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Democracy First Responders: Zimbabwe, Munyaradzi Dodo

COVID-19 threatens not only lives and livelihoods, but also governments and democratic institutions. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is profiling our partners and other leaders who have been the “first responders” in our global fight to protect and strengthen democracy. In this new series, #DemocracyFirstResponders, we spoke with an anti-corruption activist in Nepal, a journalist in Zimbabwe, a former government official in Georgia and others to discuss their efforts to prevent democratic backsliding in the time of COVID-19.

For the first episode of this series, our host Travis Green spoke with Munyaradzi “Munya” Dodo, a Zimbabwean journalist who is keeping citizens informed on the pandemic’s developments and holding the government accountable.

You can listen to this conversation and others by subscribing to the Global Podcast on Soundcloud, Apple Podcasts, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts. A transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Green: Munyaradzi “Munya” Dodo is the Editor of OpenParlyZW, a citizen journalism platform in Harare, Zimbabwe. He is also responsible for the B. The Media project, as a part of the Magamba network, an initiative that trains young citizen journalists on how to use new media to express themselves. Through Kalabash Media and Open Parly ZW, Magamba network is giving young Zimbabweans a voice in the corridors of power. He has written for publications such as Foreign Policy and most recently appeared on the BBC to talk about Zimbabwe’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. Most recently, Munya and OpenParlyZW built a platform to track COVID-19 cases in Zimbabwe and are educating Zimbabweans on how to use open source technology to crowdsource citizen solutions to the coronavirus.

Munya, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today. We really appreciate your insight and perspectives. Zimbabwe's first coronavirus casualty was a journalist named Zororo Makamba who passed away on March 29th. Some argue his death has exposed inadequacies in Zimbabwe's medical response to the coronavirus. What is your sense of the Zimbabwean government's preparedness to confront the virus overall?

Munya: Zororo's case was pretty intense. He's someone that I knew in the industry and I had interacted with him a number of times. So his death hit us pretty hard as a young person, and it hit everyone, and it caught everyone unawares and it just highlighted the level of unpreparedness, because he came from an influential family. His family's pretty well off. He was pretty much exposed. So for him to be the first person to die, it just showed how far the health system in Zimbabwe had collapsed.

And it highlighted how the Wilkins Hospital, the one that's supposed to deal with infectious diseases, was unprepared for the coronavirus and I think what came to light was the fact that his family got a ventilator because the hospital didn't have a ventilator. They ordered a ventilator and then the hospital didn't have the plugs that the ventilator could plug into. And that was one of the major reasons...so it was just a really crazy scenario.

And eventually the Chinese government stepped in and refurbished the hospital, and [the] hospital had to be shut down again. So all this is happening and the outbreak is already in full-swing. So yeah, it just highlights how unprepared our medical system was and how dependent we're on foreign support and foreign donors for healthcare.

Green: So you had mentioned that you knew Zororo both professionally and also personally. And I can only imagine the difficulties of bearing the loss on both of those levels. I'm also curious in your opinion, as Zororo's case indicates, journalists are often on the front lines of so many different issues. How has the coronavirus impacted the ability of journalism to carry out reporting and coverage of everything else that's happening in Zimbabwe at the same time?

Munya: It's always been very hard to be a journalist. But I think the coronavirus pandemic has made it a lot harder for journalists to operate. In Zimbabwe, you're either working for the state newspaper or broadcaster or something like that or you're an independent journalist and you're polarized. So the guys from the independent press normally get less information, less access than the guys from the state.

So now with the coronavirus also it's like we're in the middle of a 21 day lockdown. So it's dangerous for journalists to be walking around. There's been incidences where journalists have been forced to delete their footage because they've been taking pictures of policeman or state security agents that are going around and forcing the lockdown. So they're getting ruffled up.

Green: And what has been the role of journalism for educating Zimbabweans about COVID? Kind of like what you were saying, is independent journalism really filling a gap that the state is trying to keep hidden? Specific to COVID, how is journalism playing a role?

Munya: Okay. So right now what's happening to journalists, bloggers, influencers on social media—they have taken the lead in terms of sharing information on COVID, taking information from the World Health Organization platforms. And their platform[s] are one[s] that people are relying on. So in Zimbabwe we actually have one national broadcast, so we've got one national TV channel, and then we've got a number of radio stations. We've got about 18 radio stations. But [we look] to the bloggers and the social media personalities for the information.

So they've taken up that information and started sharing it on Twitter, on Facebook and feeding content on WhatsApp and sharing it on WhatsApp groups. And that's what's been leading the chart. Apart from that, radio is still pretty popular, so there is some information still circulating on radio at homes.

Green: So you are the editor for Open Parly ZW, and you have specifically done a lot to educate people around the coronavirus. How have you seen the impact of your specific efforts, your individual efforts played out in how people are engaging with this information?

Munya: People have naturally just trusted us or we've been [a] reliable source of information and they trust information that comes from us. There's also [a] huge demand for that information and [there is] a lot of fake news that's been circulating on social media. So there's a lot of demand for up-to-date, relevant, specific content on issues that are coming up, like how to protect yourself from coronavirus, how to stay safe, the updates.

And what's really interesting has been the demand for updates in terms of who's infected, how many people are infected, how many are not and that sort of thing. So our content has been really consumed by young people between the ages of 18 and 35, those are the ones who've been really focused on taking up our information.

Green: If I understand correctly, Open Party also created an open source technology to crowd source some citizens solutions to COVID, and that you did this during a virtual hackathon. Can you tell me just a little bit more about that project specifically and how, just what you alluded to, how young people are poised to help bridge that information gap between citizens and governments?

Munya: Alright, so it's actually ongoing, so what happened is we've had a budget for it and we've been running several hackathons throughout the country over the last couple of months. And then when the coronavirus hit, we had a little bit extra for the last two hackathons we wanted to conduct. So we just decided to channel that money towards the virtual hackathon. So what we've done so far is we created a platform called Kohl'sz.info. So we just take information from the ministry of health and then create a platform where it aggregates information, creates more visual data. People can get up-to-date information in real timing and see how that data translates into different things like where you are, if you're in the Capitol, how many people have been infected in the Capitol or in your province.

And then we've also added a COVID tracker which uses Google maps. So you can upload your Google map history and it'll show you where you've come across cases of COVID or places where someone with the coronavirus has been. Currently Zimbabwe has nine confirmed cases of coronavirus.

So we're hoping it'll be easier to [do] contact tracing using that to just check out how far you've been exposed to the coronavirus using a simple tool like Google maps.

Green: That is very innovative and I love how you're able to just shift the focus slightly. It's not something that you were already doing. That's pretty great. Are you seeing other recommendations that are allowing you to refine this tool? You mentioned it's still kind of in progress, still developing. How do you see this adapting and maybe being used in other ways?

Munya: Well, yeah. So we've seen quite a number of projects that are doing similar things. We've seen the Malaysiakini the guys in Malaysia, who have got a really cool app similar to what we're trying to implement. So we're going to adapt some of the things that they've done there to our app. And then we're also working with a bunch of young people from Nigeria. They are more keen on doing extractions for the coronavirus and making sure that their government in Nigeria, they can track all the donations that are coming through.

So we thought that was a cool tool to use. So we’re currently incorporating that into our application. And then we also try and build, we try to replicate our platform for Nigeria, for Zambia, for Liberia and for Kenya as well. So [we] just replicate the model for countries that haven't started it across Africa and then just deploy it as far as possible. And then that way we can also get all the data from across all these African countries and see how it maps out, and we can actually have a better view of the coronavirus’ impact on the African continent.

Green: That is a phenomenal effort. And just hearing the mix of those countries that you're talking about. That's very incredible for a variety of reasons, not least of which is they represent a variety of spots on a spectrum of democracy. There are some who struggle a little bit with being fully democratic. And then there are some who are seen as being on the other end and much more the poster child for what that looks like. But all of this is kind of being pushed by people like you, by civil society.

How do you see civil society's role, especially at a time like now, a time of crisis on making sure that these democratic principles don't get pushed by the wayside and this isn't used by people for either corruption or for greater authoritarians.

Munya: So I work for Magamba Network. So what we've been trying to do over the past couple of years, seeing that the civic space is shrinking, the physical space is shrinking. And I think the role of civil society right now, it should be just be very adaptable and be very responsive and use different tools that are at their disposal. So we're very keen on civil society organizations, not just focusing on the traditional model of lobbying, petitions, but also using tools like civic tech tools, like the ones that we're building so that they can empower young people to be at the forefront of pushing forward democratic processes.

So we think if there are more tools that are built and put in the hands of young people, more localized tools, I mean it's cool to have civic tech tools, but if they're not localized, if young people in that particular country can't resonate with them, then they become useless. But if the tools are locally built, the ideas are from grassroots movements and the tools are put in the hands of ordinary people, then the civil society has a greater impact than the traditional role of civil society. This way they literally put the power in young people's hands.

So that's where we see the power of hackathons and these tools that we're building because it involves young people. Young people can actually see the data, they can visualize it, they can share it, they can play around with it, they can turn it into whatever they want to turn it [into). They have the right information when they're engaging online. They can reference certain material and share it and demand certain things because they have been empowered by the information that is at their disposal.

So that is where civil society needs to go and shift from like the traditional sense. There's nothing wrong with the traditional civil society, but in this current context where most countries are under lockdown, how are you going to convene a meeting? Or when parliaments are almost all closed, petition is not going to get anywhere. So you really need to occupy the social media streets, the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram— handle them, make sure that your message is coming across strongly and is engaging with people.

Green: A couple more questions from my end. You just alluded to the adaptability of civil society. What do you think is happening next as far as Zimbabwe and democracy? Are you worried or hopeful for democracy and Zimbabwe following this period of coronavirus?

Munya: I'm hopeful. The coronavirus is giving all governments, including  Zimbabwe's government, a wake-up call in terms of how to be better prepared or how to be responsive and how to really engage people in things that matter to them. I'm really hopeful that after this process we'll have better engagement with government, better issues resolved and a better pipeline in terms of government, young people, civil society, engaging to find solutions to community problems. Because that's what's happening right now. Ordinary Zimbabweans are coming out, trying to find solutions to mitigate the coronavirus. While it's said that people are dying, there's a whole energy around people really getting engaged in what happens in their country. Because everything is at a standstill. And so everyone is really focused on the same issues no matter where they are. So there's a renewed sense of engagement from people and it will be difficult for people to disengage with that because I don't think anyone wants to go through this ever again.

Green: The last question I have is you mentioned you're on a 21-day lockdown and things are at quite the standstill. What is the biggest change that you've seen in daily life and how this is impacting everyday Zimbabweans?

Munya: Well, the biggest thing that I've noticed is how much we are very dependent on the informal economy in our country. Like it's very apparent that there's a huge demographic of people who live informal lives, who are on the streets, selling wears, vendors. They are going through an extreme experience and there's even the different societal divides that are there. There [are] people who have certain access and then there [are] people who don't have certain access. So issues to do with service delivery like access to water, access to healthcare, access to basic commodities have just been highlighted by the coronavirus case.

And the level of government incompetence has been put under a magnifying glass. There's a level of consciousness that has risen amongst people, and people are more vocal, people are [quicker] to communicate. And because everyone is disengaged from whatever it is that would have ordinarily occupied them on a daily basis, we are now more focused on the service delivery issues and the lack of proper healthcare and now wants to make sure that things are done in the right place. So there's, like I said, there's a high level of engagement and interest in national political issues and how those political issues affect service delivery, like access to healthcare, access to clean water, access to food and all the other essential stuff.

Green: Great. Well Munya, thank you so very much for taking the time. Thanks so much for your effort and your work that you're doing for Zimbabwe. I'm sure it is extremely appreciated and most necessary at this time.

Munya: Thank you very much.