Every weekend, in Bulawayo, the tower block is crawling with people. The air is filled with voices, mostly women shouting, “MaT-shirts! MaSkirts! NemaTrousers! It’s market day, customers saunter to where the women are huddled in tiny stalls in groups of four. Heaps of second-hand clothing lie on the pavement where those interested, hunche down and sift through the jumble. To distract each other form the frustration of falling sales, the women chat, patting each other’s shoulders, and exchanging high fives. To the outside eye, the din and squalor are prime examples of what not to do during a corona virus epidemic. But this is how these women live, this is how they put bread on their tables. Yesterday’s sale bought todays bread. They need to buy bread for the following day.
The Coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has brought terror upon the lives of people all over the world. It is a threat on the health of many especially those already vulnerable to other health conditions and poverty. The world is at a stand-still. In the West governments reassure their people, we will cover costs of living, we will get through this together. We will do what it takes to survive as a nation. In Zimbabwe, women who have long been neglected and left to find food, clothing, housing, and schooling for their children, have no reassurances at all. The government has announced a lockdown. Many women in Zimbabwe are afraid. Afraid for their lives, but more-so for their businesses. For an economy that feeds from hand to mouth, their main concern is how they will survive 21 days without conducting business as usual.
Whether or not they understand the threat of COVID-19 is of little import. Yes, they know it is deadly, that one can die from it, but why must they starve along with their children if they have not been infected? To them it is something happening to other people but causing them new stressors in an already dire existence. Is it really here yet? Why can’t we can practice social distancing while we go on with our business? Are there really no other ways to stop it from spreading? These are the common questions they ask. Many fellow Zimbabwean citizens have rebuked them, accused them of not taking it seriously. What they don’t understand is that going home is not even an option for them. They must make the most of the little time they have left, to make whatever money they can. Their government will likely respond the same way they did during their previous deadly epidemic. They will send soldiers to throw their market goods into the dust and whip them like cattle as they herd them out of the market area.
Meanwhile, for those that are complying by staying at home, this crisis brings new burdens of its own. Women not only have an increased workload, they also face the challenge of limited clean water and electricity supply. It gets harder to stay at home when one is unsure when they can prepare the next meal or take a bath. For years, Zimbabwe has exposed its citizens to an irregular electricity supply schedule. Water, through indoor plumbing, is a luxury. That means in certain areas, people line up for hours by a borehole to get a few litres of water. Who is going to be counting feet between each person to avoid infecting each other when there is a scramble for basic needs? Who will stay home when hungry children cry and fuss for food. Who will self-isolate when the husband has lost his job and the children cannot go to school but they all need food?
COVID19 has brought uncertainty into an already uncertain existence. Through all of this, as it is the Zimbabwean way of coping, hope and faith reside.
The joyful laughter of the women at the borehole and the staunch determination of vendors at the markets do not falter. Zimbabweans will turn every tragic situation into a moment of comedy. They laugh at the poorly delivered messages of the president and his cronies, whose main concern has been convincing the Western world that things are different since Mugabe left. The government wants sanctions against the nation lifted in spite of the increase in violence and the further deterioration of all services, especially health care. Zimbabweans laugh at their prosperity prophets who are labelling COVID19 “God’s whip” for a stubborn human race while squeezing their congregants for more tithes and offerings as an act of faith that will restore their nation. While the world struggles with uncertainty, Zimbabwean women get on with life because they are certain of one thing, their needs have not changed and the government cannot reassure them.