BULAWAYO – The Zimbabwe government appeared on Sunday to have quietly abandoned a controversial plan to force all visitors and returning residents to take a Covid-19 PCR test on arrival and quarantine for 10 days at their own cost.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced the new measures on November 30, saying they were in response to the emergence of the Omicron variant first reported by South African scientists.
The measures, which he said were effective immediately, caught social services, public health officials, police and the immigration departments by surprise. The government had no plan in place, officials briefed, and many said the country had no capacity to speedily test and quarantine thousands of Christmas travellers expected in the country, particularly through Beitbridge, the southern gateway into South Africa.
Checks at the country’s ports of entry – both land and air – on Sunday showed that Zimbabwe was still welcoming visitors and returning residents upon the production of a negative PCR test taken at least 72 hours before travel. No arrivals have been quarantined, except those who failed temperature checks and later tested positive for the virus.
“As you were,” an airport official at the Robert Gabriel Mugabe responded when asked if they had started implementing the new measures. “There has not been serious movement to providing capacity for onsite testing. We just got a list of the approved quarantine centres but the guidelines are thin on how people go there securely.
“Those who can’t afford the quarantine are supposed to be handed over to social welfare, but I doubt they even have a blanket, let alone the food to feed the thousands. Social welfare also relies on school and college infrastructure, but these institutions are open and there is no free accommodation to be found around.”
Mnangagwa’s announcement of the new measures was not backed up by any legal framework until nearly 24 hours later when the government gazetted a statutory instrument. The plan was unimplementable, not immediately anyway, civil servants at the ports complained.
Then, on December 3, the health ministry published new guidelines contradicting the statutory instrument. Zimbabweans who have been outside the country for 14 days or less would be allowed to go and quarantine at home as long as they are negative upon retesting at the port of entry. Doctors immediately pointed out that the amendment had no scientific basis if the government’s intentions were purely to keep Omicron out.
In Bulawayo on Saturday, the South African music group Blaq Diamond staged a gig at Umguza Yatch Club after being allowed through. Their paperwork would have required the signatures of various government departments including immigration, ZIMRA, the police and the National Arts Council.
Mduduzi Mdlongwa, one of the promoters, told the Bulawayo Chronicle: “There was no need for them to quarantine since their paperwork permits them to work in this country. There were no immigration problems and the duo was cleared to perform as all the documentation was in place.”
The new measures faced opposition from the opposition and Zimbabweans abroad, some of them forced to scrap their plans to join their families for the holidays. Lawyers also questioned if they were legal.
The MDC Alliance said the measures, which were out of sync with other countries’ response in the region, were “unscientific, irrational and outmoded,” the party said, warning that the measures would harm the country’s tourism industry.
“Criminal law, to be law, must be effective in addressing harm. Law also should not lead to ridiculous and absurd outcomes. These quarantine rules fail both tests,” lawyer Petina Gappah wrote on Twitter.
Mnangagwa had said his measures would be reviewed on December 13, but five days since his announcement, it appears neither he nor those he burdened with implementing them has any appetite to go forth – each side hoping nothing too dramatic happens and they lapse quietly.
One immigration officer at Beitbridge said: “Let’s hope cool heads continue to prevail.”
Whilst Zimbabwe has seen a sharp increase in infections – 1,082 on Saturday up from 399 on November 30 – deaths have averaged about one a day, hardly justifying Mnangagwa’s tough measures which have caused travelling uncertainty for thousands.