Local tobacco growers have expressed fear of being exposed to the deadly Covid-19 when the usually congested tobacco auction floors open for the marketing season next month, 263Chat Business has gathered.
The floors are set to open on the 20th of March, industry regulator, Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) announced last week.
But a ban on public gatherings of more than 100 people as set out by government last week to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have also complicated matters for the industry which is a huge foreign currency earner for the country.
However, a sample gathered by this publication over the weekend revealed farmers ‘anxiety over lack of safety guarantees at the public auction floors.
“It’s really a catch-22 for us. We have invested a lot in this crop and it’s almost ready for market but we are yet to get assurances that we are safe at the auction floors,” Tawanda Karimboi, a tobacco grower in Mvurwi said.
“We have been told the spread of the virus occurs through coughs and close contact with those infected so we can only imagine how things will take place with all that congestion at the auction floors,” he added.
Tobacco auction floors usually attracts huge number of people including staff workers, growers, middlemen and merchants making it a fertile ground for the spread of airborne diseases such as the Covid-19 and tuberculosis among others.
Former Zimpapers Group chief executive, Mr Justin Mutasa who is now a full time tobacco farmer in an interview said there is need for the auction floors to come up with an online booking platform for farmers to get their slots so as to minimize number of growers at the auction floors.
“If they make the correct arrangement online this should work. As a professional tobacco grower it would be safe for us if TIMB puts a system that will work in such a way that farmers book online and are given their slots to ensure maybe 10 or so farmers get into the auction floor a day and does it in a way that there is no crowding,” he said.
Efforts to get a comment from any of the tree registered auction floors last year on their state of preparedness to host huge numbers in the wake of the coronavirus were futile.
However, the regulator, TIMB has since written to the Ministry of Health and Child Care for guidance ahead of the start of the marketing season.
“With this prevailing pandemic in mind, the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board has written to the Ministry of Health and Child Care seeking an urgent response for leadership and guidance on measures that industry stakeholders should institute to prevent or control any real and potential outbreaks of the disease,” TIMB chief executive officer, Andrew Matibiri said in the letter drafted last week.
However, international travel restrictions that have been put in place are expected to frustrate the number of tobacco buyers trickling into the country when the auction floors open, industry experts have warned.
There are fears that this could led to lower tobacco prices.
Government last week announced restrictions on public gatherings of more than 100 people to curb the potential spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.