Introduction and Background
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19), a global pandemic has had far reaching consequences. It has proven to be a pressing global crisis which has wreaked havoc across the globe. Whilst the pandemic is a health crisis it has caused unprecedented disruptions to the social, economic and political fabrics of our modern societies and threatens the long-term livelihoods and well-being of people including children and youths across the world. The coronavirus which has no respect for colour, creed, age or sex is affecting everyone. This has compelled us to pay particular attention on youth and children with the former age segment ranging from 15-35 years of age according to the Constitution of Zimbabwe and the African Youth Charter.
Zimbabwe’s government is seized with controlling the spread of the virus and radical measures have been put in place to contain the spread of the pandemic. Although these measures are proving effective, young people have a different tale to tell. Their livelihoods have been affected, the percentage of gender-based violence is escalating while some youths have resorted to drug abuse as they cannot soberly deal with the challenges they are facing.For us at the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), we believe that children and youth voices matter and therefore their issues must be incorporated in all programs. This is one of the several ways to ensure that we strongly enhance and enable youth participation at all levels including involving them in project planning, advocacy initiatives and campaigns.This is ZELA's first edition of the COVID-19 children and youth situation report.
Keeping an Ear to The Ground-The Status of Children and Youths
Globally, children and youth might not be the face of this pandemic but risk being amongst the biggest victims. In Zimbabwe young people have largely been spared the direct health impact of the pandemic with statistics showing that out of the four (4) victims who succumbed to COVID-19 in this Southern African country, only one was still within the youth dividend as defined by the country’s Constitution.
Inasmuch as this could be a positive aspect so far it must be noted that the coronavirus found the country in a bad space. Zimbabwe’s comatose economy has undermined the provision of health, water and sanitation services and social protection in the country. For instance, according to the Environmental Management Agency  water quality in Zimbabwe is poor for both urban and rural areas mainly as a result of poor water infrastructure, discharge of domestic and industrial waste into water bodies. Erratic rainfalls from the last season and climate shocks left more than 4.3 million people severely food insecure in rural areas in Zimbabwe, according to the latest Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) analysis, undertaken in February 2020. In addition, 2.2. million people in urban areas, are “cereal food insecure”, according to the most recent Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee (ZimVAC) analysis.
In Their Own Words-Children And Youths COVID-19 Experiences
Over the past year, ZELA has been working with children and youths from mining host communities of Chimanimani, Marange and Zvishavane together with environmental law societies drawn from Midlands State University, Great Zimbabwe University, Zimbabwe Ezekiel Guti University to raise awareness on the right to a healthy environment. In preparing this situational report we gathered information from children and youth champions on the ground. Evidence gathered from the ground in areas where our various youth networks are located reveals an emotional status currently being experienced by these two distinct age groups. Some are filled with fear, confusion, anxiety, anger, despair. There is a consensus on the comprehension of what the COVID-19 virus is, evaluating from the responses received and the effects the virus has had on children and youth lifestyles. One shared her testimonial as captured below:
“Corona virus in short COVID-19 is a virus that is believed to have originated from animals, in humans it affects the lungs making it difficult to breath suddenly leading to death. It is very contagious it can be transmitted from one person to another through shaking hands with an infected person, touching the eyes, nose or mouth with contaminated hands, close contact with an infected person of less than one metre apart that the virus travels from the nose of the infected person and land on the other person. Symptoms include feeling tired, temperature rise, dry cough, flu like symptoms. This disease can affect all ages, rich or poor, masters or servants, men or women, white or black, educated or uneducated.”
Promoting Inclusive Information Packaging and Sharing
Access to correct, relevant, timely, consumable and adequate information is essential in the containment of the spread of COVID-19 in communities and among youths and children. Access to information relating to:
- protecting themselves from contracting the virus;
- avoiding the spread of the virus;
- knowing what to do when one is infected and
- what protective and preventive measures have been put and are being put in place by the government is thus of paramount importance.
The survey revealed that radio, television, social media (mainly WhatsApp) bulk text messages and ward health workers are the main sources of information regarding COVID-19. The information includes awareness about the disease, preventive measures and the current statistics about the pandemic. Most of the youths who responded to our survey indicated that they have knowledge on what COVID-19 is, how it spreads and the preventive measures that need to be undertaken so that they safeguard themselves from contracting it. However, some youths from mining host communities lamented the lack of information among the wider community. Most of the information on the virus is full of myths and misconceptions. For instance, one youth had this to say;
“Most of the information about COVID-19 that is circulating in the community is hearsay. The most said slogan that people say is that COVID-19 only infects the rich who travel using air transport. Another thing is about the relationship of the virus with the weather. Here in Bocha it's very hot thus we are safe but the question remains the same to what extent are we safe. If only the health sector could conduct road shows sharing more information about COVID-19 and precautionary measures so that we stay safe.”
Further, the challenge comes with the measures imposed by the Government. For instance, the nuances of phase four of the lockdown imposed from 4th to 17th May 2020 which were not clear to most of the youths. The mechanisms for level four were not clear especially on what this entailed. Thus, there is a notable gap on the clarity and the reach of the information regarding COVID-19.
In addition, the use of social media as a source of information on COVID-19 by youths is worrisome as social media platforms are prone to fake news. Reliance on misinformation about COVID-19, has very serious repercussions, endangering public health and personal integrity. This may also result failure of some people to properly adhere to the recommendations by World Health Organisation or the measures imposed by the Government. Some youths mentioned that the they have joined WHO whatsapp groups, with the majority relying on family, friends and community WhatsApp groups for information. Consequently, rather than totally shunning away from these platforms there is a strong need for the government to take an active role in disseminating validated child friendly information about COVID-19 using these mediums.
Falling into Poverty
In signing Agenda 2030, Zimbabwe committed to ending poverty in all its manifestations, including its most extreme forms. According to World Bank, Extreme poverty in Zimbabwe is estimated to have risen from 29% in 2018 to 34% in 2019, an increase from 4.7 to 5.7 million people. The increase is attributed to economic instability, the sharp rise in prices of food and basic commodities. The negative impact of COVID-19 pandemic has had dire impacts on the already suffering communities. The pandemic has exacerbated inequalities, forced people to extreme poverty especially those who live from hand to mouth. Most rural households go without food for the whole day and wholly depend on food aid distributions.
The survey revealed that shortage of some basic commodities such as mealie-meal persists while in those areas where it is accessible, its prices are exorbitant.
‘’The lockdown is causing hunger because food commodity prices continue to upsurge and there are now shortages of basics such as mealie-meal and sugar’’
In late-April the government announced a price freeze on basic food commodities. Regardless of this, prices for most commodities have not reduced but continue to increase. With the restrictions on movement and transport, access to food commodities has been a challenge for most rural communities.
Most respondents raised concern on the price fluctuations which have affected the household food security of most families, leaving them hungry. On May 13, 2020, youths in Harare protested on the issue of food shortages and hunger during this lock down calling on Government to intervene. The Government announced that it will distribute the youth relief fund. Government’s delay to act is an issue of concern as youths continue to suffer. The Youth relief fund eligibility favors youths in the formal business which is daunting as most youths are in the informal sector, therefore the relief fund lacks inclusivity.
Most rural families were making ends meet through export trading and agriculture, sectors which have been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.Livelihoods have been enormously affected, the informal sector is not operating, and this has been the main source of income for most young people. There is no doubt that the pandemic is going to force most youths into unemployment and poverty. Respondents were concerned about their livelihood projects and if things are going to return to normalcy.
“With no employment we are destined for poverty. Social distancing affected us as youths, schools are closed. Importing and exporting of goods from other countries is banned due to COVID -19 lockdown, how are we going to make a living and survive," retorted one respondent.
How Are Youths Adapting?
Most youths are struggling to adapt to the situation which completely crippled all their efforts to live a better life. However, some have been adaptive enough to engage in menial jobs such as assisting children with their homework and offering lessons for primary school pupils.
COVID-19 Disrupts Formal Education
In several countries around the globe, COVID-19 lockdowns have disrupted formal education and livelihoods with statistics showing that school and university closures are affecting 91% of the world’s student population and this is indeed a cause for concern. The lockdown has since seen the closure of schools, colleges and universities to adhere to the social distancing measures put in place by government to contain the spread of the virus. This has affected children and youths’ studies. COVID-19 has also portrayed the inequalities that exist. Most youths indicated that they were worried about completing their studies and the cost associated with E-learning which their parents cannot afford considering the high costs involved.
“Schools have been closed and it’s going to take years to finally attain my degree and its very expensive to join online classes because it’s expensive to buy airtime and sometimes the network is completely down,” one of the youths remarked.
The question on several young people is whether Zimbabwe is prepared to embark on a new E-learning revolution. Issues such as teachers ‘capacity, internet connectivity to support e-learning for students in rural areas so that no one is left behind have been raised. Moreover, what will be the remediation to ensure that this development achieve expected results considering that some children have found themselves in a condition that compromises any effort of learning due to overwhelming household chores that disturb their ability to attend online classes.
Other schools are adapting to COVID-19 and organising online virtual lessons for students. It is important to understand the setbacks that teachers and parents will face to adapt to virtual learning such as gadgets and skills.
Safety, Health, Survival and Exposure Risk
In order to survive the COVID-19 pandemic and not risk infection, there are certain guidelines as prescribed by WHO including social distancing, wearing masks and gloves that must be adhered to. Whilst the youths who responded to the survey are aware of the safeguards that they have to follow for their wellbeing, the socio-economic context makes it difficult for some of them to do so. Youths who responded to the survey lamented the fact that social distancing is difficult to comply with when they are forced by circumstances to fetch water every day at boreholes due to the unavailability of tap water in most households and communities, urban and rural alike. One youth noted the following;
“The guidelines were shared; I have tried to follow yet some people have made it difficult. People who visit us always want us to exchange handshakes, when you try to explain that there is COVID-19 let's not greet they always argue there is no coronavirus here in Bocha.I have also found it difficult to stay indoors because there was no enough time for us to prepare for the lockdown thus we are always out to buy food and vegetables.”
Further, the national lockdown measures have had a mental impact on the youths who responded to the survey. National lockdown has limited social interactions, gatherings and events like parties, churches and weddings. These are social scenes where youths usually convene and network with each other. The national lockdown has also seen institutions of primary and higher education being closed which has impacted the social well-being of youths. Youths are finding ways to entertain themselves during these trying times, but the situation remains gloomy. One youth mentioned that she is entertaining herself by playing different games, reading novels although sometimes she wishes if she could interact with other people just like the way before the virus hit the world. Another wrote that they are spending their days on social media which in itself has its dangers like cyber bullying, cyber stalking and exposure to sexual content.
There is an increasing need to ensure that pycho-social support is provided for youths to avoid breeding a generation with unresolved mental health issues.
Availability of Health Services for Other Illnesses Other Than COVID-19
On the 21st of April 2020, Zimbabwean Health Minister Obadiah Moyo announced that “the malaria death toll had risen and hit the 152 mark.
“We are in a malaria season in Zimbabwe, but the country had focused more on the fight against COVID-19, We normally have our teams going out to test for malaria around this time and those found with malaria would receive their treatment. We have now started sending teams out, hence we have picked the outbreaks,” Youths who responded to the survey indicated this preference to treating COVID-19 as opposed to other illnesses or health issues in their communities. Some mentioned that there is a limitation on available medication.
A Quest for A Better World for Children and Youths-Call to Action
- The virus does not discriminate but its impacts do hence the responses have to be all inclusive. The cash pay-outs must be distributed equitably while the government must ensure that the youths in the informal economy that have been affected by the lockdown do benefit.
- COVID-19 related information must be clear and packaged in a child friendly manner while mechanisms should be put in place to ensure the information reaches all corners of Zimbabwe.
- Aid to vulnerable households must be disbursed in a non-partisan and transparent manner to ensure that children from vulnerable homes are not disadvantaged because of their parents’ political affiliation.
- The voices of children and young children including their fears and aspirations should be captured and acted upon by the government and other concerned stakeholders.
- Community child protection systems and mechanisms must be strengthened while the judiciary actors must act urgently on all cases including the child related ones to ensure that the society remains a safe haven for everyone.
Stay Safe, Stop the Spread, Save Lives
Published by: Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association (ZELA), 26B Seke Road, Hatfield, Harare www.zela.org; @ZELA_Infor, Facebook;Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association