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Fierce government crackdown on protests in Zimbabwe

A closer look at the day's most notable stories with The National's Jonathon Gatehouse: government cracks down on Zimbabwe protests; loneliness can have serious health effects; a British project has mail carriers checking on the well-being of elderly people on their routes.

Newsletter: A closer look at the day's most notable stories

A group of people arrested during the anti-government protests in Zimbabwe wait to appear in the Magistrates court in Harare on Wednesday. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what's happening around some of the day's most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

TODAY:

  • A three-day national strike in Zimbabwe, called after a 150 per cent hike in fuel prices, ended amidst a fierce government crackdown today.
  • Loneliness is a widespread problem, but it's difficult to address because many are reluctant to admit they're suffering.
  • A British project has mail carriers checking regularly on the well-being of elderly people on their routes who live alone.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.


Unrest in Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe may be gone, but his legacy of repression and chaos lives on in Zimbabwe.

A three-day national strike, called after an overnight 150 per cent hike in fuel prices, ended amidst a fierce government crackdown today.

Protestors gather near a burning tire during a demonstration over the hike in fuel prices in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Tuesday. It was the second day of deadly protests after the government more than doubled the price of fuel in the economically shattered country. (Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/Associated Press)

Businesses and schools were closed throughout the country and all public transit service was suspended. Internet service was cut-off by decree for 30 hours. And there were reports of mass arrests and abductions as police and gangs of masked men targeted opposition supporters, dragging them from their homes and beating them in the streets.

At least eight people, including a police officer, have been killed in clashes over the past 72 hours, and hundreds more have been wounded as authorities fired live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas at protestors.

The catalyst for the strike was a televised speech by President Emmerson Mnangagwa — the man who succeeded Mugabe following the November 2017 coup — on Saturday evening. He announced an immediate increase in the price of gas from $1.24 to $3.31 a litre, with diesel similarly rising from $1.36 to $3.11, giving impoverished Zimbabwe the most expensive gasoline in the world.

A picture taken through a broken window on Tuesday at a gas station near Cowdray Park township in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. (Zinyange Auntony/AFP/Getty Images)

But the roots of the crisis date back to 2009, when Mugabe's dictatorship tried to tackle hyper-hyper inflation — running as high as 79,600,000,000 per cent a month — by taking its own dollar out of circulation and replacing it with U.S. currency.

Then, when American greenbacks ran short, the government created a parallel system of bond notes and began paying civil servants, doctors and teachers in the script.

The notes are supposed to be equal in value to U.S. dollars, but now trade for about a third of that.

And as inflation has climbed back up — currently running at 30 per cent annually — more and more businesses are demanding payment in U.S. dollars, or charging a premium for those stuck with script. A $20 basket of groceries at the country's big supermarket chain now costs 60 bond notes, as this BBC report explains, and 10 more if you chose to pay with plastic.

Armed soldiers patrol as people queue to shop at a supermarket in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Wednesday. (Philimon Bulawayo/Reuters)

Not that Zimbabweans can afford to buy much.

The average salary remains stuck at $300 a month, which buys six packs of disposable diapers ($49 US each). Basics like toilet paper now cost $19, a small box of cereal goes for $12, and chicken fetches $7.19 a kilo.

And the cycle gets more vicious with each passing month, as the country's stumbling economy produces fewer goods and imports more staples, requiring even more hard-to-come-by hard currency.

Mnangagwa, a former Mugabe deputy known as "The Crocodile," came to power promising to tackle unemployment and improve the standard of living for average Zimbabweans.

But a little over a year later, his strategy of high deficits and heavy foreign borrowing seems to have become unsustainable. His government is now embracing austerity, starting with a pay freeze for civil servants and an end to fuel subsidies.

The timing of his speech — the night before he left on a 10-day trip to Europe, culminating in an appearance at the Davos summit early next week — suggests that Mnangagwa knew the move would be unpopular.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Zimbabwe's President Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwa shake hands during a meeting in Moscow on Tuesday. (Sergei Chirikov/Pool Photo via AP)

His only comments on the unrest have come via Twitter this morning.

"I've been deeply saddened by the events in our beloved homeland," he said in a statement. "Wanton violence and cynical destruction is not the Zimbabwean way."

Mnangagwa said that the only way out of the economic crisis is more foreign investment, explaining that is why he has been in Russia for the past two days trying to drum up business.

However, a readout of his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday sounded more like begging than a sales job.

"Your Excellency, I would wish that we now attend to deepening economic cooperation between our countries — and our country is developing, it is a third-world country – so that you, as a senior brother, can hold my hand as I try to develop Zimbabwe," he told Putin.


The invisible epidemic

Loneliness is a widespread problem, but it's difficult to address because many are reluctant to admit they're suffering, reporter Ioanna Roumeliotis writes.

Quiet. It's the one word that seems to speak to what lies at the heart of loneliness.

There's a humiliation attached to feeling lonely, a sense of unworth — to be lonely is to be ashamed about what you long for.

Just ask Marci O'Connor, 47.

"It's like, remember how people used to whisper 'cancer?' Yeah, I don't even know if loneliness is whispered. I don't even know if it's there yet," O'Connor says.

Marci O’Connor has felt intense bouts of loneliness ever since she was a child, even when people she's close to are around. She says talking to a therapist changed how she thinks about loneliness. (Andy Hincenbergs/CBC)

Loneliness is an invisible epidemic, with some experts arguing that being lonely for a prolonged period of time is more harmful to a person's health than smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

For as long as she can remember, O'Connor says she has felt a sense of separateness. It got worse after her marriage broke down and she lost the construct of family and community that went with it.

Her feeling of being disconnected is more than solitude. It's a social isolation, an absence of relationships and connections that carry profound meaning.

With the help of a therapist, O'Connor is working on concrete ways to meet new people — from joining the gym, to taking her dog to dog parks so she can meet people to talk to. But talking openly about loneliness is still awkward, she says.

It's a difficult problem to deal with, because accepting and admitting loneliness carries an enormous stigma that makes it hard for people to ask for help. So many suffer quietly.  

"We're not used to talking about it. We're not used to using that word, and if you do there is that stigma ... even now I have to force myself to be OK to talk about it," O'Connor says.

"If I was to talk about grief, people would nod and understand and sympathize. But loneliness, it's just like this horrible word still."

- Ioanna Roumeliotis

Watch The National's story on loneliness, and what's being done to help people develop the meaningful relationships that are so important:

One in five Canadians identify themselves as lonely, something that is more than just a feeling we sometimes have in our lowest moments. It's been described as an epidemic, and some say it is killing us. Feelings of loneliness have been linked to a higher risk for depression, anxiety, dementia, heart disease and diabetes. Ioanna Roumeliotis gives us an in-depth look into this world, and the people who are fighting to escape it. 12:34

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The postman always brings nice

British mail carriers are trying out a project that could help lift elderly people out of loneliness — and the health risks that come with it, writes London reporter Thomas Daigle.

From her home on the north side of Liverpool, England, Margaret Heayns has seen plenty of changes and people go by in her 93 years.

But recently she started watching for a man dressed in red who has started knocking on her door twice a week to say "hello."

She's part of a Royal Mail pilot project that has postal workers checking in on elderly customers who live alone.

It's "definitely a good idea," Heayns said from her front doorstep. The project "makes you feel more confident."

British mail carrier Billy Giblin, right, visits Margaret Heayns, 93, at her Liverpool home as part of a project to cut down on loneliness among elderly Britons. (Thomas Daigle/CBC)

As Britain's population ages, an estimated 1.9 million seniors are feeling isolated from society. And loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of depression, heart disease and stroke.

The postal service is in a unique position to help.

The Royal Mail is one of the only companies that sends employees to virtually every neighbourhood across the country on a daily basis. And since British letter carriers started wearing matching uniforms in 1793, they've grown to form one of the most easily recognizable — and trusted — brands in the U.K.

A postman in Liverpool for more than 30 years, Billy Giblin jumped at the opportunity to take part in the trial.

"I come away feeling as though I've done a good deed in my day," Giblin told me while sorting mail for his daily run.

Veteran Liverpool postman Billy Giblin says taking part in the Royal Mail's project to help monitor the well-being of seniors makes him feel 'as though I've done a good deed.' (Lauren Sproule/CBC)

When he visits Heayns at home, Giblin asks her a series of predetermined questions. Whether her health condition has changed since last week. How happy she feels, on a scale of one-to-10. Whether she's been getting out of the house. The list goes on.

Experts are trained to monitor the answers for red flags.

Up to 100 seniors in three areas in England are taking part in the trial until March. After that, it will be up to government officials to decide whether to provide funding to maintain — and expand — the project.

"If it helps one person out of 1,000 then we've done a good job," Giblin said.

- Thomas Daigle

  • WATCH: Thomas Daigle's story about the Royal Mail's effort to support seniors who live alone, tonight on The National on CBC Television and streamed online

A few words on ... 

How Britons are reacting to the Brexit-deal vote.


Quote of the moment

"We want to ensure … a safe and healthy workplace, where instances of harassment … simply don't happen, because the culture has changed."

- Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale puts a positive spin on his announcement of a new civilian oversight body for the RCMP to help deal with ongoing complaints of harassment and discrimination within its ranks.

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale listens during a press conference Wednesday in Ottawa about the RCMP's new Interim Management Advisory Board. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

What The National is reading

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  • McDonald's loses 'Big Mac' trademark case to Irish chain Supermac's (Reuters)
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Today in history

Jan. 16, 1990: A Candu fiasco in Romania  

Back in 1977, Canada struck a deal with Romania to sell up to 16 nuclear reactors. Fast-forward 13 years and the man who signed the agreement, dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, had been deposed and executed, and it was unclear if the five Candus under construction would ever be completed. Engineers involved in the project tell horror stories of primitive techniques that included builders literally working in the dark inside the shells. The first reactor finally came on line in 1996, and only one more has since been completed.

After ten years of construction Candus in Romania still aren't working. 6:33

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About the Author

Jonathon Gatehouse

Jonathon Gatehouse

Has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, including seven Olympic Games and a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey.