Zimbabwe reopens produce markets after protests by drought-hit farmers

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Zimbabwe has reopened fresh produce markets after pressure from farmers who struggled to sell their harvest under restrictions aimed at stemming spread of the novel coronavirus, Zimbabwean officials said.

Markets including prominent Mbare Musika in Harare and Sakubva Musika in Mutare were closed last week when President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration put the country on a 21-day lockdown in a bid to curb the spread of the virus.

Zimbabwe has so far recorded just over 10 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and three deaths.

Its larger neighbor South Africa has seen more than 1 800 confirmed cases and more than 15 deaths.

To deal with the threat, Zimbabwe has moved to halt many forms of transport and close facilities except for those deemed essential, including supermarkets and state-owned public transport.

Under the new restrictions, law enforcement agents at first prevented farmers from selling their produce either at markets or on city streets. Those attempting sales in some case saw their goods confiscated.

At Sakubva Musika market last week, police and Mutare city health officials confiscated tonnes of vegetables and fruit from more than 300 farmers who had converged in the market area.

“The lockdown has set me back. My tomatoes are perishable, so I lost many at the farm due to that restriction of movement,” said Cuthbert Chuma, a small-scale farmer from a village in Macheke District, about 110 km from the capital Harare.

Drought Pressure 

Many of Zimbabwe’s farmers have already been hit by prolonged drought linked to climate change, and the market closures have come as an additional financial blow.

Paul Zakariya, an executive director of the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that his organization had lobbied to see the markets reopened “to meet the demands of food even during the lockdown period.”

Nick Mangwana, an information ministry permanent secretary, said the president had exempted farmers from the initial lockdown, but the decision had not been implemented by police.

He said the government could not risk people going hungry during the lockdown.

“Of course we have supermarkets but the government took into consideration that not everyone can afford to go there. Most people get vegetables and fruits from these traders,” Mangwana said in a telephone interview.

But there are worries that reopening markets could set back efforts to contain the virus as shoppers gather.

Zakariya said he believed such fears could be addressed through efforts to ensure social distancing among shoppers and mandating the use of face masks.

City of Harare spokesman Michael Chideme told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that police had been deployed to the markets to maintain social distancing, and that from Thursday Harare markets would be open for just three hours a day.

Spren Mutiwi, a Mutare city spokesman, said markets that reopened Wednesday had seen some problem in maintaining social distance but authorities were working with the traders to try to protect both sellers and shoppers.