The government has announced plans to tighten lockdown regulations for Harare and Bulawayo after infections spiked to 885 as of Wednesday, with local infections also rising.
But critics said the surge in COVID-19 cases was now being used as an excuse to frustrate planned public demonstrations by civic groups and opposition activists on July 31.
Zimbabwe has recorded 98 new coronavirus infections on Wednesday, with 47 being local transmissions.
On Tuesday 53 new cases, including 34 locally-transmitted infections were recorded.
Information permanent secretary Ndavaningi Mangwana said the rising infections had become a cause for concern and restricting movement had become inevitable.
“Harare has the vast majority of positive COVID-19 cases. On Tuesday, Bulawayo recorded 30 of the 53 positive cases,” Mangwana said.
“If there is any scaling up of containment measures, a more surgical approach is better. It means full-scale lockdown should only apply to Harare and Bulawayo.”
Mangwana said events in neighbouring South Africa from where the highest number of returnees are coming, meant that a tightening of movement was needed.
“We are concerned with the escalation of COVID-19. We see what is happening across the Limpopo, we see tenders to dig a million graves and we don’t want this to happen to Zimbabwe,” said Mangwana.
Zimbabwe is on an indefinite level 2 lockdown after introducing its first COVID-19 measures on March 30.
President Mnangagwa last month relaxed the measures twice, citing the need to balance health and economic interests.
Last night, Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa described the planned political protests as “posturing”, saying they were not helpful and that citizens must not be complacent, but should remain steadfast in the fight against COVID-19.
“In the same vein, we want to emphasise that the Second Republic embraces democratic principles and is in the midst of far-reaching reforms which deepen and widen the democratic space.
“Zimbabweans, we are in the midst of an existential threat. Any political posturing is not helpful. We, therefore, call upon public figures and political players to act responsibly with the safety of Zimbabweans in mind,” she said.
“Any call for mass action at this time is an unnecessary stoking of infection risk to the nation. This country cannot afford adventurism in the midst of this threat to our very existence.
“Indeed, in the face of COVID-19, government continues to do its best to mitigate the impact of this pandemic. We continue to review and update our COVID-19 response and action plan in line with prevailing conditions in the country and new information coming from the World Health Organisation.”
Observers said the decision to lock down at a time other countries with much higher figures, such as those in Europe which have reopened their borders and industries, only pointed to a political strategy to foil the proposed protests.
Organisers of the July 31 protests have, however, insisted they would not be intimidated by threats to unleash the military and police to block their cause.
They said threats to lock down Harare and Bulawayo were a way of keeping people from participating in the demonstration.
“It is very unfortunate for the government to threaten to unleash security agents against citizens who are expressing their desire to see a corruptfree State. It is unacceptable,” Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of the opposition Transform Zimbabwe, said.
“It is within the rights of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution that we can demonstrate and petition. I don’t know what they mean to say they will unleash security agents.”
He added: “Coming to the lockdown, COVID-19 is a pandemic which has killed nine people (in Zimbabwe) to date. Corruption is a pandemic which has killed thousands of people to date. There is a choice for the people of Zimbabwe to say how do we fight these pandemics?
“Already, there is money that was earmarked for COVID-19 support that has been corruptly stolen, millions of United States dollars that have been corruptly stolen.
“The people can’t wait to fight this bigger pandemic, waiting for a smaller pandemic to face them. People are determined to fight these pandemics at the same time. The people of Zimbabwe have a right to come together to speak out against corruption and we are going ahead on July 31.”
But Mangwana said his government was not afraid of the protests, but COVID-19.
“We fear COVID-19, we are not worried about protests or demonstrations,” he said.
“That is what is happening and that is stalling our economy. That is the thing that has blocked international travel, that is the thing we are dealing with and we have Cabinet every week dealing with it.
“People can think what they want to think, but we are concerned about COVID-19, not protests or demonstrations. Do you think we are concerned about people moving from one street to the other and then go home?”
Mnangagwa’s government has been accused of taking a lackadaisical approach towards COVID-19, with nurses, the frontline workers during the pandemic, now in their third week on strike with no solution in sight while dozens others have been infected while in the line of duty.