conjecture.
COVID-19 strikes Zimbabwe at a time when half the population is projected to need food aid, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Government has already launched a humanitarian appeal for aid. The majority are dependent on the informal sector for livelihoods. Confining people to their homes without any accompanying support can only mean hunger and starvation. Government has been extremely slow and indecisive in providing safety nets. While the government has recently committed to providing ZWL200 per each individual identified to be in need, this is not enough to sustain a one-person family for any period of note. This gesture by the government is no more than tokenism and betrays sincerity. Additionally, there is no timeline for distribution nor transparency on how the disbursement will be carried out.
The Forum is aware of reports of partisan distribution of government food aid in various parts of the country. Notwithstanding court orders for the provision of clean, safe and portable water, relevant authorities have not taken sufficient steps to ensure that all people have access to water. Without water, the hygiene necessary to prevent COVID-19 remains impossible, let alone survival.
Enforcement of lockdown
As the Forum earlier warned, a number of violations of human rights have thus far been recorded throughout the country, including arbitrary arrests, assault, malicious damage to property and arrests of journalists engaged in their lawful duties. More concerning is that the majority of those facing this brutality, are the vulnerable who are left with no choice but to leave their homes in search of survival. Not only is this group suffering human rights violations at the hands of law enforcers; the group is dangerously exposed to the virus itself. The need for security forces to comply with constitutional stipulations, and human rights-based policing, cannot be overemphasised, more so given the exigencies of the present times. To that end, the Forum welcomes the order of the High Court in Masvondo and Another v Minister of Home Affairs and Others for the police and the army to comply with the Constitution and the law in law enforcement. Similarly, the Forum welcomes the High Court judgment in Media Institute of Southern Africa v Minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services and Others, which ordered the police to allow journalists to do their work unhindered. Current lockdown regulations designate journalists as an essential service.
A deliberate, measured and well-resourced approach to COVID-19 is needed. Without ensuring a balanced and human rights-based approach, efforts that include a lockdown would bear little fruits in curtailing the spread of the virus. Instead, we will only see a compounded human rights situation. The government must avoid this, as its greatest charge is the protection of the lives of its people. The government of Zimbabwe is called upon to exercise sound leadership in mounting an effective response to the global pandemic while protecting the best interests of citizens. In particular, the Forum calls for the following:
- Government must commit adequate resources to the national response, including accelerating increased testing and provision of lifesaving healthcare countywide.
- Government must comply with all the court orders that have been issued concerning protection of human rights during the state of national disaster.
- Government must urgently provide meaningful and sufficient social and economic safety nets to all vulnerable communities including the elderly, children, economically marginalised and those with physical and mental disabilities. These measures must be rolled out transparently.
- Government must mount a coordinated and effective information dissemination system, taking into account the accessibility of information; and
- Everyone in Zimbabwe is encouraged to comply with lawful measures adopted in response to the virus and to practice good hygiene and observing physical distancing.