Zambian President Edgar Lungu. Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI
Zambian President Edgar Lungu. Picture: REUTERS/TIKSA NEGERI

On the streets of the Zambian capital Lusaka, residents are worried about the possible spread of the coronavirus in their country.

"The deeper you think about Covid-19, the more you wonder if your breathing rate is normal," says Mwewa Chitambala, a building administrator in the city.

Journalist Kapulu Manjimela expresses a similar sentiment. "The more I think and watch news channels, I actually feel my chest in pain, and think I have a pain in my throat," she says. "So today I told myself no more watching, and I am not feeling those things. It’s better to watch cartoons whenever I’m tempted to change to news channels — it’s so depressing."

Zambia has so far been spared the brunt of the global pandemic, which at the time of going to print had reached 1.4-million confirmed cases around the world. The country has a caseload of just 39, of which whom five have recovered, and one death has been recorded.

All the cases in Lusaka trace back to a cluster of people who travelled to Pakistan (and those who came in contact with them), according to health minister Dr Chitalu Chilufya, while two cases in the Copperbelt involve a couple who returned from a holiday in France.

"This cluster — the cohort — is under tight confinement," says Zambia National Public Health Institute director Prof Victor Mukonka. "We’ve ensured we shield the public."

But while the country spread of the virus in the country has, so far at least, been contained, the indirect effects are starting to bite. Already, finance minister Bwalya Ng’andu has revised his economic outlook.

"You may recall that during my 2020 budget address, I projected that the Zambian economy would grow at 3.2%," he told journalists late last month. "In view of the recent developments, growth is now projected to be lower, at around 2%."

In 2018, travel and tourism was the fastest-growing sector in Zambia, contributing $1.8bn to the economy (6% of GDP) and employing more than 300,000 people, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. But disruptions in international air transport from the US, Europe, Asia and within Africa have put a severe dampener on the sector. Emirates Airlines, RwandAir and SAA have all suspended flights into Zambia, while other carriers have scaled down their operations.

"Consequently, some hotels and lodges have already reported significant reductions in bed occupancy rates, to less than 20% from an average of 50% for the same period last year," Ng’andu said.

By late last month, the sector had already lost $6.9m for this year alone due to cancelled bookings and decreased numbers of tourists, according to tourism minister Ronald Chitotela.

Near the prime tourist destination of Victoria Falls, the David Livingstone Safari Lodge & Spa has closed its doors until at least May 31, when management will review the situation.

"This is due to the unexpected impact of the Covid-19 virus and the resulting unprecedented number of cancellations received to date, the [cancellation] of most flights into and out of Livingstone, the lack of self-drive bookings and any local support," says group MD Steve McCormick. "Business has literally and understandably slowed down to a trickle."

The copper sector, an economic lifeline for the country, is feeling the pinch too. Zambia is the second-largest copper producer in Africa after the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the metal accounts for more than 80% of its exports and foreign exchange earnings. As at March 25, copper prices were down 23% from January, from $6,165 a ton to $4,754 a ton.

"Copper export earnings are expected to decline substantially by more than $1bn in 2020 if the situation persists," according to finance minister Ng’andu. "Mineral royalty tax collection will also decline."

For economic and business consultant Chibamba Kanyama, the depreciation of the kwacha is of particular concern. It’s lost more than 20% in value, and is trading at about ZK17.50/$, which will mean higher debt service costs for the country.

"The depreciation of the kwacha will have far deeper consequences on livelihoods in Zambia than the coronavirus itself. Static incomes in the face of a weak local currency means the purchasing power of the already vulnerable people is weakened further. Even the middle class will see demotion of status in a few months," says Kanyama.

"The response to the depreciating kwacha needs very serious attention and [we] pray that the minister of finance is quietly engaging critical [international] partners to bail us out."

Then there’s the ripple effect of disrupted supply chains as a result of economic lockdowns and border closures.

SA is Zambia’s largest import partner, accounting for 30% of Zambia’s total imports. The UN Comtrade database put annual imports from SA at a value of $2.73bn in 2018 (the most recent available statistics). But with SA under lockdown, Ng’andu fears a knock-on effect on manufacturing, mining, and the wholesale and retail trade (though a check by the FM of Shoprite and Pick n Pay stores in the Copperbelt city of Chingola showed no shortage of SA goods on the shelves).

It’s already having an effect on revenue collection, with VAT and customs duty for March expected to be 25% below target.

Chilufya says the government is working with its bilateral partners to ensure there is no disruption in the movement of goods and services.

"To this effect, truck drivers who are being admitted into the country are being screened at the border and those who are found to be asymptomatic are being entered into our tracking records and escorted to points where they are being taken into mandatory quarantine places. So far, we have received 125 trucks into Livingstone and the drivers have been offloading and are now quarantined in a facility of isolation," he says. "This is part of the government’s strategy to minimise importation of Covid-19 from … high-risk jurisdictions."

On March 26, President Edgar Lungu announced the first official measures to contain the spread of the virus. He closed schools, colleges and universities, and restricted international flights to Kenneth Kaunda International Airport to ensure efficient and effective screening and tracking of travellers by health authorities.

Though Zambia is not under a total lockdown — travellers are still allowed entry into the country — those who exhibit symptoms upon screening are quarantined in a medical facility for treatment, while all those who enter the country and show no symptoms of the virus are required to self-quarantine for at least 14 days at their own cost.

Prominent lawyer Dickson Jere, for example, was contacted by the Zambia National Public Health Institute on his return to the country in mid-March, and ordered to self-quarantine. "Today I had a wrap-up call with the … institute after the expiry of my 14 days. So I will be part of the statistics … of those ‘integrated into society’ after undergoing the 14-day [quarantine]," he says.

As part of government’s containment strategy, Lungu also ordered that public gatherings such as conferences, weddings, funerals and festivals be restricted to not more than 50 people. Restaurants may operate only on a take-away and delivery basis and all bars, nightclubs, cinemas, gyms and casinos have been ordered to close.

It’s taken a toll on business owners. Mwila Frederick, for example, has had to shut his small one-room bar, and the stock of Chibuku (local traditional beer) he ordered the day before the closure has now gone bad.

"I also have to think about how I will survive for the next two weeks when I will not [be able to] open my bar," he says.

"My income is not much, but at least it is daily, and I provide for my family from it. So this closure is bad for a small businessman like me."

Linda Phiri, who sells vegetables at a local market in Chingola, says the support the traders are receiving from the local councillor has meant they can continue earning a daily living.

"We were afraid of losing business when the president announced that gatherings of more than 50 people will not be allowed," she says.

"Here in the market we are many. But now, our councillor and his people have provided dishes and hand sanitisers, and have been educating us on the hygiene practices that will help us to serve our customers without any risks. So our fear is gone, and we have continued our business even if there are few customers now. They are afraid of coming to places like [the] market."

Though the government’s current measures would seem to be yielding some positive results — at the time of going to print, it had not recorded a new case since April 2 — the fact that the borders remain open has not gone down well with many, and calls for a lockdown have grown.

"To a doctor, one death is one too many. Life must come first, at all times and in all circumstances," says Dr Aaron Mujajati, former registrar of the Health Professions Council of Zambia who now works as a specialist physician in Lusaka.

He says if a lockdown is going to save lives, the government must choose between saving lives or saving the economy.

"If you come to think of it, the economy will take a severe beating with or without a lockdown," says Mujajati. "My perspective is biased because we are trained to think and take action that saves life first and the rest is secondary. There is a maxim in medical practice that says: ‘Life before limb.’ It means that I must save your life first, and deal with the rest later."

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