December 5, 2008

Cholera epidemic is national emergency

Robert Mugabe's government has admitted for the first time that Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic is a national emergency. In a front-page story in the state-owned Herald newspaper, the health minister David Parirenyatwa asked for drugs, food, equipment and money. "Our central hospitals are literally not functioning," he was quoted as telling donor representatives. "Our staff is demotivated and we need your support to ensure that they start coming to work and our health system is revived." Deaths and illnesses could be attributed to "the current socio- economic environment", he said, asking for $11 million immediately, while the water ministry also sought help. The fact that Mr Parirenyatwa, who has been accused of human rights abuses during the country's election period earlier this year, adopted such a realistic tone in a private meeting is understandable. But its being publicised with such prominence in a government mouthpiece amounts to a humiliating climbdown.

There have been more than 12,500 cases of cholera in the outbreak so far, with more than 560 deaths, but for weeks the authorities sought to play it down. Mr Mugabe's regime consistently blames supposed Western sanctions for the country's ills, including the epidemic, but the claim was conspicuous by its absence from the Herald article. Despite Mr Mugabe’s regular condemnations, America, Britain and the EU are Zimbabwe’s largest donors and Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, said London would increase its aid. "Mugabe’s failed state is no longer willing or capable of protecting its people," he said in a statement. "Thousands are stricken with cholera, and must be helped urgently. The international community’s differences with Mugabe will not prevent us doing so. For once we agree with the government of Zimbabwe - this is a national emergency." The European Commission also said it would release extra funds, and the International Committee of the Red Cross said 13 tons of its supplies had already landed at Harare airport.

Paul Garwood, a spokesman for the World Health Organisation, said it was already sending anti-cholera medicines, and would provide more supplies and experts. "What this request by the minister of health marked was a landmark moment in indicating government support for international assistance," he said. But the WHO’s global cholera co-ordinator Claire-Lise Chaignat gave warning: "We are in front of a disaster. We won’t be able to stop the outbreak like that, it is escalating." Nonetheless, with the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai still out of the country and negotiations over a power-sharing agreement on hold while the parties consider a constitutional amendment, there is a risk that Mr Mugabe's Zanu PF party will seek to claim the credit if and when the epidemic is controlled. But Mr Garwood said: "We as the humanitarian community are supporting the ministry of health and it is something we want to do to help the nation's people." The cholera epidemic is worst in Harare, but the second-worst- affected town is Beitbridge, on the border with South Africa. A senior health worker in the town said the health minister visited last month. "He did nothing," he said. "He was just politicking. The day of the worst deaths we had run out of IV fluids, we were caught unawares, the hospital had nothing."

Oxfam warned Thursday that Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic posed a "grave danger" to 300,000 people already weakened by food shortages, as the government declared a national emergency over the crisis. Government and UN figures show more than 560 deaths and 12,500 recorded cases of cholera, but the international aid agency warned the situation was set to get much worse unless international donors stepped in. "More then 300,000 people already seriously weakened by lack of food are in grave danger from the cholera epidemic," it said in a statement. (ZWNews)

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