Police arrested 115 people for not wearing masks while thousands stood for hours in bus queues on a chaotic day Monday, as Zimbabwe began easing lockdown restrictions which had shut down most of the country since March 30.
A 35-day lockdown due to expire on May 3 was extended for a further 14 days by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, but big businesses were allowed to re-open although informal markets – where over 80 percent of Zimbabweans earn their living – remain closed.
Mnangagwa also said only buses would be allowed to transport workers, freezing out taxis which many workers avoiding the congestion in buses prefer.
There was also an outcry from businesses which have been ordered to get their employees tested for coronavirus before they can resume operations. After getting no joy from public health institutions which are supposed to carry out the testing, most businesses turned to private health care facilities which were demanding as much as US$26 for a rapid diagnostic test (RDT) kit, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) says is unreliable.
Police in Bulawayo said they arrested 115 people for falling foul of new regulations requiring every Zimbabwean to wear a mask outside their home.
A man identifying himself as Ricky on Twitter posted a video of his arrest outside a warehouse where Bulawayo residents pick up groceries and other items sent from neighbouring South Africa.
“I’m locked up at the Bulawayo Central Police Station, for winding down my mask to breathe for 10 minutes to prevent hypoxia,” he wrote.
A police officer who arrested him accused him of “thinking you are cleverer than the president” who issued the new directive, Ricky said.
“We are seeing some people displaying masks but not wearing them. If one is in a public place, the mask must be covering your nose and mouth, it must not be hanging on your chin or just on your forehead, or in your handbag. It must be worn,” said Inspector Abednico Ncube, the spokesman for Bulawayo police.
Buses have been ferrying workers providing “essential services” since March 20, but the increased human traffic on Monday appeared to have caught authorities unawares.
Long queues formed in the morning and evening at bus stations in the major cities of Harare, Bulawayo, Mutare, Masvingo, Chitungwiza and Gweru, with people waiting for hours to get transport.
MDC vice president Tendai Biti claimed there was paralysis in government planning.
“The decision to force the use of ZUPCO buses as sole public transporter is irrational and monopolistic. ZUPCO lacks capacity to ferry every worker. The regime is out of depth, without a doubt the worst government in the world,” Biti wrote on Twitter. The MDC has also criticised the decision to force companies to shell out on coronavirus test kits, insisting that this must be the responsibility of the government. The party accuses Mnangagwa’s government of making decisions “driven by vested interests or patronage.”
“It’s the obligation of the state and the state alone to conduct and pay for Covid-19 tests. Forcing citizens to pay for own costs is irrational and an attack on the right to life. Equally, provision of masks is an obligation of the state. Compelling citizens to buy unavailable masks is zany,” Biti said.
Surveys carried out in Harare and Bulawayo showed that many people did not wear masks, or some who did just wrapped pieces of cloth around their necks to cover the mouth and nose.
Shops were selling re-usable masks for an average US$1. The government has not issued guidelines on the approves masks, decreeing only that citizens “must wear masks of any type including home-made ones outside their homes.”
Doctors have questioned the use of rapid diagnostic test kits to detect the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness, Covid-19.
“You can’t make any meaningful decision based on an antibody based RDT result. Companies are just going to be robbed of their money over a useless test,” said Dr Norman Matara of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights.
An advisory by the World Health Organisation says “at present, based on the current evidence, the WHO recommends the use of these new point-of-care immunodiagnostic tests only in research settings.”
“They should not be used in any other setting, including for clinical decision making, until evidence supporting use for specific indications is available,” the WHO says.
The test kits have been shown to “miss patients with active infection or falsely categorise patients as having the disease when they do not, further hampering disease control efforts,” according to the WHO.