‘We can’t stay indoors or we’ll die of hunger’: Coronavirus fears mount for Zimbabwe’s urban poor
Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the streets of Epworth — a densely populated suburb of Harare, Zimbabwe's capital — throbbed with reggae and sungura beats, voices spilling from bustling shops and stalls. Packed kombis, Harare buses, skidded past roadside stalls laden with bowls of tomatoes, apples and corn, traders shouting "come and buy, come and buy."
Life in Epworth was always hand-to-mouth. Now the busy suburb is strangely quiet — on the surface all but devoid of people and vibrations of life, its residents deprived of their livelihoods. Hunger is widening and deepening.
Epworth has more chronically hungry families than any other built-up area in Zimbabwe: 59 percent, according to the latest figures. Since the Government announced the national lockdown on 30 March, many of its informal settlements and shops have collapsed. When I visited, few people were milling around dusty roads and piles of crumbled breeze blocks.
Last month, 38-year-old Maidei welcomed me into the two-roomed concrete house she shares with her husband and four children in the heart of Epworth. They are one of the more fortunate families — as around 52 percent of Epworth's homes are occupied by two or more households.
Sat on wooden slats in a narrow, smoky kitchen, Maidei tells me she sees little hope for Epworth's residents if coronavirus gains a foothold in their community.
"If we get COVID-19 here, it's going to move very fast because we have so little space," says Maidei. "And most people are already hungry, so if they catch the virus, they will be affected faster because they are unwell." She returns to ferociously stir the sticky, steaming pot of sadza [cornmeal] she is cooking for her children's lunch.
Zimbabwe's urban poor, particularly in places like Epworth, have long suffered all manner of deprivations: lack of access to proper housing, water, electricity, sanitation and affordable food.
WFP estimates that by the end of the year, the number of food-insecure Zimbabweans living in urban areas will have increased — from 2.2 million to 3.3 million, 45 percent of the country's total urban population.
WFP Zimbabwe's Representative and Country Director Eddie Rowe says: "We are currently planning the largest scale-up of our support to urban-dwellers in our entire history of assisting Zimbabwe. This shows the severity of the situation urban families are facing — in this triple crisis of economic instability, climate shocks and the COVID-19 pandemic."
The lockdown, border closures and cash shortages are disrupting supply chains and the ability of shops to restock key commodities, including those imported from neighbouring South Africa. Most have run out of maize meal, sugar, vegetable oil and other staples.
Zimbabwe has the world's second-highest inflation rate after Venezuela, according to the International Monetary Fund. Zimbabwe's central bank says prices overall have surged by more than 122 percent since the start of the year and by more than 800 percent since March 2019.
In Epworth, residents are now at risk of slipping beyond the subsistence minimum and into a desperate situation. It becomes clear as Maidei lays bare her fear of a future under lockdown, that staying indoors healthy and coronavirus-free is a ‘luxury' her family just can hardly afford. The day I visit, Maidei's husband is out buying firewood to sell on at a higher price.
"We're really scared of the virus, but we can't always stay in because we'll die of hunger," says Maidei. "We have to go out to look for food, firewood and other essentials. It appears we're not afraid, but we are very afraid. It's just that we have no choice."
Maidei and her family are not alone. Four-fifths of Zimbabwe's urban residents areas rely on outdoor casual labouring for their survival.
Some also try to grow their own food. Maidei gestures to a 2m² plot of lettuces and wilted maize next to her home. "This is what we have to eat when there's no money to buy food," she says.
The World Food Programme (WFP) is scaling up its urban assistance programme to deliver monthly cash transfers to at least 550,000 Zimbabweans living in the 20 worst affected and food insecure urban domains in the country. In response to the ever-soaring food prices across all urban areas in which it operates, WFP has just adjusted the cash transfer value to US$13, covering 62 per cent of the food needs of every programme participant.
Maidei has just received a WFP electronic voucher worth US$54 to buy food for her family of six. She has bought sugar beans, maize flour and dried fish, as well as non-food items such as soap and exercise books so her children can practice writing at home while schools are closed.
"We can't survive without the help WFP is giving us — if it was not for them, I'm not sure what we would do right now," says Maidei.
WFP's urban social assistance programme is currently being delivered to 224,000 Zimbabweans living in urban areas, with thanks to funding from UKAID and the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund.