HARARE - Zimbabwe’s government has imposed an indefinite dusk to dawn curfew and other travel restrictions, saying the measures are needed to contain rising cases of COVID-19. The southern African country has more than 1,800 confirmed cases and 26 deaths but, health experts say the true number of infections is likely higher. However, rights groups and critics say the measures are aimed at stopping anti-government protests planned for July 31.
Announcing the 12-hour curfew late Tuesday on national television, President Emmerson Mnangagwa said it was part of efforts to contain a spike in coronavirus cases that he described as a “worrisome development.”
“Therefore, this sobering reality means that we can no longer be complacent, and that requires urgent and decisive measures," he said. "Fellow Zimbabweans, these urgent and necessary measures will entail curtailing the freedoms we have always enjoyed, and had grown accustomed to. From now on, these freedoms stand suspended and deferred, in the interest of all of us; indeed in the interest of our children and our nation which must survive, thrive and prosper beyond this pandemic. No responsible government places its citizens in harm's way, hence my government will do all it can to preserve and protect the right to life.”
Mnangagwa did not mention the planned July 31 protests that his sympathizers say are meant to depose his government. The government has said it will deploy security forces — including the army — to quell any demonstrations.
In an interview, Tendai Biti, vice-president of the country’s main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, said the president had no real reason to impose the restrictions.
“It’s madness. You can’t impose a state of emergency, he has no right to declare state of emergency, it’s a serious curtailment of rights. You need parliament [to rectify the declaration].
Reporter: "They are saying they are trying to deal with coronavirus?"
Biti: "It’s an excuse: they are just afraid of 31 July."
Asked about Biti’s allegations, government officials said they stick by Mnangagwa’s reasons for the curfew.
Dr. Nyika Mahachi, the president of Zimbabwe College of Public Health Physicians, says lockdowns alone cannot stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. He says the new measures, which include banning religious gatherings, should be complemented with requirements to wear face masks and enforcing hygienic practice.
“And we expand testing. Those that are infected we isolate them," he said. "More importantly, in the context of Zimbabwe; ensuring that the health facilities are ready to deal with complicated cases. We know five to 10 percent cases complicate and require oxygen and intensive care hospitalization. So ensuring that hospitals are prepped with oxygen, intensive care beds, for the few complicated cases. This is something we have not been able to do and it needs to be addressed urgently. This is also an opportunity to address some existing health system challenges.”
That was a reference to nurses who are boycotting their jobs, saying the less than $50 salary they earn each month is leaving them in poverty.
The government has offered a $75 “COVID-19 allowance” for three months, but so far that has failed to lure back the nurses.