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Informal sector bears the brunt of COVID-19

The measures put in place to halt the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have landed a heavy blow on the informal sector in Zimbabwe and a severe economic shock.

According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 62 percent of the world’s active labour force earn their living in the informal economy. The International Monetary Fund (2018) argued that Africa possesses the most significant informal economy. Likewise, the majority of Zimbabwean livelihoods depend on the informal sector.  The negative economic growth has been worsened by the scramble to curtail the deadly disease.

In late March, Zimbabwe began a three-week lockdown that closed public markets and shut down informal trading, leaving the country’s high proportion of informal workers without access to earnings. Although the government announced a small one-time cash payment for individuals in early April, five months later, the traders have not received anything.

On June 11, the President of Zimbabwe announced that informal sector enterprises could operate on the condition that they registered with local authorities as part of the government efforts to formalize their operations, this posed a challenge to small vendors and informal traders.

Borders were shut down prohibiting Informal Cross Border Traders (ICBTs) who travel to neighbouring countries like South Africa to order wares for reselling in order to eke a living.

Bouey (2020) reveals that informal businesses are the engine of the economy in most countries. Like any pandemic, the lowest-paid workers and informal traders are likely to be more affected economically. The informal traders are affected because they are neither able to work remotely or possess savings to cater for any economic downturn.

To cope with the tough times, some informal traders have resorted to running makeshift stores. Car owners have turned their vehicles into roadside shops, selling basic goods to earn a living for themselves and their families. With their car doors and trunks wide open by the side of busy roads, eager sellers display a colourful array of goods.

Some traders have resorted to digital platforms in order to sell their products. They are using mainly WhatsApp as a platform to market their products and services and to get in touch with their clients. Some traders who have utilised this platform include barbers, hairdressers, vendors, tailors and boutique owners among others.

Lockdown restrictions on vendors and informal traders have resulted in child labour. This has forced informal traders to send their children to sell wares like vegetables, chunks and airtime door to door exposing them to contracting COVID-19 while women remain at home doing other chores like queuing for water that comes in bowsers.

The impact of COVID-19 is severe to the informal sector of Zimbabwe as attributed to lower resilient levels. It shall be a struggle for informal traders to rebuild connections with their former networks as the supply chain has been disrupted. The government of Zimbabwe should develop long-term solutions for future pandemics to minimize the adverse effects on informal traders’ livelihoods. Civil Society organisations like Bulawayo Vendors and Traders Association (BVTA) will be there to compliment the government.

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