Researching the politics of development



Zambia’s response to Covid-19

28 April 2020

In our latest blog in our Covid-19 series, ESID experts discuss the political response in Zambia

Zambia is currently in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic. As of 23 April, Ministry of Health statistics confirmed 76 cases and three deaths. Currently, the cases are concentrated in and around the capital, Lusaka, although it has also begun to spread to other parts of the country, such as Kabwe. It looks likely that the peak may be in May or June, which is a cause for concern, as people are more vulnerable during Zambia’s cold season in June and July.
The response is being led by the Ministry of Health, advised by experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with daily briefings to the public and frequent updates through social media, including Facebook and Twitter. This provides a level of transparency towards the public: information is widespread and there is an increasing sense of urgency as the virus spreads. This approach aligns with Zambia’s previous experiences with health-related outbreaks, such as cholera, threat of ebola, HIV and AIDS, which have always been led by the scientific community through local organisations in cooperation with international partners.

But, internally, the government is divided about the response. Some want a lockdown, while others feel that Zambia cannot afford these restrictions, as there is no money to distribute food or support small businesses and the self-employed. So far, a temporary lockdown has been imposed in individual towns such as Kafue, in order to carry out tracing and testing. At the national level, schools and universities were closed in March, as well as bars and restaurants. Only a limited number of people are allowed to attend funerals, weddings and churches. Civil servants go to work, but are on a rotation schedule so as to limit the number of people in the offices. Many companies and organisations have also adopted this approach.

Dr. Chitalu Chilufya, Zambia’s Minister of Health, speaks to journalists
Two statutory instruments (SIs) have been issued in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The first, SI No. 21 of 2020, declared the Coronavirus Disease 2019 as a notifiable infectious disease in line with Section 9 of the Public Health Act. The second, SI No. 22 of 2020, set out measures aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19. This includes mandatory quarantine measures for patients and those suspected of suffering from Covid-19. However, other measures, such as restrictions on movement of people, mandatory wearing of face masks, and the prohibition of gatherings of more than 50 people, are not backed up by any legal instrument. There have been separate calls from constitutional lawyer, John Sangwa, and a local NGO, the Chapter One Foundation, to declare a state of emergency or state of disaster, and to issue further legislation to ensure that the rule of law and human rights are upheld. However, these proposals have been ignored, leading to concerns of illegal enforcement and abuse of power.
So far, there has been a mostly positive reaction from the public towards the government’s actions, although there was some discontent about foreigners being allowed to enter the country without enforced quarantine, which was seen as a high risk to the Zambian population (this has now been changed to mandatory quarantine of 14 days for anyone entering Zambia, including returning residents). However, enforcement of regulations and restrictions is not easy, due to limited state capacity. Already there have been some incidents of violence as social distancing is enforced, with involvement of the Zambia Police sparking criticism from stakeholders, including the Human Rights Commission. The situation is therefore likely to create unrest as it develops within the context of a perfect storm: high food prices, increased unemployment, political tensions, low copper prices, (temporary) closure of mines, debt crisis and the lack of fiscal space.
ESID research on Zambia has shown that, under the current political settlement, the country is hindered in its response to the pandemic: while the government seems to be listening to medical advice, politics often overrules formal institutions and technocratic advice. So far, there has been a lack of political leadership – President Edgar Lungu has only appeared twice since the outbreak in pre-recorded sessions. There is a strong sense that the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party’s focus remains on 2021 elections, with Lungu already declared as the PF presidential candidate, despite controversy regarding his eligibility to run for a third term.
Money has been made readily available for political purposes, such as by-elections, without similar commitments to setting aside money to address Covid-19, where the government seems to be relying on ‘well-wishers’ and partners. Also, some of the masks to be handed out to the public are going to be branded PF, a move that has been defended by government spokesperson and Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services, Dora Siliya. This instrumental deployment of political survival strategies means that Zambia may miss the opportunity generated by its particular type of political settlement to engineer a more coherent and legitimate response.
However, the Covid-19 crisis does seem to have opened up some space for more technocratic actors and viewpoints to come to the fore of policy discussions, something that has been difficult in the context of two-decade-long heightened inter-elite rivalries in Zambia and elsewhere in Africa.  Some ministers have equally been taking a prominent role in their respective fields. This includes Dr Chitalu Chilufya, Minister of Health, who has been leading the medical response, Stephen Kampyongo, Minister of Home Affairs, who has been uncharacteristically critical of the use of violence to enforce the restrictions, and Dr Bwalya Ng’andu, Minister of Finance, who has been working on mitigating the economic costs of Covid-19.
Importantly, there has been a more public discussion of Zambia’s financial crisis, an issue that has been downplayed by politicians and around which technocrats are usually sidelined. On 20 April, the Minister of Finance, Governor of the Bank of Zambia, Secretary to the Treasurer and the Commissioner General of the Zambia Revenue Authority gave a press conference referencing economic challenges and Zambia’s request for IMF support at the end of 2019, which would usually be taboo subjects in public statements. A few days ago, the G20 announced a package of measures as part of an action plan to tackle the coronavirus globally; however, as a middle-income country, Zambia does not qualify for support under the IMF’s Catastrophic Containment and Relief Trust. Minister Ng’andu announced Zambia is in bilateral discussions regarding possible suspension of debt service payments, but any rescheduling of debt payments would need to be under stringent conditions, as there is little trust in the government to handle funds, due to high levels of corruption that continue to be reported by the Auditor General Office and the Financial Intelligence Centre.
The effects of the pandemic and of the measures to reduce transmission of Covid-19 will hit the poorest hardest. Amid calls for social protection to form a key part of mitigation and recovery responses, cash transfers have been widely adopted in response to the crisis. However, Zambia’s social cash transfer programme had reportedly been reduced in scale before the pandemic began, reflecting uneven levels of political commitment to the scheme. With debt servicing costs at almost 50 percent of domestic revenue and social protection declining from 4 percent to 2.4 percent as a share of the total 2020 budget, additional funding seems unlikely under the current circumstances. Restrictions will also severely affect informal traders, who provide the majority of food to the urban poor, and are not protected by the social security enjoyed by the formal sector or by poverty-targeted measures like cash transfers. Additionally, health services are underfunded, although, following medical advice, mass recruitment of doctors and nurses is taking place. There is also a continued role for trusted international organisations, including the WHO, Red Cross and CDC.
However, and as a political settlements analysis would predict, these limited efforts to increase service delivery to mitigate the effects of Covid-19 are being combined with increased repression, with the government starting to use the crisis to crack down on critics. This can be understood as part of wider strategies of dominance engaged by the ruling party, including a rise in political repression, identified in a recent ESID working paper.  For example, independent media platforms have been shut down, notably The Post newspaper in June 2016 and Prime TV on 9 April this year, removing critical voices and intimidating other media outlets. Civil society has also faced repressive interventions, but continues to act as an opposition force with resistance to some of the Covid-19 measures coming from the Law Association of Zambia, Chapter One Foundation and the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection. Based on previous successes of Zambia’s civil society as a countervailing power, when opposition parties have been largely absent or suppressed, their efforts are paramount in a context where Covid-related restrictions are being used to undermine democratic freedoms around the world.
This is a rapidly evolving situation with events on the ground changing day by day, making it hard to predict the direction of travel. As Zambia is only at the beginning of the Covid-19 outbreak, it is too early to say whether the response will continue to be driven by health experts and scientists, or whether politicians will attempt to demonstrate their leadership credentials in the face of this crisis.