The Sunday Mail
By going into lockdown early, Zimbabwe has been spared a lot of suffering and economic damage, with Covid-19 infection rates less than 5 percent what could have been expected, even if there are a handful of untested patients.
This has allowed the Government to move faster than most countries to restart the economy and resume a degree of normalcy, but the authorities have been careful to widen exemptions from the lockdown one step at a time, and usually under conditions that minimise the increased risk.
This policy means we cannot only consolidate each new batch of exemptions, but also take just one step back if there is a sudden spike in infection rates, rather than have to go all the way to the beginning again.
And this is obviously why President Mnangagwa has now decided to extend the lockdown indefinitely, but with continual review to see how exemptions can be extended.
In practical terms, there is little difference after the point where exemptions become common, between a lockdown, where all movement and activity is banned except what is exempted, and normality where everything is permitted except what is banned.
Legally and for health reasons, it is simpler to retain a lockdown but widen exemptions in a highly controlled manner, rather than have a long and continually changing list of bans as exemptions are granted but loopholes plugged.
Already, after seven weeks of lockdown, Zimbabwe looks a lot different than on the first day, when only health and security services plus food shops and pharmacies were open.
In a carefully monitored progression, farming, food markets, money transfer services, mining, manufacturing, tobacco sales and formal industry and commerce were exempted, under conditions that were easy to implement.
Now, the President has extended opening hours for exempted businesses and is moving fast to get schoolchildren in examination classes and final year university and college students back into classrooms and lecture rooms.
There is still the need to restart the informal sector, where around three quarters of economically active Zimbabweans earn their living.
Food stalls are open now, and health planners need to be able to advise on specific steps that are required to allow other elements of the informal sector to be opened, probably a step at a time and with the required infrastructure and controls in place.
The biggest single problem is that the informal sector was allowed to just grow with city by-laws ignored and health controls, including basic sanitation, totally absent.
We talked a lot about what would be a good idea, but did little. So now families reliant on the informal sector suffer and the taxpayer is having to foot some growing bills to provide very basic support to the worst affected through those monthly $300 payments.
Obviously we cannot just go back to what was there. And already the Covid-19 threat has galvanised local government and central Government authorities to think carefully what is needed and wanted in normal times if we are to have a properly-run informal sector and then adapt this for the Covid times.
So we see not only demolition of illegal stalls and shacks, but also proper demarcation of market areas, far better public sanitation being put in place and even systems that will eliminate corrupt practices in the allocation of market stalls and sites.
We need to move faster on these programmes though.
But if the health authorities are thinking, it should be possible to open some flea markets fairly soon.
These are the ones in a building, usually a privately run market, or at least in a fenced area with a single gate allowing controls.
The reopened markets will have to have adequate basic sanitation, adequate social distancing of stalls, and controls on customers, the same as for the formal businesses with temperature scanning, hand cleaning with sanitiser or soap and control of numbers.
This is possible if there is a single entrance, and impossible if it is some free-for-all.
We are already seeing a desired revolution in public transport, now inadequate to support properly the reopening of the formal sectors but with a solution already on the ground.
Zupco had started, before Covid-19, to franchise kombis. Now the Government has told the rest of the kombi owners that they can get back on the road if they go the Zupco route.
Zupco franchising places private buses and kombis under Zupco operational rules, something everyone wants, from the passengers and other road users, to the local authorities that have had to deal with unplanned and unapproved seizures of kerbsides by touts.
All that is required now is a system that allows fairly rapid Zupco checks followed up by monitoring and control.
Kombi owners, in an indefinite lockdown, do not really have options besides joining Zupco or parking their buses.
This sort of policy can be used for re-opening other swathes of the informal sector.
Put in the rules and make it clear that you do business by these rules or stay at home. If we do this properly we can get a double benefit, first the step-by-step re-opening of the informal economy and secondly finally having these small businesses operating within an extension of the formal economy.
There is no reason why small businesses should play by different rules from industrial giants.
Everyone in business should be equal when it comes to rules, regardless of whether their premises are a small table or a giant factory, and the lockdown offers an opportunity to restart these sectors correctly, turning four decades of post-independence talk into the action everyone, including the vendors themselves, desire.
The Government cannot reopen the economy safely and productively by itself.
It needs everyone to cooperate, generate ideas and help create lasting and workable systems.
Extending lockdown exemptions provides an opportunity to do this: come up with a workable solution to health and other risks, and our listening President will listen.