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Crossing the Limpopo border with a Covid-19 eye

How do you write about something that is pre-occupying everyone’s mind? Fear, panic, confusion follow the simple mention of the virus. Mentioning the word “virus” used to mean the HIV pandemic but Covid-19 has taken over that mantle spectacularly. I mentioned it to the Uber driver who picked me up to take me to the bus station. He responded with fear. “I am not ready my brother. To hell with my health, what about my income, no one is going to be ordering my car soon. The lockdown is coming.” And then you begin to wonder. Is the underbelly of Africa’s economy ready for Corona?

The underbelly I talk about is the informal traders and workers that keep the economy ticking. Besides the Uber, Vaya, Bolt drivers, there are taxi, kombi and bus drivers. In the vehicles of kombi drivers, there will be those vendors and domestic workers who rely on the economy tinkering ahead to make ends meet. But Covid-19 brings economic activity to a halt. There will be no school children to drive, maid work will reduce since middle and upper-class parents who can afford maid services will be working from home.

As I stood in line to get onto my bus back to Zimbabwe, the traders were whispering and shaking hands with drivers agreeing on transport prices for their goods. A woman leaped in the corner with excitement. Every land border from South Africa except for the Beitbridge would be closed. The largest transport vein in Africa would remain open to keep Africa in touch with the world. The other side of that is the realistic probability that the Beitbridge-Musina border is going to become congested. And congestion is the middle name for Covid-19.

A small, but a growing trail of busses and trucks was already developing by the Beitbridge border. The stamping booth was jam-packed with Zimbabweans, Congolese, Malawians all trying to get their passports stamped. I gently laughed at President Ramaphosa and Mnangagwa’s decrees that gathering of a hundred people would be banned. The border post is a continuous gathering of hundreds of people at one go; breathing the same air in the unventilated rooms. After an hour we cross the Limpopo and arrive on the Beitbridge side as the sun rises.

I am extremely keen to see if my homeland is giving adequate tests in preparation for Covid-19. As we disembark the bus, we are directed to a booth were two immigration officials are holding what looks like a white gun. When I get to the front, he asks me to remove my cap. He lifts this white gun onto my forehead. It makes some sound which confirms that my temperature is low, which means I do not have Covid-19. Again, I chuckle. The test seemed more performative than cautionary. You could quickly see how Beitbridge staying open could leave Covid-19 with a gateway into the rest of Southern Africa.

The sun broke through the grey clouds as we trekked through the nation. In between the vast lands of rural Zimbabwe, the small towns, cities that dotted the road were occupied by women and men selling airtime, bananas, Coca-cola and moneychangers waving their US dollars, Rand and Zim dollars ready to make transactions. Thousands of people reliant on Beitbridge remaining open. Thousands of people reliant on a nation lock-down not being declared. Pictures of lockdowns in China, Italy show empty streets. Empty streets in Zimbabwe’s towns and cities means no income, which means no food. Can the informal trader survive four weeks, two months without an income? Do they have savings for a rainy day? They most likely do not. What would that mean for them and their dependents?

A lady on Twitter excellently stated the challenge that Zimbabwe, Africa is facing against Covid-19:

“How do you self-quarantine in an informal-settlement? Or in a household full of people? How do you stock up when you live from hand to mouth? What will business closures mean for daily/hourly waged workers? Asking for a continent.”

How do you? The real answer is that you don’t. Most of the solutions to Covid-19 are extremely classed. They say wash your hands often but how do you wash your hands with no access to running water? How do you self-isolate when you live in a one-roomed house with your wife and children. They say Covid-19 is not killing children and the youth, but they can still infect the elderly generation. Are we to leave the younger generation to be walking machine guns against the elderly? No, we cannot.

We finally got to Harare and Roadport, the bus terminal was not teeming with people as it usually does. Apparently, the government had banned busses from using this bus station. I chuckled because right across is Fourth street taxi terminus, one of the biggest bus terminals in Harare. The transport lifelines that have kept Zimbabwe running in the face of economic depressions through informal traders could well and truly become death traps because of Covid-19. The South African homes Affairs Minister emphatically stated, “we will never close Beitbridge.” My response to that is then, are you ready to stop Covid-19? If not, never say never.

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