Cholera and Chaos in Zimbabwe

The official figure for cholera deaths in Zimbabwe is 565, but The Independent cites a senior health official’s report that the death toll is closer to 3,000. On Wednesday, riot police in Harare used batons to disperse and beat a group of doctors and nurses expressing anger over the outbreak. Barry Bearak summarizes the country’s grim conditions in the New York Times:

The cholera epidemic and the new crackdown on dissent come in a country already mired in desperation. The government is paralyzed by a stalemated power-sharing deal, and the official inflation rate is 231 million percent. Grocery shelves are largely barren. Most public hospitals and schools are closed.

Zimbabwe’s health minister has appealed to the international community for medicine, equipment, and funds to pay health staff. The crisis extends beyond the health system, though. In Harare, the water has been shut off due to a lack of necessary purification chemicals, and soldiers upset with the deflated value of their pay rampaged through the central part of the city. A union official told the New York Times that at Wednesday’s demonstration, police assaulted several women, some of whom were pregnant.

Bearak contrasts today’s horrible conditions to pre-Mugabe Zimbabwe:

“Cholera is a disease of destitution that used to be almost unknown in Zimbabwe,” Louis Michel, the European Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Aid, told The Associated Press.

He was referring to a time when Zimbabwe was a breadbasket of the region. But during the past decade this nation has plunged into ruin, one reason being the confiscation of white-owned farms by the government of Robert Mugabe.

In elections last March, the 84-year-old Mr. Mugabe, who has headed the country for nearly 30 years, was outpolled by opposition candidate Morgan Tsvangirai. Forces loyal to the president then unleashed a campaign of violence before a runoff vote set for June. The brutality caused Mr. Tsvangirai to withdraw from the second election.

Regional leaders finally coaxed the two sides into a power-sharing deal with Mr. Mugabe’s remaining as president and Mr. Tsvangirai’s becoming prime minister. But though the agreement was hailed as a breakthrough, vital details have never been ironed out and the arrangement has been stymied by disputes over who will control central government ministries.

Thousands of Zimbabweans are sick and dying, and the problem is spreading: BBC reports that the Limpopo River, which runs along the border Zimbabwe shares with South Africa, has been contaminated with cholera.

Large-scale political solutions are needed to resolve this crisis. In the meantime, UK’s Times newspaper reports that Unicef water trucks and neighbors with boreholes are supplying water to hundreds of residents whose water access has been cut off. Others are relying on shallow wells, which are easily contaminated with effluent. That’s exactly how cholera is spread.

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