The Minister of Health, on 28 March 2020, subsequently gazetted SI 83 of 2020 [Public health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) Order, 2020], giving effect to the Directive by the President. The COVID-19 pandemic which is a global concern has to date infected 7 and killed 1 in Zimbabwe according to the Ministry of Health and Child Care, while thousands have lost their lives globally. As such the Forum welcomes the development for its ability to slow down the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
The Forum further notes that during his announcement, the President advised of the deployment of the security forces to enforce the National Lockdown. The Forum is deeply concerned by the likely possibility of human rights abuses perpetrated by these security forces in the enforcement of the directive. This worry stems from past and recent experience in Zimbabwe, where the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) and the Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) have especially displayed an unpalatable appetite for excessive and brute force as a way of communicating and controlling people. This deployment comes in the aftermath of the 1 August 2018 deployment which resulted in extra-judicial killings of at least 6 civilians and the January 2019 deployment in response to the #ZimShutDown protests, which saw atrocities by the security forces including 17 extra-judicial killings.
Considering this, there is legitimate cause for apprehension as the nation moves into a 21-day National Lockdown period marked with the presence of security forces in the streets and neighbourhoods to enforce the presidential directive. The Forum implores State security agents who will be deployed to enforce the National Lockdown to do so with due regard to the constitutional rights accorded to the people in Zimbabwe, particularly insofar as the use of force is concerned. State security agents are reminded of the International Human Rights Standards for Law Enforcement, which stipulate, among others, that non-violent means shall be attempted before the use of force, that force shall be used only when strictly necessary and that force shall be used only for lawful law enforcement. The Forum further reminds the Government of the Motlanthe Commission of Inquiry recommendations found in the Report Of The Commission Of Inquiry Into The 1st Of August 2018 Post-Election Violence which include the need for law enforcement security agents to be properly capacitated to deal with emergencies and more so, to be discouraged from firing any live ammunition on civilians in respect for human rights.
For critical moments such as these, it is extremely important that the nation is kept fully informed of the developments and measures being undertaken by the government to curb this pandemic. Access to accurate information is key to contain any anxieties by citizens. To that end, the Forum wishes to remind the Government that a very large number of people in Zimbabwe live in rural areas with no access to the internet and smartphones. For those with smartphones in urban and rural areas, the price of data is out of reach for many to be able to get connected and access critical information especially during the Lockdown. Section 62(2) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No.20) Act 2013 (the Constitution), guarantees citizens and permanent residents access to information held by the Government in as far as it is required in protection of a right. Ensuring access to information by citizens aides in the enjoyment of the right to health by everyone. We urge the Inter-Ministerial Taskforce to take this into account in its programmes around ensuring the information on the lockdown cascades to the grassroots as was announced by the minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, Monica Mutsvangwa on 28 March 2020.
While a National Lockdown was increasingly becoming inevitable under the circumstances, we note with concern that the 2-day notice period was given running over a weekend. The was not realistic in allowing citizens ample time to make necessary arrangements in preparing for the National Lockdown. This is largely because of our unique circumstances as a nation where indisputably the level of unemployment is high and the majority of citizens live from hand to mouth, largely dependent on informal trading. With the incessant shortages of basic commodities such as mealie – meal, fuel, water, electricity and cash, one would have expected the government to provide safety nets for vulnerable groups and outline practical measures on how these challenges will be ameliorated during the National Lockdown. Sadly, the Directive and the subsequent Order by the Minister of Health inappropriately presupposes that every citizen has the means to access food, clean water and all other essentials during this period. Although the government has announced that distribution of food aid will continue, with more distribution points being established to minimise large gathering and that grain and monetary payments are being made to 760 000 households throughout the country, it is not clear how this measure will respond to the peculiar needs of citizens adversely affected the National Lockdown. This undoubtedly will cause a lot of distress and plunge many into poor health as a result of serious food shortages. In order to prevent the National Lockdown from becoming a nightmare for citizens whose livelihood is already a struggle, we call upon the Government to come up with practical measures in alleviating these challenges so that the lockdown will not cause more problems on an already impoverished and struggling citizenry than the solutions it seeks to achieve.
The Forum, therefore, calls on the following;
- The State Security Agents to adhere to the Constitution and the law as provided in section 208 of the Constitution during the National Lockdown. The Government should ensure that those being deployed get a clear brief of their mandate to avoid unnecessary loss of life resulting from heavy-handedness.
- The Government to provide safety – nets for vulnerable groups of society and come up with practical measures to ensure that citizens have access to basic commodities including sufficient food and clean and portable water, medicines during this national lockdown period.
- The Government to ensure that everyone has access to information and use all the available feedback channels to interact with the public so that responses resonate to the specific needs of various communities.
- The Government to properly equip the security forces being deployed with adequate protective clothing and equipment so that they do not end up spreading the disease or contracting it during the discharge of their duties.