‘When companies are exempted the whole process is a circus’ says Zimbabwe union leader on exemption from safety regulations for employers

PETER MUTASA president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions remonstrates with police outside the union’s head office in Harare

WORKERS in Zimbabwe have expressed dismay at the lack of seriousness on the government’s part, after it exempted more companies to operate during the 21-day lockdown intended to stop the spread of the deadly coronavirus (Covid-19).

The government imposed the lockdown from March 30th to April 19th, but the largest workers’ body – the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) – said some of the companies allowed to continue operating under the bracket of essential services are not essential at all.

‘When many companies are exempted, it makes the whole process a circus, then it means we have failed before we even start with the lockdown. Again, there are no regulations stimulating Occupational Safety and Health requirements for the employers,’ the ZCTU president Peter Mutasa said.

The ZCTU comments came after the government, through the ministry of Industry and Commerce, allowed ‘almost all sectors of the economy’, including beverage manufacturing companies, to continue operating throughout the 21-day lockdown.

The government, in a statement released last week, allowed ‘critical services and productive activities to support the health and safety of citizens’ during the course of the lockdown.

The following critical services and productive activities will continue operations: ‘Manufacturing and distribution of health-related products, supplies, devices, equipment and medicines as well as essential inputs thereto.

‘Agricultural and food supply related operations, including farming, veterinary and phytosanitary service providers, pest control services, chemical and fertiliser production and distribution.

‘Food, beverages, poultry and dairy products including manufacturing, processing and distribution facilities for the value chain; manufacturing and importation of basic commodities,’ reads part of the statement.

‘Manufacturing, processing and distribution of sanitisation products including soaps, detergents, disinfectants and sanitisers are among the list. Production and distribution of sanitary products including sanitary pads, cotton wool and tissues, among others, are also included.

‘Warehousing, transport and logistics for food and essential products, and health-related goods; production of packaging products that are critical in the movement and distribution of the above goods will remain in operation.

‘Food outlets – retail and wholesale shops for food and essential products – essential products include: toilet paper, cleaners, sanitisers and disinfectants, personal hygiene products, bedding and clothing, and essential supplies for those taking care of the sick and to maintain the general public’s well-being.

‘All activities for exporters of manufactured goods and horticultural produce and funeral parlours and support services will continue,’ said the statement.

The Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries (CZI) had earlier warned that the country will experience major dislocations in exports and imports as Covid-19 spreads and countries adopt restrictive counter measures.

‘A mini-survey on the impact of the pandemic on local industry has shown that 46 per cent of local firms have already suffered disruptions in supply chains,’ CZI said.

Meanwhile ‘more equipment is needed to protect the world’s nurses working on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic to save lives, the head of the International Council of Nurses (ICN) said.

‘They are heroic, I think there is no other way to describe what they are doing at this moment,’ said Howard Catton, a British nurse who is the ICN’s chief executive officer.

‘Infection rates of 9% and 12-14% have been reported among health workers in Italy and Spain, respectively, and deaths among nurses there and in Iran and Indonesia, he said.

‘We have no doubt that the rate of infections is related in part to the lack of PPE – personal protective equipment,’ he said at the ICN offices along Lake Geneva.

‘There is a global shortage and nurses obviously are at a higher risk given the people that they are caring for.’

The federation represents 130 national associations and more than 20 million registered nurses.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called repeatedly for countries and manufacturers to step up production of masks, gloves, gowns and other equipment for vulnerable health workers amidst critical shortages. Nearly 700,000 people have been infected worldwide in the outbreak that began last December in China and has claimed more than 33,000 lives, according to the WHO.

Catton also said there had been problems with supply chains in hard-hit Italy and Spain, describing their health systems as ‘very close to being overwhelmed. Nurses worldwide take samples from Covid-19 patients, give them medicines and oxygen, and help incubate those in serious condition.

‘They are working under intense pressure, often long hours, some working back-to-back shifts for days on end, even sleeping over in the hospital, the facility, in which they work.

‘Some nurses had even been forced to re-use their gear or make their own masks and gowns, he added.

‘Wearing personal protective equipment when it is available is not easy either … Simple things like going to the loo and eating are of course much more difficult,’ he said. ‘And nurses across Africa and South Asia could be at greater risk as the virus moves to poorer settings.

‘We are very concerned that those countries that have weaker, more fragile health care systems could very quickly become overwhelmed by this virus if it takes hold in their countries,’ Catton said.

‘Nurses in Zimbabwe, fearing for their own safety, have been on strike due to a lack of information and protective gear,’ he continued.

‘In Zimbabwe, working conditions for health care workers are already dire, with a shortage of resources and medicinal supplies. Health facilities are understaffed, have low standards of occupational health and safety, and do not all have constant access to water. Furthermore, health workers are paid shockingly low wages.

‘In the time of a global pandemic, a collapsed health system – and economy in general – is cause for legitimate fear. The Zimbabwe Nurses Association (ZINA) has gone on strike, along with doctors and customs officials, demanding:

‘1. Personal protective equipment (PPE) – Health workers have no personal protective equipment, and without it they have a greatly increased risk of infection;

‘2. Access to constant water supply – In some hospitals the water supply is erratic. Hygiene is primordial in the fight against Covid-19. Without access to water, health workers face a higher risk of infection;

‘3. Risk allowance – given the increased risk to workers’ lives and the dramatic conditions in which they work, health workers are demanding a risk allowance, in a time where many will be overworked and may pose a risk to their families;

‘4. Access to training and information on Covid-19.

‘Urgent attention must be paid to countries that have little or no capacity to manage the crisis. Governments must ensure that the necessary preventative and protective measures are put in place to fight Covid-19. We call on the Zimbabwe government to respect the occupational health and safety of health workers, who are on the front lines of battling this pandemic,’ states the union.

‘We call on the World Health Organisation to ensure that governments comply to protect frontline staff. WHO is well aware of the dangers facing health workers, and should work with governments to ensure that they are able to combat this pandemic.

‘Urgent attention must be paid to countries that have little or no capacity to manage the crisis.

‘Health sector unions have had to fight for PPE in other countries in the sub-region as well. On 17 March, Swaziland Democratic Nurses Union (SWADNU) held a march, with many hospitals holding sit-ins to demand PPE.

‘While the government has responded by providing some PPEs, there are not enough, and nurses fear that they may have to take further action should the equipment run out. In general, unions are concerned about the lack of PPE and testing kits.

‘Southern Africa is one of the poorest regions in the world, and governments alone do not have the resources to provide protective equipment in sufficient quantity.

‘One reason is the massive cuts to funding and rise of privatised health care. More than ever, we need to requisition private hospitals and health services.

‘Everyone should get the same treatment and quality of care to fight this pandemic. As of today, Public Services International is aware of the following cases of coronavirus in the sub-region: Angola-3, Eswatini-5, Madagascar-19, Mauritius-48, Mozambique-5, Namibia-7, South Africa-709, Zambia-12 and Zimbabwe-3.’