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Editorial Comment: Lockdown challenge to personal responsibility

The tightening of the Covid-19 lockdown cannot come as a surprise to anyone considering the significant spike in infections, and thus in deaths, and the need to take urgent action to keep infection rates under control.

The Government reaction has been swift, and built on the experience of the successful measures that did so successfully contain infection rates in the first round. But for the measured and moderate tightening to work, all Zimbabweans have to take Covid-19 seriously and continue taking it seriously.

We must all hope that the swift, but time-limited, intensification of the lockdown will succeed in two critical areas: bringing down the infection rates and in resetting public and individual attitudes and behaviour.

Infection rates will, probably, rise a bit further as the effects of unnecessary risky travel and the festive season gatherings and private parties, all done against advice, work their way through the population, but then, if we all take the situation seriously, will suddenly drop sharply.

In his announcement on Saturday, Vice President and Minister of Health and Child Care Constanino Chiwenga clamped down hard on crowds and situations where large numbers of people, usually strangers to each other, congregate while trying to minimise the economic damage.

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So besides essential services, the Government is keeping the productive sectors — farming, mining and industry — open while clamping down on social activity and on commerce and services in the economic life of the country.

This makes sense. Farms, mines and factories are basically closed environments with few if any visitors. And farms and mines generally are closed social communities as well, with everyone involved in each operation, from the smallest family farm to the largest mine, living on the premises or close by. So it is easy for someone to monitor what it going on, check on potential infections and, most importantly, ban or severely restrict interaction with anyone else.

We found out in the first wave that opening these sectors, or in the case of farming keeping them open, did not add much if anything to the general infection rate so long as those in charge of each productive unit enforced standards and ensured that advice on social distancing, masks, hand washing or sanitising, and temperature testing were enforced internally, and not just as a result of police inspections.

And even today, although standards might have slipped a bit, your average mine or factory owner, or farming family, really does want to stay in production and not have to close because everyone is ill or in quarantine. So they have already been tightening up, issuing directives to staff and banning visitors. So here VP Chiwenga is preaching to the converted.

Again, maintaining the limited operations in the tourism and safari sectors, is not increasing risk noticeably because already such operations, even if just because of self-interest, are largely self-contained and have been very choosy about who they admit and how people must behave when admitted.

When infection rates were very low as result of that initial tight lockdown, it became possible to reopen formal commerce and chunks of the informal sector, again with rules on at least masking, social distancing and personal hygiene that most followed. Even the most legally dubious sections of the informal economy, the pavement vendors, tried by wearing masks and spacing themselves out.

But the huge numbers and milling groups crowding the streets did present an ideal breeding ground for a second spike, especially as a growing minority became careless of preventative measures. It only needed a few infected people wandering around without a mask, or using their mask as neck warmer, to trigger a spike and this is what, regrettably, seems to have happened. The complacency that everyone was warning about kept getting worse. And so infections returned.

Even the curfew, initially observed by most, could be eased to minimise disruptions without much danger until most people regarded it as something not worth bothering about and we returned to quite active social life and social gatherings, all technical illegal.

But as has been stressed continuously, enforcement of the regulations is largely designed to take care of the die hards. The expectation has always been that most people are sensible and rational and see the regulations as good advice to stay healthy. Unfortunately some, now many, saw the regulations as something to dodge because “everything is now okay”, without realising that everything was “now okay” because almost everyone had cooperated,

So we now go back; for the next 30 days the lockdown will be tight. But if we all do behave, if we all do accept that Covid-19 is serious, and accept this hopefully temporary set back as a reminder to once again take personal responsibility, we can return fairly quickly to at least the new normal, where we can all go about our business although this time wearing our mask, keeping our distance and washing our hands.

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It is largely up to us. Enforcement can, of course, be tightened but the Government is not a police state and cannot put half a dozen police officers on every block. So better enforcement will catch some who should not be wandering around, will catch some not wearing masks, will catch some who really want to socialise outside the 6pm to 6am curfew.

Ideally no one should be arrested, largely because we all see the point and tighten up ourselves, and so we do not break the rules. Public health measures are not arbitrary rules but carefully considered ways of minimising the risk of infection. Unfortunately, as we all know, there are those who reckon that the rules are a good idea for everyone else but we can cheat, if only because if everyone else is compliant our risk of infection is negligible. So enforcement is needed to ensure universal compliance.

If we want to return to a far more open society, then this means that we all have to show over the next 30 days that we can be trusted, and we can apply social pressures, and not just rely on police enforcement to tame those who want to be different. But if we all do that then the Health Minister can safely ease the regulations significantly at the beginning of February, but if we are not all responsible in our behaviour then he cannot.

So it is up to us, and that means all of us.

HERALD