What Zimbabwe, and the rest of the world, is experiencing at the moment is a medical and health emergency.
It’s thus disturbing that the government has defaulted to its nature and come out against the Covid-19 outbreak in a heavy-handed manner that does little justice to the agenda to eradicate the virus.
The recently released Public Health (COVID-19, Prevention, Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) Order, 2020 contains largely militant strains of legislation inspired by government paranoia of a public offensive against itself more than focus on dealing with the virus.
As another expert said, “the authorities must show through their actions that they understand the Coronavirus is not a law and order operation but a medical intervention to stem the spread of the virus and to save lives”.
So far the government appears to conflate the two and has a heavy bias towards treating it as a law and order issue.
One of the provisions deals with hoarding food.
“No person shall, at his or her home or in any other premises or location, hoard food in excess of what is needed to be stored for himself or herself and his or her family during the period of the national lockdown”, one sections says.
The penalty for this is a fine or one year imprisonment or both.
The purported crime is unwarranted and the penalty is excessive revealing government’s penchant to directly import legislative narratives from other national contexts without interrogating their practicality locally.
As one human rights expert, Siphosani Malunga contends, “This is an unnecessary and insensitive violation of constitutional and human rights”.
“There’s a perennial shortage of food, cash, fuel and many other essentials in Zimbabwe. When people get hold of cash, they rush to buy as much as their money allows before the money loses value and the food runs out or goes up in price”.
“This provision will make things worse and will place the government in direct confrontation with the masses”.
The provision is invasive, out of touch with now-normal local realities and provides room for abuse by the same security officials whose track record has no shine.
Another scary provision, which accurately captures the underlying intentions to take advantage of an unfortunate situation to advance ulterior motives focuses on the publication of falsehoods.
“For the avoidance of doubt any person who publishes or communicates false news about any public officer, official or law enforcement involved with enforcing or implementing the national lockdown in his or her capacity as such, or about any private individual that has effect of prejudicing the State’s enforcement of the national lockdown, shall be liable for prosecution under S31 of the Criminal Law Code (Publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the State) and liable to a level 14 fine or up to 20 years imprisonment or both”.
In as much as fake news is wrong and should be penalized the measures set out in the legislation here are terribly absurd and defy common sense.
For starters the punishment level is excessive whilst the premise for the charge severely constrains freedoms of expression.s
It is “vague and is likely to stifle scrutiny, muzzle social media and shield accountability of public officials” according to Malunga.
That absurdity betrays the need by the government to instill not just discipline but fear and corral the public into a fearful herd gullibly swallowing every suspicious detail given to it.
The stern measure against ‘false’ news can be easily understood within the context of the ongoing doubts about government’s handling of the whole Covid-19 problem.
They has been a litany of lies since before the advent of the virus with government vowing that it was ready and had all measures in place, epitomized by the offer to assist China fight its own virus problem.
That has since been disproved as mere propaganda as the government has literally nothing in its rightful place to fight the virus.
That’s why they has been a steady public campaign to raise resources and chip in.
Its tallying of Covid-19 victims has also been questioned with suspicions that, like China, it may be under-reporting the status and figures.
Furthermore the government has for some time now been looking to bring in a mechanism to punish those who fight it on social media.
Social media has become one of the prime platforms on which its narratives have been consistently fought questioned to much damage thus through a virus the government has seen a chance to sneak through a punitive provision to silence all that dissent.
Reports that the Health Minister Dr Obadiah Moyo was relieved of the chairmanship of the Covid-19 taskforce at the behest of military leaders who felt he had failed further lends credence to the argument that the government is heavily militarized.
And in that context a militant legal provision is very much a natural product of a military system.
However the virus cannot be fought in a militant manner.