‘God knows we’re too poor for COVID-19’

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Mbare is one of the oldest suburbs in the capital of Zimbabwe, Harare, and it stands as extreme example of how rough life in the ghetto can be.

But while people may live in the most crowded and squalid conditions imaginable, Mbare is also a centre of serious money, with cash circulating in larger volumes here than perhaps anywhere else in Harare.

From fresh produce, building material, second-hand clothes and cheap groceries, at any given day and time, Mbare is crowded as people flock to the high-density suburb to wheel and deal.

It is presence of these massive crowds that had authorities panicking when the COVID-19 pandemic made landfall in Africa early this year.

Just about everyone thought that there would be dead bodies on the streets of Mbare.

Six months after the first COVID-19 case was recorded in Zimbabwe, the projected carnage is yet to happen.

In fact, there have been more cases and deaths in the spacious, opulent suburbs where the well-heeled stay than in this crowded and dirty area.

Yes, authorities did clampdown with a strict lockdown on Mbare early on, but the sheer scale of the business that goes on there meant the regulations were soon largely ignored.

In an interview with The Southern Times, Mbare Retail Market chairperson Archford Manjoro said since June, they had not recorded a single incidence of COVID-19.

“No one in our market has tested positive for COVID-19. We get random tests on a regular basis but we have not had a case. We get quite a lot of traffic in here but we have been making sure that protocols are adhered to, people get sanitised upon entry, our stalls were designed in a way that makes social distancing a default,” he said.

Despite promises of religiously adhering to social distancing and other regulations, the reality on the ground is that the health warnings largely go unheeded as people try and recoup whatever losses were incurred in the early days of the lockdown.

“We are trying our level best to make sure there is social distancing, but the issue is some people are stubborn. You cannot stop someone from selling; our profits are very small and we survive on volumes. It is God`s grace that we have not had cases in here,” said Manjoro.

At Mupedzanhamo Market, the second-hand clothing Mecca of Mbare, there have also been few reported cases of the new coronavirus.

“Some of us may have had it (the virus) unknowingly. With the way people disregard rules here, one wonders how we have not had an outbreak. But God looks after his people, he knows we do not have money and we will die if we get the virus,” Ishe Mafurutu, a trader said.

Mafurutu said social distancing, though understood as a preventative measure, is impractical for their type of business.

“If you try to speak while wearing a mask in our market, your voice will be drowned out with the noise and you can’t attract potential customers. You have no option but to be close to your clients and also speak without a mask. We have resolved to die as we feed our families rather than dying of hunger.”

Epidemiologists are still scratching their heads as they try to make sense of what is happening not just in Mbare, but across countless African communities where economic realities mean people have to tough it out in spite of COVID-19.

Market researcher Charles Dhewa of Knowledge Transfer Afrca, whose work is specifically focused on the Mbare agricultural produce market, said there has not been any scientific evidence warranting the scorn that has been directed towards places like Mbare.

“Governments and local authorities are yet to base their decisions on solid evidence and research. There have not been clear efforts to determine the impact of closing Mbare and other informal markets,” Dhewa said.

Away from the markets, the social scene in Mbare is also ticking along almost unconcernedly.

Social soccer match still draw hundreds of spectators who cluster around dusty pitches without regard for social distancing.

But perhaps this is not nonchalance at all.

According to the City of Harare, Mbare has 58 residential hostels with a total of 5,622 rooms and at least 45,000 occupants.

That translates to about 8 people per room.

In such conditions, people can be forgiven for saying social distancing is an elitist solution to the pandemic.

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