Zimbabwe’s vaccine decree leaves workers in a bind

Covid-19 vaccines being administered at a hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe. File photo.
Covid-19 vaccines being administered at a hospital in Harare, Zimbabwe. File photo.
Image: Kabelo Mokoena

The Zimbabwean government may not yet be punishing government workers who have not received the Covid-19 vaccine, but its directive is still in full force.

In early September, the government issued a directive that by October 15, all civil servants would have to be vaccinated or else they would not be allowed at their work stations, among other punitive measures, including salary deductions. Parastatals and many big companies followed suit.

Before the decree, there was no express policy dealing with vaccination mandates in the country. The government insisted vaccination was voluntary, but senior government officials, including President Emmerson Mnangagwa, kept making announcements compelling citizens to be vaccinated. Some perceived this to be coercive.

A worker at one of the leading supermarket chains, OK Zimbabwe, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation, said he was vaccinated to keep his job. “Management insisted that we all get immunised but some, like myself, were reluctant because we were not sure about many things regarding the vaccines. However, in the end we were forced to be vaccinated because they started sending us on forced unpaid leave and they were threatening to fire us if we would not vaccinate within a given period.”

The company’s CEO, Max Karombo, was not available for comment. The workers’ committee chairperson, Wellington Ncube, said as far as he was aware, no workers had approached the body with any complaints and the company had no mandatory vaccination policy. 

Before the vaccination directive was issued, one of the country’s biggest trade unions, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), lodged an application with the high court seeking an interdict, arguing that vaccination mandates were a breach of individual constitutional rights.

Responding to queries on what the government was doing to enforce the directive after the lapse of the cut-off date, social welfare minister Paul Mavima said the directive would be implemented “as per the letter of the law in respect of those who have deliberately avoided vaccination”.

“Those who have not been vaccinated due to factors that are not deliberate on their part will have until 31 December 2021 to be vaccinated,” Mavima said.

The country’s vice president Constantino Chiwenga, who is also the health and child care minister, criticised “individuals who are taking [the] government to court over mandatory vaccination”. 

Chiwenga said, “While people have their individual rights and freedoms, those rights can be limited in the interest of public health such as the Covid-19 pandemic, which is ravaging the world. A person can say he or she has individual rights and freedoms — it’s your right — but you don’t need to go out there and expose other people to Covid-19 because you are not vaccinated.

“Those who are suing government have their mission to set an agenda to the outside world to believe there is confusion in Zimbabwe. No, we are trying to protect the general public. We won’t allow that.”

Unsafe working conditions 

But some remain adamant that mandatory vaccination is wrong. Tafadzwa Munodawafa is a teacher and the leader of the Educators Union of Zimbabwe. Munodawafa said it is not only unconstitutional but grossly unfair of the government to force workers to get vaccinated when it is not doing anything to guarantee safety at work.

“Teachers are being forced to go to class and teach but they are not provided with adequate [personal protective equipment]. We all know that there have [been] reports of outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools across the country but government is downplaying the situation,” she said. 

“The safety and health of teachers as well as pupils is at risk because government is not providing adequate resources. Teachers have for a long time [been] demanding better salaries and improved working conditions but government ignores this and instead slaps the teacher in the face by imposing vaccination mandates without addressing their grievances. We say no to this and we will continue to fight for our rights.”

Another teacher representative organisation, the Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, recently protested the mandatory vaccination directive, dubbed the “vax eduprotest”, which it said was aimed at educating citizens on the need for vaccination, while resisting vaccination mandates.

“Mandatory vaccination violates employee’s freedom of choice and right to dignity. The policy further disregards the existence of underlying medical conditions which bar some employees from being vaccinated. The union further notes that some members are failing to access the vaccine for various reasons, which include inaccessibility of clinics in rural areas and inadequate supply of the first and the second jab. It will be grossly unfair to punish these public servants for failing to achieve the impossible,” part of the petition read.

No vaccination capacity

At its beginning, Zimbabwe’s vaccination programme was lauded as one of the best in Southern Africa, getting people inoculated before the region’s financial powerhouse SA. But it has been faced with myriad problems, including the movement of vaccines to remote parts of the country.

Zimbabwe’s health delivery system has also been affected by the country’s economic problems and failing infrastructure, which has meant many health workers have emigrated, leaving public health institutions seriously understaffed. This shortage has also had a negative effect on the Covid-19 vaccination programme. 

“We have no capacity to vaccinate all our population. It cannot then be reasonable to prevent people from getting access to workplaces or public services when the government [has] no capacity to vaccinate the majority of the citizens. As for the private sector companies that have adopted vaccination mandates, [they] argue that they want to make the workplace safe but most of them are accepting customers [who] are not necessarily vaccinated. So, in a supermarket for instance, a till operator may serve hundreds of unvaccinated customers, and therefore the argument becomes illogical ... If they really wanted to make the workplace safe then they would do some kind of screening for the clients as well,” said Peter Mutasa, former president of the ZCTU.

Rather than making unilateral decisions, Mutasa said the government should follow SA’s example. It came up with the amended consolidated direction on occupational health and safety measures in certain workplaces, and used the Tripartite Negotiating Committee, which brings together the government, employees and labour, to come up with a comprehensive policy that gives clear guidelines on vaccination.

Norman Matara is a medical doctor and the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights. “As an organisation we have a strong belief in vaccination and we encourage the rest of Zimbabwean citizens who have not yet been vaccinated to do so,” Matara said. “But we also believe that at the moment we really do not need to be mandating vaccination or making vaccination mandatory. 

“I think that there are more cons than pros because we still have many people believing in myths and misconceptions about these vaccines. There are so many conspiracy theories going around and if you are then going to force people, we are only going to fuel those conspiracies and it will deter many people from getting vaccinated.”

Matara said that vaccination mandates would drive people to buy certificates, negating the purpose of inoculating the populace and skewing the numbers. 

“We have also noticed that people now have access to fake vaccination certificates, and with this mandating, people who have not yet been convinced to get the vaccine will be left with no option but to acquire such fake certificates, which will give us a false vaccination picture of the country. So, we really think that the best way forward is to continue to educate people about the vaccine and to make sure that we get the buy-in of the citizens through giving them knowledge through opinion or community leaders so that they are able to make an informed decision regarding vaccination,” he said.

In the initial stages of the vaccination programme, queues formed throughout the day at various vaccination centres as citizens turned out in droves to get vaccinated. But lately the momentum has slowed and some experts have expressed concern over apparent hesitancy to get the jab.

The Zimbabwe government has set a target of vaccinating 10 million people by the end of the year. The figure represents 60% of the country’s population, but so far just over a fifth of the targeted population has received a second jab, while 3.393 million people had received their first dose as of 9 November. It remains to be seen whether the target will be reached.

This article was first published by New Frame.

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