Health catastrophe

2009-01-16 00:00

IF Zimbabwe were a business, it would have been declared bankrupt long ago and put into receivership. Its currency is worthless: the cost of travelling to a bank may exceed the salary to be collected. Criminal negligence by the Zanu-PF government has resulted in a failed state in the making.

The most obvious sign is the disintegration of health services. Once a model system, it now lies in ruins and life expectancy is the world’s lowest. Harare’s teaching and referral hospital, Parirenyatwa, closed last November. No public facility can offer intensive care and few have even the most basic supplies. Cholera is rampant because sewage is untreated and five times as many patients as expected are dying; anthrax is spreading as starving people eat infected animals and tuberculosis management has ceased.

Only massive international intervention can avoid catastrophe and for this reason Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) has recommended that a United Nations agency take total control of the Zimbabwe health system, including its water supply and sanitation. So severe is the crisis that PHR insists that should UN involvement be rejected by Zanu-PF, the Security Council must use its powers to refer the matter to the International Criminal Court to frame charges of crimes against humanity.

The Zimbabwe government has exported joblessness, disease, hunger and despair across the Limpopo for years, while its South African counterpart has remained inert, neglecting its practical and moral responsibilities. Its inactivity has amounted to complicity with a government that some years ago ran out of policy and resorted to rhetoric and repression that threatens the stability of the whole region.

Now South Africa has the chance to redeem past diplomatic failures. It can at last use its seat on the Security Council to good effect, to lobby vigorously for the idea of a UN takeover. It is ideally placed to provide the logistical resources to make such a project successful. This is the ultimate test. Lame excuses that cover up a callous disregard for the suffering of neighbours and solidarity with tyrants are no longer effective. A practical, humanitarian way forward is on offer.

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