Main News Opinion & Columnist

Editorial Comment: Responsibility will make tighter lockdown work

The first full day of the return to the Level Four national lockdown yesterday, as expected, saw a dramatic drop in the number of people entering city and town centres but only moderate change in suburban shopping centres, for good reason.

All this calls for everyone to behave responsibly.

The dramatic drop in traffic and people in central Harare is easy to understand. With almost all shops, plus all commercial colleges and churches, and most service businesses closed, there are few people working there.

In fact, much of the traffic and many of the pedestrians are in transit; the till operator from a Greendale supermarket who lives in Budiriro walking past the factory worker from Southerton who lives in Greendale as they cross most of the city centre between Simon Muzenda Street and Market Square terminuses.

But in suburban shopping centres there is almost as much movement on the streets and even queues outside supermarkets and food shops.

Advertisement

Simple calculations show that each suburban centre caters for several thousand households, and most of those people have to shop daily for food. Refrigerators are not universal, and in many suburbs can be rare.

Someone in each household was doing this before the lockdown, and someone still has to do it now. And they have fewer hours, with supermarkets and food shops open for a maximum of seven hours a day. And they have been joined by a largish group who might have shopped in town where they worked and who now have to shop near home.

Supermarket queues are an indication that demand, at least per hour, is increasing.

We saw this last year as opening and closing times were varied, queues tending to form when essential shops had to close at 3pm and disappearing when shops could stay open until 6pm, with queues shorter when hours were between these two times.

One possibility of spreading out the legitimate and necessary buying of food could perhaps be a modest cut back in the curfew, even by just one hour to 7pm since we are now in summer, and so have longer days, and allowing food shops to stay open eight hours to 4pm.

Setting curfew hours is, admittedly, tricky.

The main purpose is to stop people using the hours of darkness to engage in unnecessary and risky behaviour, such as socialising, drinking together in dark corners, and generally creating conditions that make infection by Covid-19 far more of a risk.

They can be seen during the day and a police officer can easily differentiate at long range person striding purposefully with a shopping bag and a group giggling together as they drink behind a building.

At night, the food shoppers are at home but you have to almost fall over the socialisers to see them, hence the curfew.

The movement of workers in essential services, or even industry, at night is not really going to add to risk as these people are just going home or going to work and are not sneaking through the darkness to join friends for a few beers. And they will have the correct ID.

Advertisement

Because of the reasons for the curfew, the request now being made by the Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) on behalf of its members who need multiple shifts to meet demand should be carefully considered.

It should be possible to figure out a way of separating the sheep with odd working hours from the goats wanting to party.

The Level Four lockdown was carefully designed to allow productive sectors to continue operating, on the basis that they were highly-controlled and isolated environments that did not add to crowding in the streets and in public, and yet were critical for the economy to continue moving forward.

The closure of most of commerce and the service sector was to minimise the huge crowds that these do generate.

But as we have seen, there are still many people legitimately in public in parts of the suburbs.

This was the case during Level Five and Level Four lockdowns last year, but we did see infection and death rates fall sharply at the same time.

Part of the reason was that most people did take the risks seriously, and anyone walking around the suburbs yesterday would see much of the same reaction.

People queuing were standing 2m apart, with security guards reminding them if necessary, and everyone in a crowd or near other people was in a mask.

This social distancing and mask wearing is most critical.

If we had all been compliant in the last couple of months of last year, the recent spike in infections and the need for a tighter lockdown may not have happened.

Advertisement

One very noticeable change yesterday was the near total disappearance of pirate kombis and mushikashika.

The sharply reduced numbers who need to travel more than a kilometre or two, the workers in essential services and industry basically, were being catered for by Zupco without much difficulty, and the Zupco conductors were once again demanding proper masking. Passengers were almost all those who had legitimate reasons for travel and were confident of passing through a checkpoint, so obliged.

The pirate kombis and mushikashika, with their gross overcrowding and near total disregard of masking, must have been a big a source of infection as the illegal partying behind bottle stores and the crowded city centre pavements.

While lockdown regulations and police enforcement can help, in the end it is up to all of us, as responsible individuals, to take the initiative and accept that our behaviour can minimise risk, or can enhance risk.

Even when we shop at our local supermarket, we need to keep our distance and wear our masks on our way there and on our way back, and if we stop to talk to a friend, well 2m is not that great a distance, but keeps us both safe.

We all became lax.

The tighter lockdown diminishes big crowds, takes a large chunk of the irresponsible off the streets and reminds us all to take life seriously. But we need all to return to those measures that worked last year, and can work again this year.

HERALD