State of Emergency
The cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe may be spreading to other African nations.


On December 2, the United Nations announced that over 12,500 Zimbabweans have cholera and at least 565 have died as a result. The normal fatality rate from cholera, even in the bad situations that it arises, is about one percent — so a rate of roughly four times that amount points to how severe the epidemic sweeping Zimbabwe truly is, as well as to how general living standards have deteriorated in this African nation. Today, the Zimbabwean authorities declared a state of emergency over the cholera epidemic.

So it isn’t surprising that hospital workers revolted on Tuesday, protesting at the total lack of facilities for treating cholera — even emergency surgery is no longer taking place in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, because of a lack of sutures, IV bags, saline, and hygienic conditions for operations. The police in Harare have been stretched to the limit, and they overreacted using batons to beat up and disperse the protesting health workers.

Police aggression may have been the a result of their own mounting frustration. On December 1, police officers stood by, powerless to stop rioting army personnel — who themselves were frustrated at having to spend hours lining up at banks to withdraw just enough money to buy a loaf of bread or pay for the cost of a local bus journey. Zimbabwe’s defense minister, Sydney Sekeramayi, promised that those rioters will be arrested — but given that the Army is one of the few supporters that President Robert Mugabe has left, no one is expecting much action.

Police may have been reluctant to act against the army, but their reaction to the hospital workers’ protest suggests that protests planned for the end of this week by health-care workers and unions will likely be broken up before they get started.

There is plenty to protest. Harare has run out of potable water, there are few toilets working anywhere in Zimbabwe’s capital and in several places, raw sewage collects in back streets.

South African authorities tell me that the Limpopo river, which forms the southern border of Zimbabwe, is now cholera-ridden and a constant threat to the tens of thousands who draw water from its banks every day. Cholera has now been reported in Mozambique and Botswana, as well as in South Africa. What is not clear yet is whether cases were of Zimbabweans fleeing their country and infecting locals or whether cases were caught domestically because of contaminated water. If the latter, then the epidemic could become a major regional headache within days.

Next week, the ruling ZANU-PF party and the two branches of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change were supposed to once again try to broker a power-sharing agreement. That, of course, assumes that Morgan Tsvangirai — prime-minister elect and leader of the main MDC party — is able to return from travelling around the continent. Earlier this week he was in Senegal where he has been meeting with that country’s President Wade — hoping to encourage the African Union, of which President Wade is a leading light, to intervene in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe has prevented Tsvangirai from having proper legal travel documents — Tsvangirai still has no passport after his previous one was confiscated. Tsvangirai’s “illegal” travel is now being used against him by Mugabe, who hopes to force an unfair powersharing agreement on Tsvangirai (and unfortunately, according to insider reports, Mugabe is being joined in this by South African leadership). The original agreement of three months ago, brokered by former South African president Thabo Mbeki, was broken when Mugabe insisted on controlling all the security services.

But if a new meaningful deal can be made and a national unity government achieved, it may be able to put Zimbabwe back on its feet. A few hours ago, Tsvangirai met with Raila Odinga, the prime minister of Kenya. Odinga publicly called for African nations to kick Mugabe out. Perhaps meaningful action against the old tyrant is only days away.

 — Roger Bate is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


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