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Zambia’s response to COVID-19 Part 3: Rising infections and falling confidence amidst increased authoritarianism


Our ESID Zambia experts reveal the latest developments in the political response to Covid-19 in Zambia

In a provocative piece in the Mail & Guardian, Sishuwa Sishuwa argues that the major casualty of the coronavirus in Zambia is not human life but the country’s democratic tradition, which can only be resolved by the ‘election vaccine’. Indeed, the COVID-19 pandemic is playing out in a perfect storm of political tension and a severe economic crisis. The ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF), is increasingly focused on political survival rather than addressing the economic and health crises. Unsurprisingly, trust in the government’s approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has fallen steeply in the last few months.

While the COVID-19 caseload and deaths initially remained low in Zambia, these numbers have been rapidly rising in recent months. The number of confirmed cases more than doubled, from 1,489 on 24 June to 3,326 on 21 July, coinciding with a predicted spike during Zambia’s cold season. Contrary to initial predictions, the number of new infections and the test positivity rate seem to be falling again, following daily peaks of up to 35 percent in August, although it is important to note that these figures depend on testing strategy as well as prevalence.

As of 29 September, the official figures now stand at 15,052 confirmed cases and 333 deaths classified as COVID-19 or COVID-19-associated, according to Ministry of Health reports. However, the preliminary results of a serological survey conducted in July suggest that up to 1.8 million Zambians had contracted COVID-19 up to 30 June, which would mean that the majority of infections go unreported.

Despite the increased number of cases, restrictions continued to be lifted, as schools, colleges and universities re-opened, and the partial re-opening of bars was also announced. These new directives were included in the President’s speech for the opening of Parliament on 11 September – Lungu’s first public statement on COVID-19 since Fifth National Address on 22 May. Parliament had been adjourned for a second time due to COVID-19 on 21 July, following the deaths of two MPs who reportedly tested positive for COVID-19.

An IPSOS survey conducted in April 2020 found that 69 percent of Zambians trusted the information provided by government on COVID-19 and 68 percent were satisfied with the government’s response to the pandemic. However, levels of trust seem to be falling. A more recent survey conducted in July 2020 by the University of Gothernburg’s programme on Governance and Local Development (GLD) and the Southern African Institute for Policy and Research (SAIPAR), based in Lusaka, found that less than 60 percent of respondents trust the Zambian government. In the face of growing uncertainty about the government’s response to COVID-19, civil society – particularly an online movement called Lusaka Helps – is playing a critical role in analysing data released by government and other sources, as well as providing public health information.

A further finding from the GLD-SAIPAR survey is that 71 percent of Zambians fear that politicians will exploit COVID-19 to gain power or enrich themselves. Questions about the Ministry of Health’s procurement process had already been raised, following a scandal in which a sole trader was awarded a $17 million contract for health centre test kits in November 2019. The company – Honey Bee Pharmacy Limited – did not exist at the time of the tender, and was only registered as a limited company on 1 April 2020. Honey Bee has since supplied damaged drugs, which they have been ordered to recall by Zambia’s Health Authority, but the Ministry of Health has not provided an adequate explanation for this series of events.

This distrust is further exacerbated by intraparty tensions. On 24 June 2020, the Health Minister, Dr Chitalu Chilufya, was arrested by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) and charged with four counts of possessing property suspected to be proceeds of a crime. While the extent of corruption within the ruling PF party is widely acknowledged, this action has been identified as an orchestrated move by a rival faction within PF to undermine Chilufya, who has had the opportunity to position himself as a competent leader in the face of COVID-19 and is perceived as political threat. Despite the charges, Chilufya remained in post as health minister throughout the trial and was acquitted on 25 August, due to lack of evidence.

Such factionalism has long been an integral part of Zambia’s political settlement. The presidentialist character of the political system creates strong incentives for internal conflict over leadership. Following President Michael Sata’s death in office, a brutal competition for succession ended with Edgar Lungu being declared PF’s de facto presidential candidate. With the 2021 elections looming, Lungu’s controversial bid for a third term remains contested, despite the Constitutional Court ruling in his favour. There may be a vacancy for the highly prized position of vice-president and potential successor, which will only exacerbate the factional rivalries within the party.

Zambia has also lost international trust, both with creditors and donors. Concerns about corruption, accountability of COVID-19 funds and debt sustainability, highlighted in our previous blog, persist, with the country’s external debt standing at just over 50 percent of GDP and debt service expected to average $1.6 billion per year over 2020-22 (World Bank, 2020). Zambia has requested debt cancellation from China and support from the G20 Debt Standstill Service, but has not yet secured an IMF deal following a virtual mission in July. Alarmingly, Zambia is on the verge of defaulting on its Eurobond debt. The government’s request for a suspension of debt interest payments on all three of Zambia’s Eurobonds for a period of six months, effective 14 October 2020, has fallen on deaf ears as well. The recent firing of Bank of Zambia governor, with no reasons given, has further undermined confidence in the country’s financial institutions. Outgoing governor Denny Kalyalya – who has strong credentials, a successful track record and been critical of the government’s borrowing and spending – is replaced by PF-allied Christopher Mphanza Mvunga. This shock move by the president has raised concerns about the future independence and credibility of the central bank, which has so far maintained its position as a pocket of effectiveness, despite growing political pressures.

Donor confidence in the Zambian government is also low, with several cooperating partners, including DFID and Irish Aid, withholding direct funding following a scandal involving the embezzlement of social cash transfer (SCT) funds in 2018. Claims that PF are using the SCT programme to gain political mileage are being countered by the Minister of Community Development. However, the importance of domestic political incentives in determining support for SCTs aligns with ESID findings on the adoption and expansion of the policy in Zambia.

In the face of growing dissatisfaction and protests, Lungu is doubling down against autonomous technocrats, such as Kalyalya, and the main opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema. Although the time frame for debating the controversial Constitutional Amendment Bill Number 10 lapsed in June, PF remain determined that it will be debated in parliament. If enacted, this Bill would threaten the separation of powers between parliament, the judiciary and the executive. A coalition of forces, including opposition MPs, churches, law and civil society organisations, as well as the remaining independent media, is holding the fort against Bill 10, as was the case during President Chiluba’s third term attempt in 2001 (Sishuwa, 2020). Once again, the countervailing efforts of this coalition will be paramount as the ruling party grows increasingly vulnerable and Zambia continues to shift towards an authoritarian political settlement. All of this will hamper the government’s ability to deal with the pressing concerns of COVID-19 and the country’s economic crisis.

Read more blogs in this series.