Chido Nyaruwata
6 min readOct 8, 2020

Transitioning from “returnee” to “citizen” in Zimbabwe

On 13th July 2020, I returned from Tokyo to Harare, Zimbabwe. On this day, I became one of numerous dreaded “returnees”. An individual who threatened the security and health of fellow Zimbabweans as I had come from “outside”. It was outside the boundaries of Zimbabwe, where COVID-19 raged rampantly. Those from “out there” were likely to infect members of the Zimbabwean society.

Well, that’s how the Zimbabwean state initially constructed and treated individuals returning home. Framed as potential carriers of the “deadly” coronavirus rather than Zimbabwean citizens longing to be reunited with their families as the world turned upside down; we were dangerous and had to be contained.

Zimbabweans from the diaspora and those infected with COVID-19 were stripped of their nationality, personhood, and humanity. The “state-sanctioned stigma” against these individuals as articulated by Everjoice Win was far more deadly than the virus itself.

Health workers screen people visiting a public hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 21, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi — Image is taken from A Report by Human Rights Watch

The strategy of containment included testing upon entry. Secondly, it established government quarantine centers. Returnees were sent to quarantine centers close to their place of residence for a period of 7–21 days. They would be released to their families and the broader society after a second negative COVID-19 test.

The country’s 44 public quarantine centers included schools, training centers, youth centers, and hotels. From June 2020, the state allowed returnees to stay at private quarantine facilities ( Sunday News, 2020). Individuals with financial means could stay at privately owned hotels where they paid for a personal room and meals.

State and private quarantine facilities are required to follow infection prevention and control mechanisms. These standards are guided by the World Health Organisation and put in place by the Ministry of Health and Child Care at quarantine facilities. The measures include hand washing, sanitization, cleaning of surfaces, mask-wearing, physical distancing, health education on COVID-19 management to returnees and staff, and testing ( Zimbabwe Disaster Rapid Response Mechanism, 2020: 13).

Government facilities are to ensure that returnees have sufficient meals, bedding, washing, and laundry facilities in order to maintain good hygiene practices and social distancing.

But this is not the case!

Due to limited test kits and reagents available, individuals at state facilities would only receive the first COVID-19 test several days after their arrival ( Action Contre La Faim, 2020:2). This procedure placed returnees at higher risk of acquiring the virus while staying at the quarantine centers. It is reported that in May 2020 only “32% of facilities monitored and reported details of returnees, 100% of facilities admitted results come late or never, and less than half of facilities were completing routine data collection” ( Action Contre La Faim, 2020:5).

As more and more Zimbabweans came from different corners of the world, these facilities became overwhelmed. They emerged as COVID-19 hotspots. Quarantine facilities close to the South African border [Beitbridge border post] became synonymous with “escapees” as individuals fled the overcrowded public centers due to poor conditions, misinformation, and fear.

An impact assessment of 21 public quarantine centers in Bulawayo, Harare, Mashonaland Central, Manicaland, Masvingo, Matabeleland South, Matabeleland North, and Midlands conducted by the Zimbabwe Disaster Rapid Response Mechanism in July 2020 revealed the following:

A) 90% of the centers had inadequate water supplies;

B) Centers lacked dietary diversity as returnees were mostly served sadza and beans;

C) Limited privacy in lavatories due to broken toilet doors;

D) Variation in laundry management at centers as some cleaned blankets and sheets on-site while others sent laundry to provincial hospitals. In some cases, blankets and sheets were not cleaned but rather piled.

I delayed my return home as I read the horror stories of Zimbabweans being mistreated and underserviced in government quarantine centers. My family used our emergency savings to pay the private quarantine facility fees. We knew this was the more expensive but safer option.

After 8 days at the private facility, and, a horribly intrusive , COVID-19 test; I was allowed to self-isolate at home for 14 days. The second negative COVID-19 test which is only required of returnees, enabled me to step back into society.

Image is taken from Voice of America Article

So, what have I returned to? I’m a citizen of a militarized state which has fully embraced a neoliberal approach to economic development. It’s “open for business” mantra trades the protection of the environment and biodiversity for foreign investment in the extractive industry. Only in the last month did the state ban mining in national parks due to public outcry and a pending court case against a Chinese firm’s coal exploration in Hwange National Park.

I am a citizen of a country with a collapsed public health system in the middle of a pandemic. Our clinics and hospitals are either understaffed or closed due to perennial labour disputes between health professionals and the state employer. Nurses and doctors are currently on strike due to poor working conditions.

As with other civil servants, nurses and doctors are rightly demanding a liveable wage and protective personal equipment. Their current meagre salaries cannot cover basic consumables, rent, transport, children’s school fees, and all other expenses.

Afrobarometer 2017 survey data reveals that 37% of Zimbabweans believe that their ability to get medical care was worse/much worse now than a few years ago (Isbell & Kronke, 2018:10). The impact of the state’s unwillingness to provide a conducive work environment and chronic underfunding of the public health sector has made hospitals and clinic death traps. These facilities often do not have adequate water, staff, medication, and medical equipment to treat patients.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, countless people have shared their relatives’ experiences of dying in car parks of health facilities because they were denied access to care. One of the most heart-breaking stories was of seven babies stillborn in one night at Sally Mugabe Hospital, Harare in July 2020. The pandemic has worsened existing challenges in the public health sector.

I’ve returned to boiling civil discontent with the government. The endemic levels of corruption, extremely high costs of living, starvation, high levels of unemployment, and poor working conditions have left so many people angry!

Economic malaise strikes again in Zimbabwe . 12 years after the hyperinflation period during the 2008 political-economic crisis ; Zimbabwe’s economy is marred by policy inconsistency, austerity, forex shortages and loss of citizen’s employment and income. Rather than facing empty shops with large amounts of bearer cheques – a vast majority of Zimbabweans have empty pockets.

The World Food Programme states that prolonged drought and economic hardships has resulted in families struggling to meet their daily dietary needs ( UNICEF, 2020). Some families in both rural and urban areas are lucky enough to eat one meal a day.

Collectively, these challenges have drawn mixed state responses. Issues pertaining to dissidence are often met with the heavy hands of the security services and judiciary. These institutions are used to beat, imprison, intimidate, torture, and sexually assault “Insurgents”.

Instead of engaging the opposition party and civil society organisations through dialogue; the government treats these bodies as terrorist organisations hell-bent on regime change.

There have been attempts at social welfare interventions during the COVID-19 crisis. Such as providing “cushioning” packages to civil servants and vulnerable households. But what’s the point of a $75 usd COVID-19 allowance if ;

a) there is a backlog in payments this civil servants ;

b) the banks allegedly deduct a percentage of this allowance for bank services charges; &

c) the remaining money is converted to RTGS$, the local currency?

It is such a difficult society to transit back into. But I hope one day I will be a citizen of a democratic Zimbabwe. A country where human rights are fully adhered to. A place where all individuals have livable wages and are treated equally. A Zimbabwe with functioning public health and education systems. A nation that purses sustainable development. A country were mothers joyfully take their healthy babies home after giving birth in a public hospital. This is a Zimbabwe I long to return to.

Chido Nyaruwata

Writer, Digital Storyteller & Photographer | Climate + Gender | Women + Agriculture | African Feminisms | Young Feminist Movements