Zimbabwe education attendance takes a staggering tumble

UNITED NATIONS – Zimbabwe's growing crisis has seen school attendance plummet from more than 90% to 20%, major hospitals and clinics close, cholera hit record levels and millions of people go to bed hungry, a senior United Nations humanitarian official said on Wednesday.

Catherine Braggs, the UN’s deputy emergency relief coordinator, said Zimbabwe is in the throes of a humanitarian breakdown across many sectors, from food production and healthcare to education. It is the result of a lot of causes including three years of failed agricultural harvests, bad governance, economic policies, hyperinflation and sanctions, she said.

Braggs echoed UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s plea to donors on Tuesday to disregard the political crisis in Zimbabwe and provide money for critically needed food and other aid.

At the moment, she said, just less than four million people need food aid "and that number is going to rise as we go into the hunger season, traditionally between January and April".

"The situation is acute and is expected to worsen by the end of the year, and probably get even worse in the beginning of the year," she told a news conference. "So without massive assistance this situation is going to get much, much worse, not just food insecurity", but across many sectors.

Last year, the UN issued an appeal for just less than $400-million for Zimbabwe for 2008, and received 75% of the request, which is considered a good response.

Because of the deteriorating situation in the last few months, the UN asked donors for an additional $180-million to $200-million to meet growing demands this year.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization said earlier this month international donors had not responded to the appeal for additional funds, forcing it to start rationing cereal and beans. It warned food aid will run out by January unless it gets new funds.

In addition to the extra money for 2008, the UN this week appealed for $550-million for humanitarian aid for Zimbabwe in 2009.

Braggs said that compounding the shortage of food is a breakdown in health services as well as the education sector.

"For a country that used to have more than 90% school attendance, now we’re seeing less than 20%," she said.

This is largely because "teachers are not being paid or being paid insufficiently to cover even one day of transportation to the school, so they do not show up", Braggs said, and because students either can’t get to school or can’t pay tuition fees.

The dramatic fall in school attendance is "a real concern for us because school is one of the safe environments for children, including orphans, so it is both a literacy issue and a safe environment issue", she said.

In the last few weeks, Braggs said, "there have been closures of major hospitals because of the lack of medical personnel".

"They simply didn’t go to work … again because they don’t get payment and they just can’t afford the transportation cost to be able to go to work," she said. "We also know of severe depletion of medical supplies, which has led to the closure of a number of major hospitals and clinics."

Braggs also cited a major increase in cholera cases, to almost 9 000, with 366 deaths as of Tuesday. "It’s higher than the country has ever seen," she added.

The number of cholera cases and deaths "is directly traceable to the fact that many communities now have depleted their ability to provide clean water because of the lack of chemical treatment", Braggs said.

"So there is an urgent need for water and sanitation. It’s also directly traceable to the collapse of the health system, where there’s insufficient health personnel as well as insufficient medical supplies." — Sapa-AP