In the United States and around the world, societies are struggling to balance the sometimes draconian social controls needed to combat a highly contagious infectious disease with the need for limits on government power and the protection of civil liberties. Public health concerns can be used to justify crackdowns on opposition politicians, the manipulation of vital humanitarian assistance, and the emergency overriding of mechanisms meant to prohibit private gain at the public’s expense. In societies where the scales had already tipped toward authoritarianism before the emergence of COVID-19, the disease is providing cover for the further consolidation of power and abuse of citizens. Zimbabwe is a clear example of this trend. But the endgame for Zimbabwe’s government remains very uncertain.
The government of Zimbabwe’s shocking campaign to persecute political opponents, which has long been a constant that varies only in intensity over time, has ramped up once again. To take only one egregious recent example, three members of the main opposition MDC Alliance party, Member of Parliament Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marova were detained at a checkpoint in May, ostensibly for violating lockdown orders to attend a peaceful protest. All three women report subsequently being abducted, tortured, and sexually assaulted. True to form, government officials have publicly mooted wild theories claiming that the allegations were fabricated, or that a mysterious “third force” could be responsible. Last week, the three women were arrested for allegedly lying about their ordeal.
Meanwhile, hunger stalked Zimbabwe even before the economic outlook dimmed for the entire region as a result of the pandemic. The World Food Program indicates that half of the population is severely food insecure, and that urban hunger will get even worse by next spring. But the urgency of the crisis has not stopped the government from arbitrarily shutting down urban spaces, or from politicizing the distribution of food aid to punish citizens who support the opposition.
Likewise, the desperate circumstances of the population have not stopped government officials seeking to capitalize on the pandemic to enrich themselves. Officials were recently compelled to cancel inflated contracts for medical supplies with a consulting firm linked to the President of Zimbabwe and his family, but not before berating journalists for covering the story.
As eagerly as the government of Zimbabwe has seized on this crisis to consolidate power and wealth, there is little evidence of a viable plan for the future. Brutality cannot tame the second-highest inflation rate in the world, make the government’s “command agriculture” scheme anything more than a vehicle for elite corruption, or help the country manage the global economic consequences of COVID-19. Rumors of toxic rifts in the senior ranks of government and even coup plots illustrate the limits of Zimbabwe’s authoritarian consolidation, even in a crisis.