COVID-19 In-depth Analysis

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on border communities: the case of Chipinge, Zimbabwe

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on border communities in the Chipinge district in south-east Zimbabwe, which shares borders with Mozambique and South Africa. The borders are the lifeline of the Chipinge communities, and the efforts of the three governments to regulate the movement of people from either side of the borders, to prevent the spread of COVID-19, have negatively affected the economic and social interactions of the border communities. One unfortunate side-effect is that these measures have increased the space for illicit trade and organised crime along the borders as people try to earn a living and interact, in spite of the COVID-19 restrictions.

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World Bank / Sambrian Mbaabu
World Bank / Sambrian Mbaabu

The porous nature of the borders during the border closures and lockdown (which started in Zimbabwe on 30 March 2020) has kept local communities on their toes, since people increasingly use illegal entry points (bush paths) that expose them to further dangers besides the pandemic. Criminal activities, such as the smuggling of goods, have increased as people try to make ends meet. This has put people’s lives at risk, as there is great danger of also “smuggling” the virus into their communities. For communities in Chipinge, COVID-19 has introduced more suffering within suffering, since many are still trying to recover from the ravages of Cyclone Idai, uncertainty due to the earth tremors that always hit Chipinge from Mozambique, and the impact of the Mozambique civil war. However, for some it is “business as usual” as they transition to a “new normal”. 

Cross-border trade and job opportunities expose the Chipinge communities in Zimbabwe and Mozambique to #COVID19, but they are dependent on these for their livelihoods.

The social and cultural ties that have long existed among communities from either side of the borders have been compromised as a result of the pandemic. Along the borders, migration has long been the order of the day as people responded to economic, political and social forces in their countries. Many Mozambicans made Zimbabwe their new home during Mozambique’s civil war from 1975. This resulted in most of them being housed as refugees at the Tongogara refugee camp in Chipinge, where some are still found to this day. Since colonial times, Mozambicans have been crossing the border into Zimbabwe, mingling with communities such as those in Chipinge to access services such as schools, clinics and grinding mills, as well as employment in the many estates in Chipinge district. The situation began to change from the mid-2000s, with an increased flow of people from Zimbabwe to Mozambique due to the economic meltdown in the country.It became common for Chipinge communities to walk to the closest shopping centres in Mozambique, such as Maridheya, Espungabeira and Gogoi, for basic commodities. Also, the discovery of gold and diamonds around Mozambique’s Chimanimani region in 2004 attracted artisanal miners from Zimbabwe into the Mt Binga area goldfields. Most of these artisanal miners come from Chimanimani and Chipinge and have established social ties in Mozambique through marriages, kinship and ethnicity, resulting in migratory families along the borders. In the minds and lives of these people – even today – the border does not exist at all. People move between the two countries comfortably to access various services, and to them this is acceptable and normal.

Movements across the border have also been made easy since there are no prohibitive physical barriers along the routes, such as big rivers, fences and difficult terrain. Demarcations are not clearly established in some border areas, to the extent that one would not know if they were in Zimbabwe or Mozambique. This interaction along the Chipinge-Mozambique border has created a cosmopolitan society on either side that is only separated by a faint line. What appears to be two societies is actually one. In such border scenarios, declaring a country lockdown and closing its borders may not be an effective way of stopping the spread of COVID-19. 

While the measures introduced by the Government of Zimbabwe were adopted to safeguard the welfare and health of its people, they had profound consequences on most communities in general, and border communities in particular. The communities in Chipinge district, whose lives were and are still dependent on trans-border activities, have been greatly affected by the changes brought by the pandemic. The Chipinge border is dotted with communities that survive primarily through farming, but they supplement their proceeds by trading with communities in Mozambique. During times of economic hardship, the border has become their lifeline. 

Zimbabwe’s current hyperinflation means that most people from Chipenge district travel into Mozambique to buy basic commodities that they can no longer afford to buy in Zimbabwe. In the same way, communities along the Mozambican border travel to Chipinge to shop. Such activities, prevalent over a long period of time, have established a strong cross-border sociocultural and economic clout that has diminished the impact of the border, while at the same time offering a source of livelihood. 

With borders closed and strictly monitored due to COVID-19, crossing to the other side for these communities has become a menace. The fear of being arrested by security forces from either side has made people more afraid of the police than the virus. At the same time, the need to earn a living has made some brave the elements and conclude that the virus is not a threat to their lives. Still others are misled by misconceptions about the virus, with sentiments that it affects only those living in particular areas and not those in the rural areas, where the majority reside.

The porous nature of the border has enabled interactions to carry on between the two communities, amidst COVID-19. The border estates – such as Jersey, Zona, Ratelshoek and Southdown – also still depend on labour from Mozambique.Some of these labourers, who started working in these estates a long time ago, have established temporary bases around their workplaces, and constantly return home to their families. This has resulted in dual homes, making movements across the border appear normal. 

Artisanal gold miners are also crossing the border via bush paths to Mozambique. Since the 2004 discovery of gold in the Mt Binga area, illegal gold miners from neighbouring communities in Zimbabwe have thronged the area. These illegal gold miners circumvent those areas they know are staffed by security forces, and frequent these mining areas. Some of these miners spend weeks, if not months, in Mozambique, after which they return to their families in Chipinge and other surrounding areas. Thus, the borders have remained “open” – despite their closure and the lockdowns declared by the two countries.

With increased numbers of local COVID-19 transmissions in Zimbabwe, health experts are worried, as these transmissions are difficult for them to trace. Health experts have blamed the increase in local transmissions on COVID-19-positive patients escaping from quarantine centres and entering the country illegally through its porous borders. Thus, the hive of activity along the border is exposing Chipinge communities to the pandemic. This has happened despite warnings by health experts to members of the public against harbouring border jumpers, who would not have been tested for COVID-19.

Fear for these border communities, especially with the rise of local transmissions, has resulted in some task forces on COVID-19 relying on traditional leaders to help enforce the lockdown in rural areas. These task forces were mandated to curb cases of border jumping while, at the same time, encouraging communities to report cases of returnees living in rural areas after entering the country illegally. Thus, rural communities in many parts of the country, and Chipinge in particular, have to adjust to these new requirements. However, reporting one another to traditional leaders becomes another challenge if the new requirement is accepted by the community. This could sow seeds of conflict among community members, which may end up affecting the strong social fabric known to exist in the rural areas.

Mr Owen Mangiza and Dr Joshua Chakawa are lecturers in the Department of History at Midlands State University. 

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