COVID-19 and Conflict | How pandemic regulations are being used to target the political opposition in Zimbabwe

Introduction to ‘Covid-19 and Conflict’ Blog Series: When Disasters, Conflict and Covid-19 Collide

Responding to the international Covid-19 pandemic is particularly complex in settings of (post) conflict and/or conflict settings underpinned by authoritarian political regimes. In such scenarios, the national responses to the pandemic may be weakened, the infrastructure to respond adequately may be lacking, and power games may easily ensue where response to the pandemic get instrumentalised to serve political interests. To get a better grasp of the interaction and dynamics of top-down and bottom-up Covid-19 responses in such settings, research was conducted in seven different contexts over the summer of 2020, and the findings will be showcased on Bliss through several blog articles. 

The research underlying the blogs was facilitated by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and made possible by a NWO grant (number 453-14-013). It is linked to the research project ‘When Disaster Meets Conflict’ (Discord) hosted at the ISS. More comprehensive findings of the case studies will be shared in different formats, including working papers or articles, on the VICI research webpage: www.iss.nl/whendisastermeetsconflict


Covid-19 and Conflict | How pandemic regulations are being used to target the political opposition in Zimbabwe

By James Kunhiak Muorwel, Lara Vincent and Lize Swartz

Relatively few Covid-19 infections and deaths have been registered in Zimbabwe, yet the Southern African country has been hit hard by the pandemic. Our recent research on Covid-19 responses in Zimbabwe shows that in the face of a strict lockdown and ongoing economic repercussions, one of the biggest worries for Zimbabwean citizens ironically is falling prey to the instrumental and strategic use of laws meant to protect them from the virus, which are apparently being used to continue decades-long political repression.

prison covid corona

While Zimbabwe has registered relatively few Covid-19 cases since the virus first appeared here on 20 March this year, the country’s political and socio-economic situation has ensured that the pandemic’s impact has been severe despite low infection and death rates. A country in Sub-Saharan Africa notorious for years of misrule and economic mismanagement under Robert Mugabe following independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe’s challenges have been severe. Now, hopes of progress in the country’s ongoing bid to free itself from the chains of dictatorship that have bound it for decades and the consequent economic effects that continue to haunt the country following the transition to a new government have been dashed by the onset of the pandemic in March. Critical voices have been forcefully silenced by the current regime, which has used the pandemic as a pretext for renewed political repression.

Research on Covid-19 responses in Zimbabwe carried out between June and August this year by James Kunhiak Muorwel and Lara Vincent sought to provide a compact overview of grounded experiences of life in Zimbabwe during the lockdown. For the research, the greatest challenges for civil society, in particular given Zimbabwe’s fragile political context, were investigated by conducting online interviews with some key informants and studying reports, news articles, and other sources. A few key findings are detailed below.

Like most other countries, following the first registered case of Covid-19 in March this year, Zimbabwe introduced stringent measures to slow the spread of the virus. Measures were rolled out in two phases: first, in April, the country was placed under a total lockdown lasting for 21 days. All economic activity ceased as people were confined to their houses, forced to eke out a living and survive on the bare minimum. Then, the economy was partially reopened and the movement of people eased in a bid to prevent the economy from suffering further and to counter hunger and increased poverty.

But especially in the first lockdown phase, many Zimbabweans were forced to break lockdown regulations—with severe consequences. A majority of Zimbabweans rely on the informal sector for their living. In 2020, the World Bank estimated that extreme poverty in the country is on the rise – “from 29 percent in 2018 to 34 percent in 2019”. It could even get worse when you add to the mix the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on the country.

The impact has already been significant, compounded by health and sanitation problems, poor economic performance, high unemployment rates, droughts, food insecurity, corruption, and the general political climate in the country. Closing businesses and restricting free movement of the majority of the population who rely on informal jobs for survival as part of the lockdown might have been economic suicide for the country. As lockdown measures took effect and most businesses remained closed, many families went hungry, without money to stock enough food. Basic staple food items such as mealie meal (maize meal) became scarce. Cases of gender-based violence have spiked during this period partly because families are confined to one living environment for longer periods than before the lockdown. It may have also exacerbated anxiety and mental health problems.

Many Zimbabweans thus felt they had no choice but to disobey the regulations, our research shows. Their actions attracted a disproportionate response from the government. In July 2020, the BBC reported that 105,000 people said to have breached restrictions were arrested. These numbers quoted are between March (when the lockdown came into effect) and July, but more people might be behind bars. Parliamentarians representing the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), a renowned journalist, as well as a prominent novelist were arrested in July for organizing an ‘illegal’ gathering to protest against the lockdown measures, exposing corruption, and demand for the resignation of President Emerson Mnangagwa. The government has called those arrested “dark forces,” and the protesters a “few bad apples”.

Our interviews[1] with research participants, as well as a study of NGO reports and continuous allegations by human rights groups, have revealed widespread arrests and money extortion by the state’s security apparatuses during the lockdown. As Peter[2], one of the research participants, bluntly stated, “for me, the lockdown was a convenient political state of emergency, not necessarily a public health statement.” He also expressed his frustration that citizens who were being arrested for breaking lockdown regulations were being placed in crowded cells where social distancing was not possible.

The phenomenon of arresting opposition figures is not new. For over four decades, the political regime headed by former president Robert Mugabe was characterized by violent suppression of political dissent. The opposition was targeted under the pretext of bogus laws that made their actions appear illegal. His successor, current President Manangagwa, has also been accused by human rights groups and the opposition party of using old tactics to exploit the current situation. Yet the transition to a new political regime following Mugabe’s toppling brought hope to many Zimbabweans. It now seems overshadowed by the threat of violent repression—the spectre seems to have not disappeared, after all.

Staying at home is not an option for most Zimbabweans, especially when they do not have savings or social protection measures to help them bear the economic burden of the pandemic lockdown. As they continue moving around, they continue putting themselves at risk of arrest and torture by the police, first, and of infection with Covid-19, second. What will the consequences be?

Zimbabwe is not the first country to treat a pandemic or a disasters triggered by natural hazards as a national security issue, but it is the consequences of the government’s actions at this particular time that are worrying. We anticipate that harassment and illegal arrests of political opponents and vendors by police in the name of lockdown violations will leave the society polarised more than ever before thereby setting the stage for more street confrontations between the security apparatuses and the demonstrators. It is troubling that there is a brutal crackdown on the violation of lockdown regulations without taking into account the circumstances, and we see that street vendors, commuters and the like are treated as political opponents. It is imperative to continue sharing grounded experiences of political repression in Zimbabwe and to speak out against it so that it does not undo all the progress that has been achieved in the last few years in reversing the devastating impacts of Zimbabwe’s rule under Mugabe’s dictatorial regime.


[1] A research project on Covid-19 in Zimbabwe that was conducted by Lara Vincent and James Kunhiak Muorwel between June and August 2020 was part of the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam’s “When Disaster Meets Conflict” project that looks at ‘informing better linkages between top-down, external measures and local, socially and culturally appropriate initiatives’. NWO project number 453/14/013

[2] Name has been changed to protect interviewee’s identity.

About the authors:

James Kunhiak Muorwel holds an MA degree in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam and BA in Business Administration from Makerere University. His recent research was on the Covid-19 situation in Zimbabwe. He also has many years of work experience with international development organisations, including the UN. Follow him on Twitter @JKunhiak

Lara Vincent holds an MA degree in Development Studies from the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. While at ISS she majored in Agrarian, Food and Environmental Studies, with a specialisation in Environment and Sustainable Development.

Lize SwartzLize Swartz is the editor of ISS Blog Bliss and a PhD researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She researches the biopolitics of water scarcity in South Africa.

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