Saturday, November 22, 2008

Zimbabwe: cholera in, Carter not

The ongoing tragedy that is Zimbabwe has a new chapter - an outbreak of cholera. And like many things in Zimbabwe, the official story and what the people in the street are saying are two different things.

Officially the government says that 44 people have died in the outbreak so far, the unofficial death toll is just shy of 300, with the potential to go much higher.

The cholera outbreak is another ironic tragedy caused by the President Robert Mugabe's desperate bid to stay in power - Zimbabwe once had the best medical system in southern Africa. Now hospitals, like the rest of the country, are broke and tell patients to bring their own drugs and supplies. Even the doctors are feeling the pinch. The Times of London is reporting that thanks to Zimbabwe's runaway inflation, currently pegged at 231 million percent (that's 231,000,000%), their salaries do not pay the bus fare to and from the hospital. A group of doctors recently held a rally to protest conditions at the nation’s hospitals; riot police met them. The Times reports that the doctors said to the riot police: "Who will treat your families if you beat us up? Are you paid enough to attack us?" The police then started beating them.

Cholera outbreaks are often caused by poor sanitation. As Zimbabwe's economy collapsed, funds to repair urban sewer and water systems dried up, providing the conditions for a cholera outbreak. The international health organization Médecins Sans Frontières claims that as many as 1.4 million people in Zimbabwe are at risk of cholera.

Meanwhile on Friday Zimbabwe blocked a visit from former President Jimmy Carter and former UN chief Kofi Annan. The two leaders hoped to travel to Zimbabwe on a humanitarian mission, but were denied visas. "It is obvious the government is determined to prevent our entry in Zimbabwe," Carter said from South Africa.

Not so claimed Zimbabwean officials. They said that Carter and Annan just forgot to tell them that they were coming. It's a silly excuse, and even if it is true (which is hard to believe) most places tend to bend the rules for a former president and former UN secretary general. Carter and Annan did meet with Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in South Africa. Tsvangirai still has not been able to form a unity government with Mugabe, even though Mugabe agreed to do so more than two months ago.

A group of mostly Western nations are prepared to give Zimbabwe hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, but are refusing to write the check until Mugabe follows through with the power-sharing deal.
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