Page last updated at 13:00 GMT, Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Cholera lays bare Zimbabwe's collapse


Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis

By Karen Allen
BBC News, Zimbabwe

No one shakes hands anymore in Zimbabwe, such is the fear of contracting cholera.

The country that was once the jewel in Africa's crown, able to feed itself, heal its sick and educate its people to the highest standards on the continent, is now in a pitiful state.

Harare's main hospitals are closed, doctors and nurses are striking over their meagre "Zim dollar" pay and the country's water and sanitation services are tearing at the seams.

Manhole covers in the streets haemorrhage water because underground pipes have burst.

For many Zimbabweans, shallow wells with filthy water are the only means of quenching their thirst, despite the high risk of becoming ill. The cholera crisis which has already claimed nearly 1,000 lives, is the most potent symbol yet of Zimbabwe's collapse.

A deadly cocktail of failed services has turned a treatable disease into a major public health threat.

Nine out of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces have reported cases of cholera.

Eighteen thousand people have been infected so far, according to official figures, but that could just be the tip of the iceberg, with the World Health Organization warning that infections could treble.

Persistent neglect

It is the most vulnerable that are falling prey to the disease.

We found Cynthia Hunde laying tributes on her son's grave.

Munashe died of cholera just weeks before his first birthday.

The sad irony of this little boy's story is that his mother had gone to South Africa to find work to offer him a better life.

Munashe Mashamba
When you have a son you have dreams for him
Cynthia Hunde

But when she returned to Zimbabwe she found him dying in the arms of his grandmother.

"I feel so bad… It's so hard to describe. When you have a son you have dreams for him. I came home expecting to find him running around the house, but that just didn't happen."

Aid agencies, relief workers and diplomats are in no doubt that cholera is a manifestation of years of infrastructural neglect in Zimbabwe.

Like food, water has been used as a political tool.

Where services function - and how scarce resources are allocated - has been subject to political influence, according to sources who have monitored Zimbabwe's decline.

Now the cholera epidemic is being used as a political tool by all sides.

The international community has raised the humanitarian impact of the disease to try to leverage support from Zimbabwe's neighbours, most of whom have remained mute to the suffering across the border.

It has been urging them to put pressure on President Robert Mugabe to step down, or at the very least find an accommodation with the opposition MDC, which would see a unity government acceptable to all sides, with a "fair" share of cabinet posts.

'Gaping wound'

Meanwhile, Mr Mugabe continues to claim that cholera is being used as a weapon of war - a pretext for Zimbabwe's former colonial masters to launch a military invasion on his country.

At a public engagement just last week, Mr Mugabe declared that "cholera is no more… there is no cholera", as news of more infections emerged.

A clinic treating cholera victims in Zimbabwe
This clinic had 15 cholera patients, a nearby clinic was said to have 600
The BBC is banned in Zimbabwe but travelling around the rural areas discreetly, I found evidence of a cholera wherever I visited.

At a clinic south of Harare, I found more than a dozen men, women and children receiving basic treatment for the disease.

These were the lucky ones.

Most of the drugs were provided by aid agencies because government supplies have run out.

As I left the clinic, a member of staff confirmed there were 15 patients there, but said that in a facility in another clinic a few miles away, staff were dealing with 600 cases of cholera.

For security reasons it was not possible to go there.

The coming of rains in Zimbabwe have made the conditions for the spread of the disease ripe.

And despite international appeals for help from aid agencies, any temporary relief that is offered is only likely to be sticking plaster covering up a gaping wound.

Map of spread of cholera in Zimbabwe

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