Zimbabwe Pleads for Help Amid Growing Cholera Epidemic

by VR Sreeraman on Dec 5 2008 4:15 PM

Zimbabwe's government pleaded for international help after declaring a national emergency over a cholera epidemic that has left 560 dead, as Britain warned the country had become a "failed state."

With its economy shrinking dramatically for nearly a decade, Zimbabwe's hospitals have no medicine or equipment to treat patients, and lack money to pay health care workers or clean the water supply.

President Robert Mugabe's government has been mired in turmoil since he lost a first-round election in March. He later claimed victory in a one-sided runoff after opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out amid a wave of deadly political violence.

The breakdown of the nation's infrastructure has helped cholera thrive, with government and UN figures showing more than 560 deaths and 12,500 cases recorded.

In unusually frank remarks from Zimbabwe's government, the state-run Herald newspaper said Thursday the cholera outbreak and the breakdown of the health system were national emergencies and appealed for international aid.

"Our central hospitals are literally not functioning," Health Minister David Parirenyatwa said in the paper.

Britain, Zimbabwe's former colonial ruler, announced a 10-million-pound (14.7-million-dollar, 11.5-million-euro) emergency aid package to provide life-saving assistance and respond to the escalation of cholera.

At the same time, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown accused Mugabe of turning Zimbabwe into a "failed state".

"Mugabe's failed state is no longer willing or capable of protecting its people. Thousands are stricken with cholera, and must be helped urgently," Brown said.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga went even further, telling the BBC that African governments must work to oust Mugabe.

"It's time for African governments to take decisive action to push him out of power," Odinga was quoted as saying on the BBC website.

"Power-sharing is dead in Zimbabwe and will not work with a dictator who does not really believe in power-sharing."

Odinga's comments came after he held talks with Tsvangirai, who has been traveling across Europe and Africa to lobby governments.

Mugabe and Tsvangirai signed a power-sharing deal more than two months ago, but have so far failed to agree on how to form a unity government.

Their feud has been overshadowed by the crippling cholera epidemic, which comes as the United Nations says nearly half the population needs emergency food aid.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said over 13 tonnes of medical supplies has arrived in Harare, while the World Health Organisation said it would supply 340,000 dollars worth of drugs and supplies.

"The needs are great, we lack the most basic supplies such as blankets and plates in the hospitals, as well as soap and water purification tablets," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN humanitarian coordination body.

hyperinflation The United States said Thursday it is providing 600,000 dollars to help fight the cholera outbreak.

"The US government, through the US Agency for International Development (USAID), is providing an additional 600,000 dollars to help combat the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe," USAID said in a statement.

The statement distributed by the State Department said the aid comes on top of a four-million dollar emergency USAID program to improve water quality, sanitation, and hygiene.

Oxfam warned Thursday that Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic posed a "grave danger" to 300,000 people already weakened by food shortages.

Cholera is the latest challenge to hit poverty-wracked Zimbabwe as it struggles with a political crisis and hyperinflation estimated at 231 million percent in July.

Rogue soldiers went on the rampage between Thursday last week and Monday this week, beating up illegal foreign currency dealers and looting shops in Harare, and in Mbare and Chitungwiza, the Herald reported.

Banks on Thursday started issuing a new 100 million Zimbabwe dollar note, worth about 14 US dollars, and increased withdrawal limits.

A 48-hour water cut in Harare has been alleviated, but authorities say they have only enough water treatment chemicals to last 12 weeks.

Charities have warned that cholera has spread to neighbouring South Africa , where health authorities say the Limpopo River, a major waterway and border with Zimbabwe, tested positive for cholera this week.

Authorities initially shrugged off calls to declare a national disaster, blaming the crisis on Western sanctions - although those measures target only Mugabe and his inner circle with a travel ban and a freeze on assets.