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COVID-19 in Southern Africa: agricultural journalism moves online

Since 30 March, Zimbabwe has been under lockdown in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19. So far, the country has confirmed 34 cases, four deaths and five recoveries. Busani Bafana, an agricultural journalist who has worked with WRENmedia for many years, gives an insight into how the current restrictions are affecting the country and changing the way in which he works.

As a result of the COVID-19 restrictions in Zimbabwe, Busani now holds video calls and interviews over Zoom © Busani Bafana

What is the current situation with regards to COVID-19 infections in Zimbabwe?

To date, roughly 9,000 people have been tested across the country, the majority in Harare and Bulawayo, with plans to decentralise routine testing to the country’s 10 provinces. Yet, fears are high and questions abound as to whether Zimbabwe is really on top of the situation, or whether the limited testing is masking a hidden crisis.

Thankfully, so far, none of my family members or close friends have caught the virus. We are all following the preventative measures of frequent hand washing and staying at home. The government has also made it mandatory to wear masks outside the home. In Bulawayo where I live, tight water restrictions have been imposed to save the city from going dry, and many suburbs are going without water for four days a week. Washing hands becomes less important when you don’t have adequate water for drinking, cooking and washing.

What measures have been put in place to safeguard the population?

On 1 May, the government extended the lockdown by a further two weeks, citing a gradual rise in infections. Conversely, it relaxed other restrictions in order to save peoples’ lives and the national economy, according to President Emerson Mnangagwa. For example, some industries and registered companies have been given the green light to operate effectively from May 4 on the condition that rapid diagnostic testing of all employees takes place, and social distancing and hand sanitisation is enforced. The government has also announced several financial packages to save jobs and keep the economy running, but it remains to be seen if this money will actually be released. There is a ZW$18 billion rescue and stimulus package for companies and the informal sector, and a ZW$200 million security net that is supposed to benefit at least 1 million vulnerable households through monthly cash transfers of ZW$180. Beneficiaries are, however, yet to receive such stipends, and the safety net budget is considered a pittance given the high cost and availability of basic food stuffs like bread, maize meal, meat, sugar and vegetables. A family needs close to ZW$5,000 a month, for instance, just to cover food, energy and water bills.

In terms of the healthcare systems, hospitals and staff are in need of PPE, which is in short supply. To help address this problem, the private sector and individuals are fundraising through online campaigns to source more PPE, testing kits, ventilators, respirators and food. In my city, a collective community of business representatives, academics, medical professionals, politicians and not-for-profit organisations have launched the IAM4BYO initiative to source medical equipment and food for vulnerable citizens, and to rehabilitate medical centres to accommodate COVID-19 patients.

How is the current situation impacting on agriculture and food systems within the country?

Agriculture is a key contributor to Zimbabwe’s economy, providing food, jobs and raw materials for agribusinesses. Farmers and the informal sector – comprising vendors of farm produce – feed the majority of urban populations, and were hard hit when the country went into lockdown. The closure of produce markets has threatened the livelihoods of food suppliers, many of whom are now failing to feed their families.

Zimbabwe is also experiencing another drought year, which presents further challenges for farmers – and for national food access. Over half the population already require food aid as a result of continuous poor harvests and the impact of Cyclone Idai in 2019. The World Food Programme has appealed for US$130 million in emergency support by August 2020 to help address the problem of acute hunger in the country.

What impact are the current restrictions having on in terms of you being able to report on agriculture, and how do you think others in agricultural journalism will be finding the situation across Africa?

With no travel permitted outside of Zimbabwe, I can no longer do international assignments. I am still able to complete local assignments but these are also limited due to the preventative measures, which means I am no longer able to meet with farmers or carry out interviews in person. Agriculture journalism is practical and social and should be carried out from the field, farm, factory or market. In these surroundings, you can capture the ambience, the feeling, the smiles, the frustrations; the quotes are not rehearsed or diminished like emailed responses to questions.

On the positive side, my career is undergoing a makeover in that I have had to adjust to working differently. I have a renewed sense of urgency and a greater responsibility in how I write, what I write and where I make a link to COVID-19. I have also been able to brush up on online working skills, conducting interviews with farmers, researchers and officials using a combination of platforms, including Skype, WhatsApp and Zoom, when the internet allows. And I have attended a number of online conferences and webinars on agriculture and food security in relation to the impacts of the pandemic. I thought COVID-19 was a scoop only for health journalists but I could not have been more wrong. It is like covering a world war which affects all sectors of life, and it has been a learning curve for me, but insightful.

Can you see the situation improving for you in the next few months?

I hope so, I try to stay optimistic. As a Zimbabwean, I take comfort in the fact that I have experienced worse – although maybe not to this scale. My country has experienced the economic meltdown of 2000-2008, successive droughts, world record inflation levels and food shortages, so we have had to develop a thicker skin.

What lessons do you think we should learn from the current situation?

We should learn that we cannot take anything for granted, especially our health. Many countries did not heed the warnings about a potential pandemic when the spread of COVID-19 was in its early stages. There is a lesson here that, next time, they should act faster in spreading accurate information and acting to contain the virus. Africa has been gifted with a bit more time to prepare and safeguard its citizens, and we should now be investing in robust systems to ensure greater resilience in future.

Busani Bafana

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