Power impasse spreads despair, Harare Hospital officially closed

HARARE, Zimbabwe – As African powers press for a power-sharing agreement between Zanu PF President Robert Mugabe and the Movement for Democratic Change leaders, this country's already-shaky infrastructure teeters on collapse.

Harare Central, one of the main hospitals in Zimbabwe, officially closed on Friday. Like many other hospitals across the country, it is a victim of Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown and political paralysis. Medical supplies have run out, wards have closed and patients are being turned away.

Dr Kudzanai Chimedza is the President of Zimbabwe’s Junior Doctors’ Association. He spoke to our reporter.

Residents in the countryside are scavenging for food. Hospitals are turning away patients. Water service has stopped in many urban areas.

Amid the civic breakdown, Mr. Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai squabble over the make-up of a power-sharing government after weeks of negotiations.

The Southern African Development Community, a regional political bloc, proposed Monday that the two sides share the home-affairs ministry in a unity-government cabinet. Both sides want control over the portfolio, which includes the police. But Mr. Tsvangirai ruled out the proposal.

Meanwhile, in Gutu, 260 kilometers southwest of Harare, Chenai Mawuya, the 56-year-old traditional leader, said he is up before dawn to gather wild fruits and dig up roots for the family’s single, daily meal. As village elder, he has ordered donkeys and other domesticated animals tied up before midday out of fear they will eat all the available fruits.

But there is other competition. "We can’t control baboons," Mr. Mawuya said. "We are both hunting in the forest; the fittest will survive."

Hamandishe Maramwidze, a parliamentarian for Gutu, said eight people starved to death in his small constituency last month and warned of more to come because of food shortages. "It is getting worse," he said.

The United Nations has estimated that 5 million of the nation’s population of 11 million need food assistance. "Unlike in the past, even those with formal employment, degreed people for example, are failing to feed themselves," said Fambai Ngirande, a spokesman for the National Association of Non-Governmental Organizations, an umbrella body for local and foreign groups.

Over the past decade, Mr. Mugabe’s economic policies have transformed Zimbabwe from a regional agricultural powerhouse into an economic basket case with runaway inflation. Still, government services largely sputtered on, until this year’s violent elections.

Mr. Tsvangirai defeated Mr. Mugabe in the first round of presidential voting in the spring, but dropped out of the June runoff because of violence against his supporters. The two sides agreed to a power-sharing deal on Sept. 15, but minus an agreement on cabinet positions, the government largely has ground to a halt. Many urban areas have suffered for weeks without running water. The government can’t afford chemicals to treat the water, and systems aren’t being repaired. A cholera outbreak last month killed more than 120 people, according a human-rights group of local doctors.

Harare’s working-class suburb of Budiriro, with 120,000 residents, has gone for two months without running water. Ephraim Chipuriro just buried his wife, Beauty, who died from drinking contaminated water from the family well. Fourteen others, mostly neighbors, who drank from the same well also died, and 26 more were hospitalized. Mr. Chipuriro was charging or using the well, and someone got jealous and poisoned the water, he said.

The sick were lucky to have gotten into a hospital. The country’s two largest hospitals, Parirenyatwa Hospital and Harare Hospital, stopped admitting patients early this month because of shortages of medicine, food and other consumables.

Zimbabwe’s education system, meanwhile, once a model for the continent, also has come unhinged. In the district of Mutasa, 12-year-old Chipo Mutisi stopped going to school in May. For two months, she had to attend meetings of ZANU-PF, the party of Mr. Mugabe, ahead of the runoff. Her school just opened on Oct. 27 for final exams.

"How can they ask her to write examinations when she didn’t learn anything?" asked Fadzai Mundembe, Chipo’s grandmother, as a neighbor dug a grave. The last of Ms. Mundembe’s four dogs had died of hunger.

"Every day, we bury people and dogs," said the gravedigger. "Death has become part of us."