To fight virus, Zimbabwe sends home 90% of government staff

HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe's public services are paralyzed as the government ordered a near shutdown of operations to minimize the spread of COVID-19 amid a spike in infections and deaths.

The southern African country is on a tight lockdown imposed in early January and last week the government ordered that only 10% of its employees should report for work to reduce transmission of the coronavirus.

The virus is affecting top echelons of government, with four Zimbabwean Cabinet ministers having died of COVID-19 so far, three within the past two weeks.

Usually crowded government offices were deserted on Monday, with officials only attending to emergencies such as issuing burial orders.

Some people waited dejected outside government offices, even though guards told them to return home.

One woman said she waited more than four hours to get a death certificate in order to bury a relative.

At the passports office, officials were only handling special cases such as people needing emergency passports, and only after showing proof that they have permits to work in the foreign countries where they had to return.

Skeleton staff in the education ministry was only dealing with issues related to examinations that are underway. Zimbabwe has delayed reopening schools except for students writing exams.

Zimbabwe, like many other African countries, initially recorded low numbers of COVID-19 but has recently experienced a spike in cases. There are fears that a new, more infectious variant of the virus came to the country when scores of thousands of Zimbabweans living in South Africa returned home for the holiday season.

The country of 15 million has seen its cumulative total of confirmed cases increase to 31,320, including 1,005 deaths, on Jan. 24, up from 10,000 cases including 277 deaths at the beginning of December, according to government figures.

The virus is affecting top echelons of government, with four Zimbabwean Cabinet ministers having died of COVID-19 so far, three within the past two weeks.

Zimbabwe has not yet received any vaccines. Mnangagwa said last week that government health officials are still deciding which vaccine to acquire.

“Our experts are very close to finalizing the course to recommend … and it will be quite soon,” he said.