Minister gags mayors in row over announcement of coronavirus cases

'There's no legislation proscribing local authorities from communicating on their work'

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Gag order ... Local government minister July Moyo has banned mayors from announcing coronavirus cases

HARARE – Local Government Minister July Moyo on Saturday gagged mayors from announcing coronavirus cases, as a row erupted over the actual number of cases in the country.

Harare mayor Herbert Gomba announced early Saturday that Zimbabwe had recorded a further two coronavirus cases, but this was later disputed by health minister Obadiah Moyo who confirmed only one more case to bring the national total to two.

The ministry of health followed that announcement by revealing that there was a “probable” third case of a Chinese man who recently travelled to South Korea, New York and Tanzania, but so far tests had proved inconclusive and further tests are scheduled for South Africa.

The City of Harare owns the infectious diseases Wilkins Hospital, which has been designated as the main facility to handle coronavirus cases.

Moyo sent his ministry’s permanent secretary Zvinechimwe Churu to read the riot act to mayors.

The message sent to mayors via WhatsApp carried the title: ‘Forwarded from Hon Minister July Moyo’. In it, Moyo instructed Churu to “Please send message to all mayors, chairmen, town clerks and secretaries that announcements are made by the minister of health only or authorised by HE (President Emmerson Mnangagwa). State of disaster requires that discipline. Please advise them immediately.”

The opposition MDC, whose councillors run most municipalities including Harare, accused Moyo of overstepping his mandate.

The party said in a statement: “There’s no legislation proscribing local authorities from communicating on their work. The minister is not given powers to take over functions of local authorities as he would, under section 34 of the Civil Protection Act where he can take over functions of Civil Protection organisations.

“He wants to gag mayors, but the Public Health Act does not gag local authorities. It only bars publication of cures, but even then excludes local authorities. In terms of the constitution, local authorities govern at their own initiative subject to a law specifically proscribing certain functions.”

The MDC questioned whether information the ministry of health was sharing with the public was credible.

“Health minister Obadiah Moyo must begin to give more credible information. He has been untruthful even to parliament during question time,” the party said.

Many Zimbabweans distrust their government, which insisted until March 20 that there was no coronavirus in the country, even as officials admitted only 14 people had been tested since the outbreak in central China late last year.

Health minister Obadiah Moyo admitted this week that 502 Chinese nationals had been allowed to enter Zimbabwe since January.

The first case to be confirmed was that of a 38-year-old male Victoria Falls resident who returned from Manchester in England. A day later, a 30-year-old man was confirmed as the second case. He has been admitted to Wilkins.

Authorities say a third case, believed to be that of a Chinese doctor, was “inconclusive” and specimens have been sent to South Africa for further testing. It is this case that Harare mayor Gomba said was positive, which is disputed by the government.

Agnes Mahomva, the health ministry permanent secretary, accused Gomba of jumping the gun by making the announcement, said: “Remember our ministry is the one that tests Covid-19 at our laboratory, and they (City of Harare) can only know that position through our ministry.”

Gomba said his council was mobilising $10 million to increase the capacity of Wilkins Hospital to accommodate between 100 and 500 patients in readiness for a potential explosion of cases.

Zimbabwe only has 16 ventilators, vital equipment which doctors say is needed for serious patients who have difficulties breathing.