Of COVID-19, private quarantines and disaster capitalism 

Source: Of COVID-19, private quarantines and disaster capitalism – NewsDay Zimbabwe

The private sector has been very supportive of the government in the fight against coronavirus. Owing to mismanagement and corruption, the government has not managed to fund the healthcare system.

Health workers are forced to perform their duties without personal protective equipment. Their conditions of service are deplorable. Last year, doctors embarked on a crippling industrial action, only to be rescued by Econet Wireless founder Strive Masiyiwa’s philanthropic arm Higherlife Foundation.

Corporates, humanitarian organisations and individuals have since March been making a beeline to State House to donate money and other essentials to help curtail the spread of COVID-19.

Zimbabwe has been in a nationwide lockdown since March 30. The lockdown was put in place to “flatten the curve”, but has had a devastating effect on the economy. The fight against COVID-19 was also anchored on testing, isolating and quarantining suspected or confirmed cases.

Since the disease has caused havoc globally, locals in the diaspora were forced to return, necessitating the need for isolation and quarantine centres.

Isolation centres host those who would have tested positive, while quarantine centres host and restrict the movement of people who would have been exposed to the pandemic for purposes of monitoring them. Mandatory quarantine period is 21 days, with testing being conducted on the first, eighth and 21st day on returnees and international travellers.

If Zimbabwe was to flatten the curve, testing, isolating and quarantining should be top priority. COVID-19 cases this week rose sharply and authorities attributed this to Zimbabweans returning from other countries housed at quarantine centres. It’s a fact that quarantine centres are now coronavirus hotspots.

That we have witnessed a surge in cases signals that we might be doing something wrong along the way.

However, revelations that government is now abrogating its obligation by licensing private quarantines are not only disturbing, but shocking to say the least. This move is likely to reverse the gains made in the fight against the virulent virus.

This week, the government announced that it had licensed the Rainbow Towers, Umswindale Lodge, Bronte Hotel, Kadoma Hotel, Chevron Hotel (Masvingo), Khumalo Hotel (Bulawayo), among others as private quarantine centres, particularly targeting self-sponsoring returnees and those with free funds.

While the development comes as a relief to the government amid an outcry as its under-resourced isolation facilities struggle with returnees already in the country, there are dangers to such an arrangement.

We are told that such facilities (quarantine centres) should have accommodation for State security personnel on deployment and should not carry out any other business that is not COVID-19-related. How is that possible? How is the government going to monitor that such guidelines are adhered to?

The centres, we are told, must maintain registers of guests and their destinations after the quarantine period.

Guests are also expected to fund their tests after the quarantine period. But with private coronavirus test costs ranging from US$25 to $100, the fear is that some will leave the centres without certification, putting everyone they come into contact with at risk.

How is the government going to monitor that inmates stay at the private quarantine centres for the mandatory 21 days? We have heard of sex escapades in quarantine centres with condoms running out, meaning social distancing was not being observed. Serious quarantine should leave no room for this as social distancing should be a top priority.

Notwithstanding that the government promised that strict hygiene and security measures are top of the long list of licensing prerequisites, how will the government monitor if all this is being adhered to? How will security be guaranteed? This will breed corruption whereby some returnees instead of paying for accommodation for 21 days, they bribe the security officers and disappear.

If lockdown violators are bribing police officers and soldiers enforcing it, what with poorly paid security guards who man such hotels and lodges? The temptation for these returnees to bribe their way out before their time is up is high. It’s shocking that more than 150 returnees have escaped from quarantine centres across the country.

Moreso, I am not convinced that the licensing of private quarantine centres had anything to do with curtailing the spread of the coronavirus. Disaster capitalists are on the loose. In his 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein explains how governments and the global elite exploit pandemics. COVID-19 has once again shown the true colours of the rapacious capital. The private sector is counting its profits as the COVID-19 fire rages.

Several companies working in cahoots with corrupt government officials have been getting contracts to supply sanitisers, masks and other essentials without going to tender, which is the norm according to the Public Finance Management Act. Drax International and Namibian company Jaji Investments are good examples of “disasterpreneurs”.

In March, Jaji Investments was allegedly handpicked by NatPharm to deliver COVID-19 test kits at a cost of US$66 375. There is no evidence that procurement procedures were followed. Now hoteliers have joined the feeding trough from the disaster misery.

During crises, private players move in and suck funding for shoddy jobs and billions are siphoned out from Treasury. Cyclone Idai and of late COVID-19 confirmed this new phenomenon.

COVID-19 provides a harrowing picture of what we can expect when the next shock hits. But sadly, it is far from over: there is much more that this administration might try to push through under cover of crisis. To become shock-resistant, we need to prepare for that too.

The government must take full responsibility for the returnees in the interest of public health. If the new dispensation is serious about flattening the curve, the administration needs to come down to mother earth and start appreciating the true situation on the ground rather play Russian Roulette with people’s lives.

Every cent donated towards COVID-19 should go towards addressing the scourge. Peace!

 Cliff Chiduku is a journalist based in Harare.

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