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EDITORIAL COMMENT : Turn challenges into opportunities

The return to a Level Four lockdown presents challenges, and opportunities, to businesses, but will probably require a determined effort to ensure that many in the lower levels of the informal sector are brought into temporary social service programmes to keep them off the streets and pavements.

Farming and formal mining have the least problems.

Farmers, and anyone they might employ, mostly live on their farms and continue as normal, so they just need to ensure that no one makes unnecessary off-farm trips or wanders down to the local business centre for a bit of socialising.

Even driving a truckload of vegetables into town just needs a bit of extra care and a ban on passengers.

The formal mining sector normally has had to make provision for housing staff near the mine and under the regulations, just needs to control visitors, like ban them as far as possible, and make sure that staff and their families continue to remain an isolated community for 30 days.

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After all, no one needs to work next to a potentially infected person or have their family placed in a risky position, so there should be a fairly high level of cooperation between mine managers and staff to keep working and keep everyone earning, but still minimising risks.

Manufacturing is also allowed to remain operational, but like those in most essential services there is a problem that staff need to travel to and from work.

Outside the police camps and a largish batch of hospital staff, few live on the premises and most live in the community.

Again this requires good cooperation with everyone agreeing that they will follow the proper behaviour to the letter, not just when a police officer calls or is in the vicinity.

There is, for many factories, a few days to gear up since many in industry did close for their annual shutdown and leave shortly before Christmas.

But most still closed are due to reopen next week, and that means that plans need to be made now to ensure that as workforces return they can do so in safety.

This probably requires honesty from staff, being open about any potential risks they might have faced but not using this an excuse to bunk work, and managers making sure they have their temperature scanners working and good hygiene practices established at work.

Businesses in essential services and industry also need to think seriously about whether they can provide controlled transport. For some this is not an option, but others could look at using company transport or even hiring buses and kombis.

The Level Four ban on non-essential intercity movement and the tightened squeeze on non-Zupco kombis means that it should be easier to find a responsible transport operator who can lay on staff transport.

Some non-essential businesses in the services sector can continue a fairly high level of operations if work can be switched from office to home.

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Modern communications mean that on-line meetings are easy, although data is not cheap, and things like help lines can be linked to home phones without staff coming into call centres.

Both staff transport and data allocations do add to costs, but on the other hand do ensure that a permitted business can operate a lot more safely during a spike in infections and for some ensure that a business does not have to totally close.

There is the experience from the last level five and level four lockdowns to draw on, plus extra thought given to these problems during the time Zimbabwe was under level two.

This time the level four lockdown is not indefinite, just 30 days, although there is the unspoken caveat that the return to a lower level of lockdown is reliant on the spike being a spike, not a plateau, and that requires a great deal of conformity to required practices that sharply reduce the risk of infection.

Medical experts expect infection rates to rise, peak and then fall sharply during a level four lockdown as the larger number who were infected before the return to a higher level of lockdown are identified and isolated, usually at home, and the far lower levels of people on the streets and moving around chop the risks of infection.

The Level Four lockdown does, once again, hit the retail sectors.

To some extent, sales lost in January will be made up when people can shop again, purchases being deferred rather than cancelled, and in any case many retailers have always regarded January as a “low water month” after the peak in Christmas sales. So the potential damage to business is containable for many.

But these closed sectors do not need any extension of level four, so need, as their business association has made clear, to conform to the tighter and temporary restrictions and encourage their staff and customers to do the same, so that the Level Four is in fact as well as intention, temporary.

Where there could be real suffering is in wide swathes of the informal sector where many households live from hand to mouth.

A fairly large group of these most vulnerable households have already been put on lists and are getting small monthly Government stipends to buy basic food. But there are probably those who were missed in the initial stages, and there are those who were in any case supplementing the stipends through setting up their stalls again.

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The Government has adjusted the social payments to take into account inflation, which should help, but it is necessary that all who need help are included.

To some degree there is a small pool of savings, money that people were putting aside for school fees. But when schools reopen those fees are going to be needed, so there might well be need to work out how fees be paid in instalments when that happens, if savings have been diverted to survival.

The Government has budgeted large increases in support for the poorest households through its BEAM programme, and now added school uniforms to what BEAM will cover, and that programme needs to up and running when schools reopen.

A Level Four lockdown is not new. We have been there before and it worked to contain and then reduce a spike in infections without causing impossible suffering.

So we all know what to do. But all those measures that allowed Zimbabweans to pull through last time need to be put back in place.

And when we do return to level two, hopefully next month, we all need to resolve to follow the remaining regulations, mainly on masking, temperature scanning and social distancing, along with strict controls on movement, and this time remember that level two is still a national lockdown, albeit with more of the economy open for normal        business.

HERALD