Zimbabwe gets sicker

A friend died last week after his family failed to raise the required R130 000 for emergency surgery at a private clinic. Then the funeral parlour wanted R12 000 before it would release his body for burial. And even when the money was finally paid, the two men in orange overalls at the entrance to the council graveyard wanted R300 to allow us to bury him.

On Monday my niece’s boarding school emailed me to say: "Please collect your children before the end of the week." The school can no longer feed them, the school head said, and there are no teachers left either.

Zimbabwe has drifted along without an effective government for close to a year now and with nobody taking responsibility and no new budgets flowing to stricken state institutions, the results of a wasted year are beginning to show.

The economy was always in crisis but over the months, during which political leaders have haggled over government posts in five-star hotels the collapse of the country’s social services has accelerated.

President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu-PF appear unconcerned, while the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is happy to see the decline continue, calculating that a deepening crisis can only strengthen its hand. And so the decay eats ever deeper and the bickering continues.

This week Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu angered the MDC when he announced that his party had unilaterally completed a draft of constitutional amendments required to get the frail power-sharing deal working. This stoked tempers that had already been heated after the decision by the MDC’s national council not to join immediately in a coalition with Mugabe. MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, meanwhile, is travelling across Europe "consulting", his party said.

As the rows rumble on, the true extent of the human cost of the stand-off is now beginning to emerge. A cholera outbreak has ripped through Harare’s poor townships, where months of state and local government neglect have left burst sewer pipes flowing and waste piled up on the streets.

The disease is already spilling across the borders, with reports of patients admitted to hospitals in Musina.

Late on Sunday evening in Budiriro, a Harare township, dozens gathered quietly outside the gates of a small clinic, anxious for news of family admitted there. Government says more than 100 people have died since the outbreak two weeks ago. Critics put the death toll much higher and claim that there has been an official cover-up.

The hospital is overflowing — early on Wednesday morning dozens of patients were sheltering from the heavy rain under tents outside the building. New arrivals here have reached 40 a day and doctors say all clinics are running out of space.

Doctors for Médecins sans Frontières (MSF), who are now helping to run the hospital, say more than a million people are at risk of contracting cholera if the outbreak is not contained immediately.

Doctors see the health crisis as the most visible sign of the neglect that has set in since the political stand-off between Zanu-PF and the MDC began. Last week the city’s two biggest hospitals, Harare Hospital and Parirenyatwa, nearly shut down.

Meanwhile a planned visit by former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan, former United States president Jimmy Carter and Graça Machel to investigate Zimbabwe’s humanitarian crisis has been "temporarily" postponed.

Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said this week that Zanu-PF leaders were too involved with negotiating with the MDC and with "preparing for the new farming season" to have time to meet the delegation.