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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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Covid-19 | Strengthening alliances in a post-Covid world: green recovery as a new opportunity for EU-China climate cooperation?

As nations turn their attention to fighting the economic crisis resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, green recovery seems to be a good—and perhaps for the first time, possible—option. As climate change remains the most pressing challenge despite the severity of the global Covid-19 pandemic, a green recovery plan to slow down global warming and meet climate goals becomes imperative. Leaders in the EU are taking the lead in greening the recovery, while China seems to be following suit. A ‘green consciousness’ seems to be emerging. Could these efforts improve EU-China relations and help these two global powerhouses work together to fight climate change? asks Hao Zhang.

Chinese and EU flag
Credit: Friends of Europe on Flickr

As the IMF’s latest report on fiscal policies shows, the Covid-19 crisis won’t change the global climate that is also in crisis, but responses to it might. Even though science hasn’t produced an answer on whether the current economic crisis induced by the pandemic will indeed affect the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, efforts to address it certainly will. It is undeniable that the current health and economic crisis together create a threat to our current development trajectory and that the scope and severity of the issue to some extent make lasting efforts and immediate actions crucial. These decisions on how we will recover from the pandemic and the resulting crisis will shape our society for the next few decades and, even more importantly perhaps, how we deal with our climate and environmental challenges. As the IPCC’s report warned that our current ambition and willingness are far from pushing us to reach our goal of containing global warming, a green recovery plan becomes imperative in a post-Covid-19 world.

The question then arises: How do we green our recovery? As the IMF suggests, fiscal policymakers should take the lead in making policies that support climate goals without undermining the purpose of boosting the economy. Then, finance ministries should be able to set up concrete and practical projects to implement these policies. In addition, public support for the green policies with the rationale that curbing emissions would likely reduce the risk of respiratory diseases is indispensable. In a post-Covid-19 world, this might sway the public in support of green measures in a way it never has before.

The EU seems to be taking the lead in employing green measures to recover its lockdown-hit economies. As policymakers tend to believe that a green plan can better help revive the economy, concrete actions can be witnessed. In May this year, the European Commission proposed a €750 billion recovery fund with green conditions, 25% of which is to be set aside for climate action, meaning that one-quarter of expenditure with a ‘do-no-harm’ clause can potentially rule out environmentally damaging investments.[1] In addition, the Commission also issued a €1.85 trillion, seven-year budget and pandemic recovery package. This EU green recovery package could be introduced elsewhere to stimulate the economy while fighting climate change.

In addition, the EU launched the world’s largest programs for innovative low-carbon technologies under the fund from the EU’s emissions trading system. This innovation fund is created to finance breakthrough technologies for renewable energy, energy-intensive industries, carbon capture, use and storage, etc. These could help create local job opportunities, lead the economy to a climate-neutral place, and also help the EU maintain its technological leadership in climate change. It is obvious that the EU pays great attention to the future of clean technologies, yet it allows member states and the market space to decide how the money is spent. The member states will be allowed to use their allocations from the EU’s Recovery and Resilience Facility for a wide range of green projects detailed in their national energy climate plans, and their proposals will be reviewed by the Commission; at the same time, private capital will be encouraged to invest in clean energy technologies.

On the other side of the world, in China, residents also survived the first wave of the pandemic, and the government is now also making recovery plans. This May, in the report on the work of the government, the development of renewable energy and efforts toward the clean and efficient use of coal were emphasized.[2] At the same time, this year for the first time Beijing has decided not to set an economic growth target, which is interpreted as a way to help China shift away from energy-intensive infrastructure projects.[3] This indeed has sent out a very positive signal; however, given that China still hasn’t submitted its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) for the next reporting round, it also raises concerns about a lack of practical assurance.

Nevertheless, the cooperation between the EU and China in regard to green recovery seems promising. At the recent 22nd China-EU Summit on September 14 this year, President Xi Jinping stated that

China is interested in forging a green partnership with the EU and constructively participating in the global process of tackling climate change and preserving biodiversity. We are researching on reaching our long-term vision in the mid-century,[4] which includes carbon-peaking and carbon-neutrality.[5]

It is thus obvious that economic recovery after the Covid-19 pandemic is considered a top priority for leaders of both the EU and China, and it becomes increasingly clear that both parties are interested in a recovery package that aligns with their green transition goals.

Looking ahead, the EU and China can cooperate with each other in a few fields. First, the EU’s experiences could help China transition more rigorously to the use of green energy, especially in cutting the number of carbon-powered plants and subsidizing new energy vehicles. Second, the EU and China could agree to channel public and private funds to low-carbon investments both at home and abroad. Both parties are big investors of overseas development projects; they can thus work together to invest in projects subject to green terms. Going a step further, the EU and China could also work on developing international standards for sustainable finance[6], and China could learn from the EU’s experience in committing to more ambitious climate targets, specifically making ‘decarbonization’ a top priority in its next five-year plan.[7] Hopes are high for future cooperation between the EU and China in leading the world toward a green recovery, yet key decisions need to be made by both parties.

[1] Refer to Climate Home News, “EU €750 billion Covid recovery fund comes with green conditions”, May 27, 2020.

[2] Refer to ccchina.org.cn, 一图读懂2020政府工作报告, May 29, 2020.

[3] Refer to Climate Home News, “China prioritises employment over GDP growth in coronavirus recovery”, May 22, 2020.

[4] President Xi confirmed that China will try to reach carbon-neutrality before 2060 in his speech at a high-level meeting to mark the UN’s 75th anniversary on September 22nd, 2020.

[5] Refer to Global Times, “推动疫后全球经济复苏 中欧领导人视频会晤定目标”, September 15, 2020.

[6] Refer to China Dialogue, “Hopes for EU-China climate deal centre on a green recovery”, June 17, 2020.

[7] Refer to China Dialogue, “中欧气候协议前景如何?”, September 14, 2020.

About the author:

Hao ZhangHao Zhang is a PhD candidate at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam (EUR). Before joining ISS, she was a master’s student majoring international affairs at School of Global Policy and Strategy at University of California, San Diego. Her current research focus on policy advocacy of Chinese NGOs in global climate governance. Her research interests lie in Chinese politics, global climate politics and diplomacy.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.