By Edmore Mwandiringana and Fadzai Chipato
Covid -19 was declared a global pandemic on 30 January 2020 by the World Health Organization following the reports of about 10 000 mortality cases worldwide. Following the declaration, most countries put travel restrictions and lockdown measures to limit the spread of the virus. Among various precautionary measures, physical distancing, erroneously dubbed ‘social distancing’ is one of the guaranteed ways of minimizing the spread of the virus. Zimbabwe recorded its first case on 20/03/2020 and went on to impose a lockdown which started on the 30th of March to last for 21 days. The article exposes how the peasantry has and is still bearing the brunt of the lockdown measures. Peasant farmers in horticulture production survive on selling their produce to buyers from all over the country at big markets in the country (Harare – Mbare; Mutare – Sakubva). These open markets offer a readily available vegetable and fruit produce for the working class in urban areas. Noteworthy is these markets are accessible for the peasantry because they do not have to go through the cumbersome channels required by big supermarkets. Besides, the traditional markets are conducive for the peasantry that may not access to social media platforms. These fresh produce markets are ideal for the peasantry that has oftentimes limited access to storage facilities. At the same time, these fresh produce markets offer affordable food for the urban working class.
Covid 19 and the Peasantry
Peasant livelihoods in Zimbabwe have been largely been characterized by precarity in the last three decades beginning with the adoption of the IMF sponsored Economic Structural Adjustment Programs imposed on developing countries since the late 1980s. The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant State reaction has worsened the plight of the peasantry who rely on agriculture and produce sales. Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020 imposing a 21-day national lockdown coupled with a weak social welfare system greatly affects the peasantry whose livelihoods depend on daily produce sales. As correctly stated by the World Health Organization (WHO) Director Tedros Adhanom, there is a need for Governments to consider the impacts of restriction of movement on such people. The Zimbabwean Government has however been confiscating and destroying peasants’ produce ostensibly to enforce the lockdown, restrict public gatherings and curb the spread of the coronavirus. These acts by the State have been widely condemned by the citizenry as the state’s actions adversely affect, not only peasant livelihoods but the economy and political stability in general.
Allowing peasants to continue operating during the lockdown would help in the maintenance of social and economic stability and support “social distancing” as it assures people of a constant supply of food during the lockdown. If peasants were to stop the supply of fruits, vegetables as well as other products, citizens would find it difficult to remain under lockdown as they are forced to go out of their homes to seek adequate food supply. It should be noted that people were given a 2 days’ notice on the lockdown, which time was inadequate to stock sufficient food requirements for 21 days. Farm produce cannot be expedited to mature and be ready for sale within a period determined by law – it follows a natural process. If left out in the field and not harvested, farm produce would get spoiled, leading to huge losses for the peasantry. However, it is interesting to note that the State allowed large retail outlets to operate, labeling them as an essential service. Thus, the State deliberately gave a blind eye to the fact that the generality of Zimbabweans relies on the informal economy for survival.
Upon noting its mistake and gross violation of human rights, the State relaxed its lockdown policy and allowed peasants to trade. However, there has been silence on the amount of compensation to be given to those whose produce was confiscated by the state. Also, the modalities of how the peasants and their customers are to meet and transact at designated points have not been publicly stated. Important to note that most of the affected peasants come from the Chimanimani and Chipinge areas which were recently affected by Cyclone Idai. The state’s action invokes questions on the government’s policy towards the peasantry. However, interestingly, the state has been pushing for the peasantry to participate in the tobacco marketing season that is likely to commence in the next few days. Pushing for the opening of the tobacco auction floors, the state has not offered any plausible explanation. However, it is evident that the state is keen to participate in tobacco marketing in which the state has direct monetary benefits.
We argue that the lockdown due to covid-19 has negatively impacted the peasantry who are left with virtually nowhere to sell their produce. Mbare Musika in Harare and Sakubva in Mutare are the largest market-places in the country that distribute fresh produce to other markets in the country. The closure of the markets has adversely impacted the peasantry who are left with rotting fruits and vegetables. Buyers from other provinces cannot travel due to restrictions, which leaves the peasantry at a great loss. This does not only affect their livelihoods but also have a long-run impact on the production patterns.
This state’s approach in the COVID -19 times demonstrates the underlying problems that the peasantry face in Zimbabwe where market access has become a huge challenge. The open markets act as a buffer and protect fresh produce producers. The measures are taken to combat the coronavirus not only expose the struggles of the peasant producer but also necessitate a rethinking of marketing strategies for fresh produce. We, therefore, propose value addition of the farm produce, which helps in times of uncertainty or disaster (like Covid-19). Value addition allows the peasants not to rush to sell the produce while adding more value to the products.
Nested markets which have been instrumental in product marketing in the Netherlands also offer a good approach to improve and diversify from the open markets that have proven to be fragile in the event of pandemics. Therefore, there need for the State to come up with modalities for compensating the affected peasants as well to ensure that they have access to the market. It is also within the State’s responsibility to ensure that these same peasants are protected from the coronavirus as they conduct their business of feeding the nation. Other countries have come up with methods to ensure that people queue orderly, observing physical distancing in the market place. Some societies have enhanced peasants and potential clients’ access to the internet to encourage online shopping and reduce the number of people on the street. It would thus be prudent for the Government of Zimbabwe to consider these and other options to ensure the viability of peasant agriculture.