HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Zimbabwe’s defense minister has described the coronavirus as God’s way of punishing the United States and other western countries for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe, prompting the president to issue a statement Monday restating his government’s commitment to fighting COVID-19.
Oppah Muchinguri, the defense minister, appeared to mock Western nations while addressing a group of ruling party supporters at the weekend.
“This coronavirus that has come are sanctions against the countries that have imposed sanctions on us. God is punishing them now and they are staying indoors now while their economy is screaming like what they did to ours by imposing sanctions on us,” Muchinguri said at a rally in Chinhoyi, about 120 kilometers (75 miles) northwest of the capital, Harare, according to local reports. A video of her statement has gone viral.
“(Donald) Trump should know that he is not God. They must face the consequences of coronavirus so that they also feel the pain,” she said in the local Shona language.
Muchinguri’s utterances prompted massive criticism from opposition politicians, humanitarian organizations and ordinary Zimbabweans on social media.
Zimbabwe has not yet recorded a case of COVID-19 but neighboring South Africa has more than 60 cases. Across Africa, 30 of the continent’s 54 countries have confirmed cases.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa issued a statement Monday saying his government “empathizes with the affected people around the globe.” He did not mention Muchinguri by name, but the statement published in the state-run Herald newspaper appears to modify her criticism of the U.S.
“Pandemics of this kind have a scientific explanation and know no boundary, and like any other natural phenomenon cannot be blamed on anyone,” Mnangagwa said.
Relations between Zimbabwe and Western countries have been icy for the past two decades after sanctions were imposed on Zimbabwe over alleged human rights abuses.
The U.S, the European Union and Britain, however, remain Zimbabwe’s biggest donors, routinely helping the troubled southern African country fight widespread hunger, cholera and other afflictions by providing food aid and medicines to millions of people.
The main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party on Monday described Muchinguri’s statement as “reckless, morbid and inhuman.”
Others on social media did not miss the irony that the COVID-19 originated in and is heavily affecting China, one of Zimbabwe’s biggest political allies. Muchinguri did not mention China in her weekend address.
“How does she face her Chinese counterparts, where the pandemic began when she makes such insulting and insensitive statements?” queried Alex Magaisa, a government critic and law lecturer at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom.