To enjoy the full Mail & Guardian online experience: please upgrade your browser
28 Feb 2009 06:00
As Mugabe prepares to spend R5-million on his 85th birthday celebrations, the Guardian smuggled out a film highlighting the country’s public health disaster. Chris McGreal and James Gilchrist report
Cholera is one of the most visible signs of Zimbabwe’s collapse.
It has claimed thousands of lives, infected tens of thousands of other people and left millions of impoverished, half-starved Zimbabweans fearing their own drinking water.
But Robert Mugabe has tried to make cholera invisible, hiding the dying in hastily erected treatment centres, behind barbed wire and police guards, and burying the victims away from prying foreign eyes.
Now a new Guardian film, smuggled out of the country, reveals what Zimbabwe’s autocratic leader does not want seen: the stark reality of life, and death, in the midst of a cholera outbreak that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) only last week called part of a “massive medical emergency that is spiralling out of control”.
Voices from the sewage-lined streets of Zimbabwe’s townships, where infected water pollutes the drinking supply, speak of the insidious fear of a disease that could snatch anyone at any time. Mothers describe how their children play around contaminated water. Others say it is their only source of something to drink. One interviewee said there had been no water from taps since April. Another pointed out the sewage flowing on to the veranda where her children played.
A woman tells of what it is to catch cholera. “I got a headache first. Then after the headache got a bit better I started vomiting and having diarrhoea. The vomit was very bitter,” she says.
One of the more than 3 700 dead—a man in brown trousers and a blue shirt—is seen delivered on the back of a small lorry, sprayed with disinfectant and then carried off for burial. Those who reach one of the hastily constructed cholera centres at least have a chance of survival, but many die at home, suggesting that the real toll may be very much higher.
The disease burst out last year as broken sewer pipes contaminated drinking water, amid the collapse of the infrastructure through economic mismanagement and plunder. Since then it has infected close to 80 000 people as the money to pay for public works repairs of burst sewers has dried up or been stolen. For weeks there were even no chemicals to treat the water supply.
In some places the water supply was cut off altogether, forcing people to use stagnant ponds and open streams for drinking and cooking. The Guardian film shows a local councillor turning on a tap. Nothing comes out. “There’s no water,” he says. “With the problems of cholera, we are sitting on a time bomb.”
Many more deaths are likely before the disease is brought under control, particularly with floods after weeks of rain spreading the bacteria along streams and rivers.
The stinking sewage is a constant reminder of official neglect. With schools no longer functioning children in Harare’s crowded townships play all day on roads literally flowing with sewage. Keeping children at home is no immunity from the disease. Angela, a Harare resident, says when it rains, sewage “with worms” flows on to her veranda where her children play. “They say wash your hands, but what is the point when we breathe this stench?”
MSF, which has handled about 45 000 cases, last week warned that the spread of the epidemic showed no sign of slowing and that new cholera patients were being registered at a rate of one a minute. “The reasons for the [cholera] outbreak are clear: lack of access to clean water, burst and blocked sewage systems and uncollected refuse overflowing in the streets, all clear symptoms of the breakdown in infrastructure resulting from Zimbabwe’s political and economic meltdown,” the aid group said. Other factors have contributed to the climbing death toll in one of the most serious outbreaks of the disease in Africa in recent times.
Hunger and malnutrition are widespread in a country where about seven million people—two-thirds of the population still in Zimbabwe—are on food aid. Even those receiving maize and bean rations rarely get enough to eat, and many people are reduced to one meal a day, or even every other day. That has left many with weakened immune systems and greatly more susceptible to disease. In these circumstances, cholera is not the only killer. While around 20 people die daily from the disease, hundreds die from Aids.
But cholera has created a great deal more fear, because if one person in a village or street contracts it, their neighbours are all at risk.
In the week when Mugabe is expected to spend R5-million on his 85th birthday celebrations the public health system has effectively collapsed for lack of funding. There is little money for medical supplies. Major hospitals in Harare closed for months because health workers were not paid.
“There has been a devastating implosion of Zimbabwe’s once-lauded health system, which doesn’t just affect cholera patients,” said the head of MSF in Zimbabwe, Manuel Lopez. “We know that public hospitals are turning people away, health centres are running out of supplies and equipment, there is an acute lack of medical staff, patients can’t afford to travel to pick up their HIV medication or to receive treatment and many of our own clinics are overflowing. From what we see each day it couldn’t be clearer—this is a massive medical emergency, spiralling out of control.” Even in those hospitals still functioning patients are often forced to pay for medicines and medical supplies before they are treated. With 94% unemployment, a worthless national currency and millions living hand to mouth, few have the cash to pay.
In the film, a man with grey hair, a moustache and a tattered shirt, speaks of being infected with parasitic worms from drinking contaminated water. “We are getting worms from the well. We need to get the well fumigated,” he says.
He shows where one of the worms has worked its way through the flesh on his chest. Two weeks after the filming, he was dead from cholera. His wife says it was for the want of money to pay for treatment. “There is no medication at the hospital and no money for us to get treatment,” she said. “He was supposed to be on the drip. They were charging for drips, but I had no money. He died because there was no money.”—
Create Account | Lost Your Password?