Zimbabwean Banks Shut 17% of Branches as Virus Drives Digitization

HARARE (Bloomberg) — Zimbabwean banks have closed about 17% of their branches as an escalation in the number of coronavirus infections spurs lenders to shut their doors for the time being and accelerate a digitization drive.

Of the 300 branches in the country, 10% were permanently closed last year due to the digitization push. An additional 23 branches are now temporarily under lock and key in response to a strict 30-day lockdown that started on Jan. 5, the Zimbabwe Bankers’ Allied Workers Union said.

“There is a high possibility that some may never be re-opened in the foreseeable future,” Shepherd Ngandu, the assistant secretary-general of the union, said by text message.

While banking is deemed an essential service and is exempt from a total shutdown, lenders have opted to downscale to minimize infection risks. The companies rotate half their branch staff every two weeks.

The nation’s economy has been in decline for the past two decades amid shortages of everything from foreign exchange to pay for imports to food. Public hospitals are under strain due to a shortages of beds and equipment, according to the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights.

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Owing to the thrust to offer more digital services, the labor union estimates that about 100 workers were made redundant last year. In the prior year, nearly 300 out of the 4,000 employees in the industry were dismissed, five times more than in 2018.

“For now, there are no direct job losses related to Covid-19, but we are beginning to see banks perfecting their digitalization platforms during these times, leading to possible job losses this year and beyond,” said Ngandu.

Ralph Watungwa, the president of the Bankers’ Association of Zimbabwe, didn’t respond to a text message seeking comment.

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