Cholera is easily prevented and cured, but Zimbabwe’s medical and water-treatment systems have all but disappeared. The disaster has led to renewed calls — on Friday from the United States among others — on long-time, increasingly autocratic Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe to step down.
Zimbabwe state media announced Thursday that a national health emergency had been declared. The United Nations estimates the cholera epidemic has killed at least 575, of at least 12,700 infected since August.
Aid agencies say it is likely many more Zimbabweans have sickened and died at home, officially unrecorded. Caroline Hooper-Box, spokeswoman for the British charity Oxfam, said the death rate is as much as 10 per cent of those infected, while normally it is one per cent.
Cholera is an infectious intestinal disease that is contracted by consuming contaminated food or water. Its symptoms include severe diarrhea.
South African government spokesman Themba Maseko said Friday that in addition to deploying more military health workers at the border, South Africa, the main regional power, was sending clean water and other aid into Zimbabwe.
South Africa also was dispatching a fact-finding team to Zimbabwe on Monday, Mr. Maseko said. Other humanitarian steps would be announced next week, he said, after the team returns and makes its report to the president and cabinet ministers.
“We will continue to work with the World Health Organization’s representatives and other donor organizations to provide assistance to medical facilities in Zimbabwe in order to manage and reduce the influx of Zimbabweans into South Africa and other neighbouring countries,” Mr. Maseko said.
In Mozambique and Botswana, which also border Zimbabwe, health authorities were on alert, trying to determine the extent of the risk of cholera spreading from Zimbabwe. Cholera is common in many parts of southern Africa.
Zimbabwe’s neighbours, led by South Africa, have been mediating in the political impasse, trying to get Mr. Mugabe to implement a power-sharing agreement with his rivals. The main mediator, former South African president Thabo Mbeki, has kept to a policy of quiet diplomacy, but others in the region and beyond are losing patience with Mr. Mugabe.
In an interview Thursday on the Dutch current affairs show Nova, Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu said African countries should use military force to depose Mugabe if he refuses to relinquish power.
Mr. Tutu, the retired Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, said another option would be to threaten Mugabe with prosecution at the Hague-based International Criminal Court, although he did not say on what charges.
Mr. Mugabe “is destroying a wonderful country,” said Mr. Tutu, who has long been among Mr. Mugabe’s sharpest critics. “A country that used to be a bread basket … has now become a basket case itself needing help.”
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking in the Danish capital Friday, said it was “well past time” for Mugabe to leave office.
Ms. Rice said the cholera outbreak should be a sign to the international community that it is time to stand up to Mr. Mugabe. The countries in southern Africa have the most to lose and need to take the lead, she said.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in a statement Friday that the deteriorating situation in Zimbabwe was “a further illustration of the misrule of Zimbabwe’s rogue government.”
Mr. Mugabe has blamed his country’s plight on western sanctions, and scoffed at criticism from Mr. Tutu, the United States and Britain in the past.