What do you do when life is on the line? — The Zimbabwean tragedy that reflects all our failings

We’ve all heard it said that Covid-19 is a game changer, a ground leveller that affects everyone, irrespective of race, creed, social status etc. To be sure, it represents a major global challenge even in rich countries with strong health systems and for those who can normally buy their way out of a situation.

However, the threat is even greater in places where health provision is patchy, difficult to access and where the fundamentals of life have been ravaged by conflict, climate change and ecological breakdown. Where life-saving resources like clean water, soap, medicines and related equipment – things we normally take for granted in the UK – are in short supply.

Zimbabwe is one such country – even in the capital, Harare, the main infectious diseases hospital has no intensive care units, according to the Zimbabwean Association of Doctors for Human Rights. In a country like this, prevention is pretty much the main option, but this isn’t easy either.
Evans Mangwende, a visionary elder and founder of Mangwende Orphan Care Trust, has been reporting back on the dire situation there:

“We have started our 21 days lock down – a long time in Zimbabwe and many other African states, as we have to work every day to eat (hand to mouth). It is going to be very difficult for people to stay indoors that long because of hunger. People were struggling to feed themselves before the lock down, so I just pray that we finish our 21 days in peace.”

“Added to which, across much of the country knowledge of what to do can be scarce, poorly communicated and subject to disbelief and rumour. And lock down is not the only challenge. Weather extremes are becoming the norm, with Zimbabwe’s hard-pressed rural farmers (most of the population) challenged at every turn. Last year brought the devastating Cyclone Idai, one of the worst tropical cyclones on record, which caused catastrophic damage including massive floods and soil erosion. Back then, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver, warned that Zimbabwe was on the verge of “manmade starvation”.

This year the drought is the worst in history according to Evans – and his community, along with many others, does not have routine access to clean water. Trying to prevent the spread of the virus is difficult enough, but people still need to think about how they are going to eat and drink and few families can afford to buy essentials, let alone soap and sanitisers.
Rampant inflation adds to the problem – a loaf of bread can increase 33% from one day to the next and there are crowds jostling to get hold of basic, subsidised foods such as milie (maize) meal – as The Zimbabwean reported recently, “Desperation trumps distancing.”

Grimly, Evans says: “Lock down here means you are not able to work or tend the fields if you live in an urban area and if you are not working then you are not going to eat. Most people including youngsters still think it is a joke. I am worried about the welfare of our orphans and child-headed households, vulnerable children and the elderly. This year we have another crippling drought and more than 90% of all the rural population have not harvested anything because of the climatic conditions.”

I don’t know if, like me, you feel both distraught and paralysed upon reading this.
What can we do, as ordinary citizens stuck in our own lock down, to help people in this situation?
And it has probably occurred to you that, like coronavirus, this is not ‘someone else’s problem’.
We are all connected through our global systems, both natural and economic, and we are all complicit in some way – governments, corporations & (especially wealthier) consumers – in allowing climate change and ecological destruction to continue.
So, I asked Evans what we could do for his situation, and he replies in a typically pragmatic and permaculture informed way:

My suggestion is to have short term and long-term solutions. In the short-term assist orphans and vulnerable children with food, soap and accurate information dissemination.
In the long-term build capacity for self-reliance and community resilience, teach land stewardship skills and promote locally adapted methods and resources.
And the vital, even longer- term solution is for everyone to take action – not just words – on the climate and ecological emergency which is hitting the poor and vulnerable hardest”.

How can we disseminate information to people who do not have access to the internet, do not have a smartphone, a radio or computer and often no power? I think we need a centre for accurate information in every rural community. A centre that is not going to mislead people as can happen on social media. An old computer, a printer, stationery and Wi-Fi will do for a start. It is better to fight knowing what we are fighting, so we need correct information first”.

Evans is so right. Just 2 days ago, the New Zimbabwe news media reported on the story of a 70-year-old travelling 100km by bus to Harare to collect his monthly pension to feed his family. Tragically, on his arrival, the banks were closed and the ATMs empty – nobody in his rural village had told him about the lock down. These are humbling stories and I’m left desperately wanting communities in the global South to have access to the support they need. Moreover, we in the global North need to pull our fingers out and take the action that we know is possible and needs to be done to rebuild a better world. With COP 26 now postponed, it’s even more essential that we, as citizens, keep the pressure up for us to move forward on this together. One thing that everyone here can do from home is to support the latest call* for a massive debt reduction to aid the global effort to contain covid-19.
As the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, said: If the virus is not defeated in Africa, it will only bounce back to the rest of the world”.
It’s time to remember our global family.

Angie Polkey, West Wales, 7 April 2020

Angie Polkey lives in West Wales and is a permaculture teacher and ecologist. She coordinated an international team of teachers delivering a Permaculture Design Course in Uganda, 2018, as part of Sector 39 and BEU Permaculture.

Follow up resources

Article: https://www.permaculture.co.uk/articles/earth-and-community-restoration-one-garden-time
Case study: https://www.gaiaeducation.org/elearning/case-studies/mangwende-orphan-care-trust/
Donate: (funds will not be accessed until after lock down but will help towards a practical, long term demonstration site for resilience and sustainable living in rural Zimbabwe):
https://www.gofundme.com/f/mangwende-permaculture-center

* https://act.globaljustice.org.uk/coronavirus-drop-debt

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