01 December 2008

Free coffins in a time of cholera

A decade of economic crisis and political unstability has lead to the worst humanitarian crisis Zimbabwe has faced since its independence.

The Zimbabwean capital of Harare – in a gesture that could be seen either as magnanimous, or as a tacit admission of fault – is planning to give free graves and coffins to citizens who succumb to cholera.

The Zimbabwean government blames the cholera outbreak on Western sanctions against President Robert Mugabe. "Maybe the ones who created this situation have decided to kill us softly," Zimbabwe's deputy health minister, Edwin Muguti said in a statement. But Zimbabweans themselves have a different perspective: a group of citizens from Chitungwiza, a town outside Harare, has taken a government department to court for failing to provide adequate and safe drinking water. And a group of lawyers warned that the cholera epidemic stemmed from an unprecedented environmental crisis caused by the breakdown in basic sanitation.

"Our reading of the situation is that this is not only an environmental and health crisis of unprecedented levels, but also a serious governance crisis," the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association said in a statement.

Economic crisis to blame
Zimbabwe has been reduced to abject poverty after a decade of economic crisis which has left the country's infrastructure in shambles. Nearly a decade of economic meltdown has made it impossible for Harare to import adequate chemicals to treat water. As a result many citizens have resorted to shallow wells and rivers to obtain drinking water.

According to a report in the state-run newspaper, Herald, the probably cause of the cholera outbreak is the raw sewerage that seeps out of broken sewerage lines and enters open waterways.

In the High Court application, Arthur Taderera, the chairman of the Chitungwiza Residents and Rate Payers Association, described “large pools of raw sewerage” in the streets. Referring to the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa), which is responsible for supplying water, the affidavit read: “Due to their lack of diligence and constant supplies of clean water to my place of residence, diseases like cholera surfaced and people are dying.”

11 000+ infected so far
Cholera has been raging on since its outbreak in September in Chitungwiza. It has so far claimed over 400 lives, and more than 11 000 people have been infected.

Latest reports also suggest that anthrax is spreading. According to the British non-governmental organisation Save the Children, two children and one adult in the Zambezi Valley have died of the disease, which also threatens to kill 60 000 livestock in the region, said in a statement.

Anthrax is a highly contagious infection that usually only afflicts livestock, but can be transmitted to humans who handle or eat infected animals.

Rachel Pounds, Save the Children's country director in Zimbabwe, said devastating food shortages were leading families to eat meat even from animals they know have died of anthrax.

"Many families in the Zambezi Valley are so hungry that they are taking meat from the carcasses of their dead animals, even if they know it's diseased, and are feeding it to their children," she said.

The United Nations says about half the population is in urgent need of food aid. Unemployment is estimated at 90% and official inflation at 231 million percent – the highest in the world.

Sources: Sapa/AFP/DPA

Read more:
Cholera Centre
SA at low risk of Zim's cholera

December 2008


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