The Sunday Mail
It seems there is nothing, including the dreaded possibility of being infected by the life-threatening coronavirus, that can separate bargain hunters and second-hand clothes.
Scientists are still grappling to understand the way the novel virus behaves and a lot is still being learnt.
However, out of an abundance of caution, Government recently decided to ban second-hand clothes as a precautionary measure to stop the spread of the disease.
It is the second time in five years that authorities have decided to ban the trade in used clothes.
In 2015, the intervention was specifically meant to protect the local textile industry.
But despite the current ban, the burgeoning trade in the clothing items has since resumed, and some people are worried.
“I understand that the vendors are trying to earn a living but they are also putting our lives at great risk.
“Something must be done urgently before it is too late,” observed Ruzai Muchaurawa, who is Ward 25 councillor for Zvimba Rural District Council.
But it seems that the fear is well founded.
Selling second-hand clothes often attracts crowds which might potentially spread the virus through people-to-people contact or contact with contaminated clothing articles.
Those who are involved in the business disagree and believe there is no scientific evidence proving that Covid-19 “can be transmitted through second-hand textiles”.
Jackie King, executive director of the United States lobby group Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART), has been using this point to try and force Kenya to lift a similar ban on these products.
“There is no supporting evidence that Covid-19 can be transmitted through second-hand textiles.
“We believe Kenya’s recent ban is a disingenuous attempt to stop second-hand clothing trade masquerading as a measure to protect its citizens,” he was recently quoted as saying.
Some health experts also say the coronavirus cannot survive on surfaces for too long, thus is unlikely to survive when bales are being shipped across seas.
Most of the clothing items are imported from the United States, the United Kingdom and China.
However, the drive to keep the trade alive is unsurprising since it is a money-spinning business.
Statistics from the UN Commodity Trade Statistics Database show that the global trade in used clothes has grown steadily over the last decade, with worldwide exports reaching US$4,8 billion in 2015.
Despite the recent Government ban, stalls selling second-hand clothes have been progressively mushrooming in residential areas over the past month.
While these products used to be sold at open spaces such as Mupedzanhamo in Harare and near Sakubva Bus terminus in Mutare, vendors are now selling their wares from parked vehicles or from their backyards.
“I used to sell my clothes at Mupedzanhamo but the closure of the market forced me to relocate. I am not, however, realising as much money as I used to when I was at Mupedzanhamo,” said a vendor called Annah from Harare’s high-density suburb of Dzivaresekwa.
Not only is she using her backyard, but she now occasionally takes her bales of clothing items to peri-urban farming areas where she barters them for maize.
UK-based Oxfam estimates that 70 percent of donated garments end up in Africa, where people such as Annah try to generate income from them.
Vendors believe that allowing the traders to operate openly would help health authorities to enforce strict health guidelines that guarantee safety for both the vendors and consumers.
Lorraine Sibanda, president of the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Association, says “a total ban will only drive the vendors underground”.
“In my view, a total ban on second-hand clothes will not work. There is need for authorities to devise ways in which traders are allowed to sell second-hand clothes under strict regulations,” argues Sibanda.
This is not helped by the fact that some of the bales are smuggled into the country through Mozambique.
The expansive border with the neighbouring country stretches for more than 1 231 kilometres, which makes it difficult to effectively police.
Government also recently reported there was an apparent increase in smuggling through border posts such as Mount Selinda and Sango.
Sten Zvorwadza, the National Vendors Union of Zimbabwe chairperson, opines there is a better way of allowing the trade to continue.
“We cannot ignore the fact many people earn their livelihoods from vending and the fact that some people can only afford second-hand clothes. Vendors should be allowed to sell second-hand clothes, with precautionary measures being taken,” Zvorwadza said.
Over the years, legislators have been doggedly pushing for trade in second-hand clothes to continue.
At some point they unanimously threatened to reject former Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa’s 2015 Mid-Term Fiscal Review if he did not reverse the ban on imports of second-hand clothes and shoes.
However, Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Minister Sithembiso Nyoni advised vendors to abide to lockdown rules.
“We are under Covid-19 and we have to follow the regulations. I advise vendors to approach my ministry so that we give them advice on how they can fit in under the Covid-19-induced rules and regulations.”