Zimbabweans Flee Epidemic

Daily News Article   —   Posted on December 11, 2008

(by Geoff Hill, WashingtonTimes.com)  BEITBRIDGE BORDER POST, South Africa – South Africa is bracing for a mass exodus of cholera victims from Zimbabwe fleeing across the crocodile-infested Limpopo River in search of a doctor and enough food to keep them alive. The journey is not easy. The Limpopo River is moving faster now, swollen with early summer rains near its headwaters 1,200 miles away.

Would-be exiles take a bus to the Zimbabwe side of the Beitbridge border post, but most have no papers, so they wait for nightfall to traverse the river by foot miles upstream from the bridge. During the day crocodiles can be seen resting on the banks.

Clarence Musonza, 19, a trainee teacher who graduated from high school in 2006 with high marks in chemistry, math and English, speaks with the desperation common to those fleeing the regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

Mr. Musonza made the crossing early Tuesday morning. He said he lost two relatives to cholera and fears that the worse is still to come.

“I left Harare on Sunday and the bus had to stop after a few hours because it ran out of [gasoline]. There is no fuel at garages, but the driver managed to buy some on the black market,” he said.

Zimbabwe declared a national emergency over a cholera epidemic and the collapse of its health care system, and state media reported the government is seeking more international help to pay for food and drugs to combat the crisis, according to an Associated Press report from the capital, Harare.

“Our central hospitals are literally not functioning,” Minister of Health David Parirenyatwa said Wednesday at a meeting of government and international aid officials, according to the state-run Herald newspaper.

South African officials estimate that at least a thousand people cross illegally each night. Exile groups say the number could be double that, or more.

Like most of his fellow refugees, Mr. Musonza is impossibly thin, with the veins on his arms standing out against the skin.

Distribution of food around Harare and other cities in Zimbabwe has collapsed, and a loaf of bread – often imported from South Africa and several days old – sells for $6. Vendors no longer accept local currency. The same loaf in South Africa costs the equivalent of 75 cents.

An estimated 3 million Zimbabweans already live in South Africa, a population that swelled in recent years as farming in Zimbabwe collapsed, hyperinflation made its currency worthless and now, lack of simple necessities such as soap threatens to unleash an epidemic of medieval magnitude.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that at least 14,000 people are ill with cholera in Zimbabwe. But privately, officials admit that the 750 reported deaths may be a fraction of the real number. Obtaining data from areas beyond the main cities is difficult.

In Musina, a town about 10 miles inside South Africa, a temporary hospital has been set up at the town fairgrounds to treat refugees arriving with cholera and dysentery.

South African Health Minister Barbara Hogan said she is worried about the strain on local health facilities. Similar fears buffet other nations that border Zimbabwe, namely Botswana and Mozambique, which also receive large numbers of refugees.

Matthew Cochrane, regional spokesman for the Red Cross in Johannesburg, told The Washington Times that the potential for a medical disaster in Zimbabwe was “on a scale we have not seen in southern Africa for some years.”

“The lack of running water and basic sanitation means that many people aren’t able to take even simple steps to protect themselves against the illness,” he said.

“The rains are late this year, but are expected over the next fortnight, at which time shallow wells and septic tanks will flood, with the high-density suburbs particularly at risk of further serious outbreaks.”

In Zimbabwean cities such as Harare and Bulawayo, running water that just five years ago was pure enough to drink from the tap, now flows intermittently and must be boiled before use.

Lack of funds and the world´s highest inflation rate has made it impossible for local authorities to repair pumps or treat the water with chlorine.

Health workers say that without water, residents have been unable to use flush toilets and instead relieve themselves in gullies, parks, under bridges and on any piece of unoccupied land that offers the slightest privacy.

It is feared that the coming rains will dilute the human waste into a deadly swill, rich in bacteria, that will spread cholera and dysentery across cities and towns.

Clinics have closed because there is no medicine, and most of the private pharmacies have empty shelves.

Mr. Cochrane said that while neighboring states could easily treat such an outbreak, in Zimbabwe people did not even have soap.

“In most countries, cholera is not a serious problem and the remedy centers on washing your hands and drinking lots of clean water to avoid dehydration,” he said.

“In Zimbabwe, there is no clean water – often no water of any kind in the taps – and all basic commodities, including soap, are scarce and usually sold in foreign currency,” he said.

In Washington, President Bush called on African leaders to pressure Mr. Mugabe, 84, into leaving office.

“As my administration has made clear, it is time for Robert Mugabe to go,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush said that, beyond humanitarian assistance, U.S. aid to the country would not resume until “a legitimate government has been formed that reflects the results of the March elections.”

Mr. Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front has ruled the country since 1980. The party lost elections in March to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, but Mr. Mugabe refused to hand over power.

Talks aimed at a coalition between the two parties have been deadlocked since September.

At the Beitbridge Border Post, Mr. Musonza said he plans to head to Musina and then another 400 miles to Johannesburg.

“At home people are dying and we know it is going to get worse,” he said. “I wanted to bring my mother, but my young brother is sick so she stayed to look after him. My uncle died last week and also his daughter.”

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  • Robert Mugabe, the nation's first prime minister, has been the
    country's only ruler [since independence from Great Britain] (as president since 1987) and has dominated the
    country's political system since independence. (from CIA Word FactBook)
  • Zimbabwe's economy has declined rapidly since Mr. Mugabe began his
    policy in 2000 to confiscate formerly white owned farms. This has
    decimated agricultural production in what used to be southern Africa's
    breadbasket.  Robert Mugabe's gross mismanagement and corruption
    wrecked the once prosperous economy [of Zimbabwe]. (sfgate.com)
  • Zimbabwe [has become one] of the world's most repressive states -
    the result of a significant decline in both political rights and civil
    liberties for Zimbabweans.
  • The government of long-time president Robert Mugabe persisted in
    cracking down on independent media, civil society, and political
  • Beginning in May 2005, the government ordered the destruction of
    tens of thousands of shanty dwellings and street stalls in urban
    townships across the country. The implementation of this policy...left
    an estimated 700,000 people homeless, deprived of their livelihood, or
    both, and adversely affected some 2.4 million additional people. (These
    people were mainly supporters of Mugabe's political rival Morgan
  • The country's economic crisis worsened, with rampant inflation,
    massive unemployment, ... and potentially severe shortages of basic foodstuffs. (this
    and the previous 3 bullet points from freedomhouse.org)
  • Earlier this year, Morgan Tsvangirai won the presidential election, but President Mugabe has refused to accept the results.

ON CHOLERA: (from the Centers for Disease Control website.)

  • Cholera has been very rare in industrialized nations for the last 100 years; however, the disease is still common today in other parts of the world, including the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • A person may get cholera by drinking water or eating food contaminated with the cholera bacterium. In an epidemic, the source of the contamination is usually the feces of an infected person. The disease can spread rapidly in areas with inadequate treatment of sewage and drinking water.
  • Cholera can be simply and successfully treated by immediate replacement of the fluid and salts lost through diarrhea. Patients can be treated with oral rehydration solution, a prepackaged mixture of sugar and salts to be mixed with water and drunk in large amounts. This solution is used throughout the world to treat diarrhea. Severe cases also require intravenous fluid replacement. With prompt rehydration, fewer than 1% of cholera patients die.