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Zimbabwe’s deadly duo: COVID-19 & corruption

Thousands of citizens report corruption since the start of the pandemic

Illustration by Sheyda Sabetian

Transparency International Zimbabwe

This blog is part of a series, Citizens Report COVID-19 Corruption, to raise awareness about the human cost of corruption during COVID-19 and encourage citizens to report corruption.

In April, a man in Zimbabwe named Tatenda* noticed a car in his neighborhood of Harare unloading several bags of maize meal at a local home.

The country’s food crisis had grown dire since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when government lockdowns forced millions of people to stay put, resulting in economic hardship for many.

The price of maize meal had been fixed by the government to help people feed their families during the economic fallout caused by the COVID-19 crisis. But the owners of the home were selling maize meal for more than twice the set cost. They wanted to profit illegally from food aid during a national emergency.

Tatenda took a picture of the car’s license plate number and sent a message over WhatsApp to the local branch of Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC). Operating in more than 60 countries around the globe, ALACs offer free and confidential services to victims and witnesses of corruption.

Staff from the ALAC called Tatenda, who shared the address of the home and the picture of the license plate. The ALAC reported the case to the Zimbabwe Republic Police, which investigated and charged the perpetrators with illegally hoarding and reselling food aid at an unregulated price.

Straining a fragile system

The tip from Tatenda was just one of more than 1,400 messages that Transparency International Zimbabwe received since the start of the pandemic. These reports were all related to corruption in health care, policing, and humanitarian aid.

Corruption was already a big problem in Zimbabwe prior to COVID-19. The country scored 24 out of 100 on the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2019.

According to the latest Global Corruption Barometer for Africa, a quarter of Zimbabwean citizens paid a bribe for public services in the preceding year.

COVID-19 has made a bad situation even worse. Since the end of March, the government imposed a national lockdown, implemented curfews and mask requirements, and announced the distribution of food and cash aid.

Such measures were taken to control the spread of the virus, but they also increased the burden of corruption on a fragile system.

With freedom of movement severely restricted during lockdown, the Zimbabwe ALACs set up a WhatsApp hotline and shared information on the local radio to help people safely get in touch.

Where did humanitarian aid and medical equipment go?

At the start of the pandemic, the government of Zimbabwe promised to spend upwards of US$500,0000 (ZW$200 million) per month to help its citizens and put the Department of Social Welfare in charge of distributing aid.

But the Department of Social Welfare has released no information about the distribution of food and humanitarian assistance. Amnesty International recently reported that in some areas authorities only distribute food aid to supporters of the ruling ZANU-PF Party.

Three Zimbabwe ALACs have heard from hundreds of people who are struggling to provide for their families and have received no food or cash aid.

The ALACs also spoke with doctors and nurses forced to work without masks and gloves, while members of the political elite regularly appear in public with personal protective equipment (PPE).

The government of Zimbabwe received donations of PPE, ventilators, and other medical equipment from NGOs and other countries but has released no information on their distribution.

The ALACs sued the government of Zimbabwe to publish the distribution matrices for COVID-19 donations, and in September the High Court of Zimbabwe ordered the government to comply.

Police abuse runs rampant

While the police helped resolve the illegal sale of maize meal at the market in Harare, they have also been the subjects of numerous complaints.

The police in Zimbabwe have arrested more than 100,000 people for violating COVID-19 regulations, including violating lockdowns, curfews and mask requirements.

The ALACs also received hundreds of reports about police abuse during the lockdown that began at the end of March. In some instances, police set up illegal roadblocks and demanded bribes or sold travel permits that were intended for essential workers. In others, soldiers threatened and attacked people on the streets.

The ALACs have helped victims connect with anti-corruption and human rights lawyers to seek remedies.

Tackling COVID-19 and corruption together

The government of Zimbabwe cannot protect its people from COVID-19 if corruption undermines its response. Transparency International Zimbabwe calls on the government to:

  • Issue clear, transparent, and public guidelines for health care workers, police officers, and public servants on managing the COVID-19 response.
  • Distribute food and financial aid with full transparency and accountability.
  • Support safe and accessible reporting mechanisms for citizens who report corruption in response to COVID-19 and protect whistleblowers who step forward to report wrongdoing. There is currently no law in Zimbabwe offering legal protection to whistleblowers.
  • Investigate all cases of corruption reported to the authorities.
  • Dismiss authorities who are caught distributing aid on an unfair basis or soliciting bribes.

*Tatenda is not his real name.

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