CHIPA GONDITII/LISA TAZVIINGA/CLOUDINE MATOLA
FOR most families in Zimbabwe, the days leading to month-end are a painful slog because the meagre salaries people earn do not last the distance.
As soon as the funds run out, the rat race begins, money is borrowed on the back of promises that it will be paid at month-end.
The amount borrowed far exceeds the expected salary which means families are in perpetual deficit. It is the only way to keep one’s head above water in a deteriorating economy characterised by a crippling liquidity crunch, acute fuel and foreign currency shortages, low capacity utilisation and runaway inflation of more than 700% which has decimated incomes and pensions. The advent of coronavirus has worsened the country’s economic decline.
Veronica Chitiyo, a resident of Harare’s Mufakose high density suburb, knows these realities all too well. There is an entire generation of children who are growing up without ever tasting such “luxury” foods as yoghurt, bacon, cheese and ice cream.
However, as compared to most, Chitiyo has a better quality of life — at least she has a working husband. The challenge, which unexpectedly emerged in Chitiyo’s life in the wake of the Covid-19 lockdown, is how to receive her monthly groceries. Her husband, the sole breadwinner, is based in South Africa, which means each month she has to wait for him to send groceries using haulage trucks. However the wait for groceries each month from across the border has turned into a nightmare.
“Apart from the groceries, my husband also sends some extra money which is hardly enough to carry us through to the end of each month, so sadly I see myself in a self-repeating cycle whereby around the 20th of every month I am looking for people I can borrow money from.”
Each day she worries about her husband’s safety in South Africa, which has the highest number of Covid-19 infections on the continent. However, what is giving her sleepless nights now are reports on social media of truck drivers recklessly mixing people’s groceries with dead bodies, some who have died from coronavirus.
While Chitiyo is scared of receiving contaminated groceries that would expose herself and her four children to the coronavirus, she has no choice.
More than two million people in urban areas are “cereal food insecure”, according to the latest Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) analysis conducted this month.
Most people are now using truck drivers to smuggle groceries, clothing and other necessities from neighbouring countries as poverty in the country worsens. This has greatly increased the risk of spreading coronavirus across Southern Africa.
A truck driver who only referred to himself as Tapson ferries Chitiyo’s groceries into the country every month from Johannesburg for a R200 (US$11) fee. He provides the same service to three other families in Mufakose.
Just after leaving his company depot in Johannesburg, Tapson meets his “clients” at a nearby garage where the groceries are concealed under the huge trailer canvas. This is followed by a payment of half the fee with the rest being paid upon delivery.
This hauling of concealed groceries for almost 2 000 kilometres provides a vital lifeline in these tough economic times for Tapson as well.
“Despite the fact that I am one of the very few employed people, the salary is never enough in Zimbabwe. As we speak, I have a family which I fend for. My eldest child is in university and I am also trying to build a home. All of these things require money that my salary alone cannot support and this R600 (US$34) that l get from my side venture is helping me do that,” Tapson said.
Despite the fact that the groceries could now exacerbate the rate of infection of the coronavirus, Tapson said he is always happy to earn the extra cash, which he sees as his “Covid-19 relief fund”.
“The government has not given us any funds to assist us during the coronavirus nightmare, so essentially people should not be blamed for trying to make a little extra cash on the side because things are tough out here,” he said.
Between April 1 and July 22, a total of 12 650 Zimbabwean migrants returned from neighbouring countries. About 1 500 returnees were quarantined.
Executive director of the Community Working Group on Health Itai Rusike, said the smuggling of goods increases the risk of spreading the virus and might be the reason behind the spiking number of infections in the country.
“The smuggling of goods, foodstuffs, people and dead bodies by truck drivers fuels the risk of Covid-19 transmission as the disinfection procedures are per World Health Organisation and public health guidelines are not being followed.
“The contaminated foodstuffs and goods during smuggling of dead bodies may be the reason why the country is experiencing an increased number of unexplained local transmission figures,” Rusike said.
He emphasised the need for health awareness programmes and the close monitoring of borders.
“There is need to enhance monitoring and surveillance along the country’s borders and ports of entry to reduce smuggling and also reduce the risk of Covid-19 infections,” Rusike pointed out.
“There should be targeted Covid-19 health literacy, health education and awareness campaigns amongst truck drivers so that there is informed participation of truck drivers in the Covid-19 response.”
Harare Residents Trust president Precious Shumba said it was wrong for the government to open borders for the purchase of groceries as this increases the risk of spreading the virus.
“The government was wrong to open borders for the purchase of groceries. At the same time, food remains cheaper in South Africa,” Shumba said.
“The risk of transmitting the Covid-19 from South Africa to Zimbabwe through food is very high. It is possible that most of the local transmissions we are witnessing as a country are directly linked to food imports and people illegally crossing the borders and returning without using legal entry points. Due to deepening poverty and vulnerability, a lot of citizens are sacrificing the safety of their health for food.”