EDITORIAL COMMENT : Measured easing of lockdown good for all


While the level four national lockdown continues for another two weeks, to ensure that the significant progress seen in the last few weeks in reducing infection and death rates continues, President Mnangagwa yesterday did start the process of a careful and highly-controlled re-opening of the many sectors of the economy that have been shut.

This allows Government to meet its double responsibility of making sure that the economy can continue to function, but without killing large numbers of people.

While infection rates are falling, they are still high enough that any major and sudden relaxation could easily see them escalate rapidly again, as we saw in December. So the President had to be cautious.

Throughout the level four lockdown reimposed early last month, the productive sectors of farming, mining and manufacturing were allowed to continue operating, along with essential services, since these operations are not open to visitors and customers from the general public and it is easy for those in charge of these operations to enforce health rules in controlled environments.

And those in charge justified the trust that the President and his health authorities placed in them, while at the same time the overwhelming majority of citizens started taking the personal health precautions of masking, social distancing and personal hygiene far more seriously.

The careful further relaxations are now justified so long as business owners and the general public continue to co-operate. Business hours have been adjusted to 8am to 5pm, the normal working day.

This removes a major constraint faced in many productive sectors. The curfew has been modified in turn to give people two-and-a-half hours to get to work and three hours to pack up after work and then get home. It will also reduce queuing at supermarkets and pharmacies.

Private businesses are now allowed to apply for permission to open, but have to test all staff and operate under any conditions that may be imposed if their application is successful.

The leadership given by factory owners shows that responsible business owners can operate safely, but this needs to be displayed.

The informal sector, where so many earn a living, has always been a particular problem although this need not be the case if those involved are willing to cooperate in both the spirit and the letter of the law.

The President made it crystal clear that while the informal sector can resume, it can only do so once those involved have satisfied the protocols set by the World Health Organisation. In some cases this is relatively easy.

We have major market complexes whose owners, even during the relaxed conditions of December, were insistent on masking, sanitising, temperature testing, controlled access, and social distancing. They should be able to gear up fairly quickly.

In other cases there needs to be a far more seriously commitment to the WHO protocols than we have seen before. It is largely up to those involved to prove they can follow sensible rules and advice.

Interestingly, some of the illegal vending done during the intensified lockdown has seen a serious attempt to conform to at least some rules, such as masking, hygiene and social distancing.

Parties and social gatherings simply remain banned, except for controlled funerals with less than 30 people. This was the easiest call for the President to make. No one will be harmed if they cannot have a party or a big gathering.

As President Mnangagwa has continually stressed, we have to be very careful indeed until a large majority of people are vaccinated.

Yesterday the first 200 000 doses of vaccine arrived as a gift from China, enough for 100 000 people, and China has given us a high position in the queue to buy another 600 000 doses for delivery next month.

The President’s heartfelt thanks to China are justified. That country has its own programme, and vaccinating 1,3 billion people is obviously a huge undertaking. To what amounts to a diversion of doses to a country far away shows a real commitment to both friendship and global responsibilities, especially as this is being done so early in the Chinese national vaccination programme.

Government has been active with other suppliers, and we are in line for vaccines fairly soon from Russia, India and our share of the facilities arranged by WHO and the African Union. As with every other country, it will take months to vaccinate a sufficiently large proportion of our population, but at least we are now starting.

But we have to live and work very carefully. We have pushed back the second wave, but we still have too many people falling sick each day to even think of lowering our guard.

The modest relaxations announced by President Mnangagwa yesterday are, in many respects, a sign that he trusts us to be sensible and careful, a trust in what he acknowledged as our good sense already in the enhanced lockdown.

Government cannot do everything itself. It needs the whole population to cooperate. Health experts can give the guidelines and the technical advice. Unless we all take those guidelines to heart, we can so easily return to the levels of infection and death we saw just four weeks ago, and then get worse still.

The careful step-by-step relaxation announced by the President is the obvious way forward, and the daily infection rates and other figures, plus the enhanced testing, mean that if there is any problem we can retreat quickly.


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