By Ruramiso Mashumba: Marondera, Zimbabwe
People everywhere are concerned about coronavirus. Here in Zimbabwe, we are more concerned about the staggering negative effects on the economy due to the lockdown.
That’s because in my country you’re much more likely to die from lack of clean water, hunger and malnutrition than from Covid-19.
We have to take the pandemic seriously, of course. It has killed more than 294,000 people around the planet so far. It has shut down the world’s most advanced economies. We may be about to plunge into a global depression.
“Humankind has never had a more urgent task than creating broad immunity for coronavirus,” says Bill Gates, whose foundation is the planet’s leading funder of vaccines.
Responding to coronavirus, Zimbabwe has restricted travel and large gatherings. Our lockdown has closed schools, sporting events, and swimming pools. Last month, we marked the 40th anniversary of our nation’s independence—but not with the big public celebrations that we had looked forward to holding.
We’re doing our part to stop the spread of the disease.
That hasn’t stopped its arrival. By early May, we’d counted thirty-seven confirmed cases of coronavirus. Half of these have recovered, and we have recorded four deaths.
Yet the danger of coronavirus can feel remote, especially compared with our other afflictions. In the first four months of this year, for example, more than 200,000 Zimbabweans have contracted malaria and more than 150 people have died from it, according to the United Nations.
That’s not even our biggest health problem: More than 1.3 million Zimbabweans live with HIV, and the disease kills tens of thousands each year.
Separately, millions of people don’t get enough to eat. Nearly half of the rural population is in either a “crisis” or “emergency” situation, reports the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification, a standard used by the United Nations and others to measure access to food.
Among Zimbabwean children between ages of six months and 23 months, only 11 percent consume a “minimum acceptable diet,” according to the Food Security Information Network. This is a crucial age for development—and the menace of malnutrition has lifelong effects, preventing people from realizing their full potential.
Meanwhile, we face a global food crisis: Arif Husain of the World Food Program recently told the New York Times that by the end of 2020, “an estimated 265 million people could be pushed to the brink of starvation.”
Zimbabwe’s food insecurity has many sources, such as bad harvests, below-normal rainfall, hyperinflation, extreme poverty, and poor infrastructure. Coronavirus will compound the problem: Farmers who grow perishable food are losing their livelihoods because lockdown orders don’t stop fruits and vegetables from ripening.
Yet this also seems like just another challenge among the many we already face.
We can’t even depend on water. One of the best ways to prevent the spread of any disease, including Covid-19, is to practice simple hygiene, such as washing your hands routinely and thoroughly. Many Zimbabweans cannot take this simple step because they lack access to running water.
Even without coronavirus, this represents a major vulnerability to our national health.
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the severity of these problems, and we won’t solve any of them soon. But we can take small steps that begin to address them.
That’s why I’ve joined with two other women who also farm in sub-Saharan Africa: Slyvia Tetteh of Ghana and Sussana Phiri of Zambia. We met last fall in the United States, participating in Cornell University’s Alliance for Science program, which aims to teach farmers in the developing world about agricultural technologies and how we can use them to grow more food.
We’ve launched Women Who Farm, an initiative that recognizes our common challenges as female farmers. Women, for example, produce 70 percent of Africa’s food but own only 20 percent of the land. We also need more access to equipment, crop-protection products, and basic knowledge. Our goal is to elevate women’s voices and stories—and also to build a leadership-development program for mentorship and support. This is a long-term strategy whose full benefits may take a lifetime to realize.
Every woman who becomes a better farmer becomes a champion of food security.
Coronavirus is one of many problems—and no matter which problem we’re trying to defeat, women who farm are a big part of the solution.
Ruramiso Mashumba grows snap peas, maize, whole brown rice, sorghum, millet and gum trees in eastern Zimbabwe. She is the National Youth Chairperson for the Zimbabwe Farmers Union and is a member of the Global Farmer Network. www.globalfarmernetwork.org