Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Collapse in Zimbabwe

Just when you think things can't possibly get worse in Zimbabwe, they do. First, the least bad news:

The Economic Times (India) reported Saturday that Zimbabwe has to print ever-larger denominations of currency.

Inflation-wracked Zimbabwe plans to introduce a 200 million dollar note just days after a 100 million dollar note came into circulation, the government announced on Saturday.

The 200 million dollar note, announced in a notice in the government gazette, will bring to 28 the number of notes put into circulation by the central bank this year alone, as the country struggles with the world's highest inflation rate of 231 million percent.

On Thursday the central bank introduced 100 million, 50 million and 10 million dollar notes while at the same time increasing withdrawal limits for individuals and companies.

The 100 million dollar note is worth only about 14 US dollars, and its value erodes by the day.

Did you catch that inflation rate? 231 million percent.

Now for the really bad news.

The Telegraph (UK) reported Saturday that Zimbabwe is undergoing a cholera epidemic.

When cholera first began rampaging through Zimbabwe's impoverished towns and cities, Robert Mugabe's government tried to play down the epidemic. According to official figures, it has now killed almost 600 people, and this week, the authorities finally gave in and appealed for international help. Health minister David Parirenyatwa admitted: "Our central hospitals are literally not functioning."

But openness is not the norm for officials in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital. At the Budiriro Polyclinic, in the high-density western suburbs, the fence has been covered in plastic sheeting to stop people seeing in. Outside the barrier, more than 50 relatives wait anxiously for news of their loved ones.

"No matter how much medicine they bring, they are not going to contain this cholera, because they are treating the symptoms rather than the disease," says Tongesai, a well-educated man in his mid-30s whose younger brother was admitted earlier in the day. "The cholera is coming from the water, which is contaminated. It is not the boreholes that are bringing in the contaminated water, but the water from the city. That water is now getting to the people without being treated, and that is how people get cholera. It is tantamount to drinking raw sewage." And this is why Mugabe's government bears ultimate responsibility for the suffering of its people.

It's not just cholera, however. The AP reported Monday that the entire health care system is collapsing.

Thousands of Zimbabweans are dying, uncounted and out of sight in a silent emergency as hospitals shut, clinics run out of drugs and most cannot afford private medical care, health groups say.

Even as deaths from a cholera epidemic climbed into the hundreds, international and local organizations say many more are dying needlessly in a disaster critics blame on President Robert Mugabe's government.

The toll will never be known, according to Itai Rusike, executive director of the Community Working Group on Health—a civil society network grouping 35 national organizations.

"Zimbabwe used to have one of the best surveillance systems in the region," Rusike said in a telephone interview. "But phones are not working, nurses are not there, so their information system has collapsed. ... It is very difficult to tell how many people have died."

"These are symptoms of a failed state," he said in a telephone interview. "Nothing is working."

The British charity Oxfam agreed with estimates of thousands of unreported deaths due to the collapse of the health system and says the situation will get worse with the onset of the rainy season, which lasts until February.

The Times Online (UK) reported Saturday on widespread famine in Zimbabwe.

Father Peter stopped his truck beside a cluster of thatched mud huts deep in the arid, baking bushland of western Zimbabwe. A stick-thin woman, barefoot and dressed in rags, approached with her two young children.

“Please. We’re desperate for food,” she told him, and lifted up her children’s filthy T-shirts. Their stomachs and belly buttons were grotesquely distended by kwashiorkor, a condition caused by severe malnutrition that just a few years ago was unheard of in this once bountiful country.

The woman said she and her family were living off nuts and berries, for which they spent hours foraging in the bush each day. She showed us where her husband had buried their eldest daughter, who had died two months ago aged 12 after eating berries that caused severe stomach pains and made her vomit. “This is madness – madness,” Father Peter, visibly upset, said.

Calls are coming for Mugabe's removal from power. From the Archbishop of York, from Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu. But those calls haven't changed anything.

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