Unknown thousands dying in Zimbabwe, health groups say
Hospitals are shut, clinics out of drugs
JOHANNESBURG - Thousands of Zimbabweans are dying, uncounted and out of sight in a silent emergency as hospitals shut, as clinics run out of drugs, and as most residents 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 people are dying needlessly in a disaster critics attribute to 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.
"When you look at people who are already weakened by hunger, many already weakened by HIV and AIDS, and with rainy season comes malaria, and we know anthrax is spreading, it's really just a recipe for disaster," spokeswoman Caroline Hooper-Box said in neighboring South Africa.
She said many people Oxfam interviewed in Zimbabwe say they have cut back to one meal in three days. Some are trying to survive on insects and berries.
Once a major food exporter, Zimbabwe has been crippled by shortages of necessities including food and medicine as Mugabe, the leader since independence in 1980, clings to power.
As businesses collapse, unemployment has risen to 80 percent with the majority of the population depending on handouts from a growing diaspora; more than a third of a population has fled, many to South Africa and Britain, but some as far as New Zealand.
In a new health report published last week, the civic group Women of Zimbabwe Arise recounted the case of an 8-year-old boy who fell in a school yard and twisted his knee.
"A week later, he was dead," the report said. "The death certificate cited cause of death as 'swollen knee' . . . But the real cause of death is clear criminal negligence of the worst kind on the part of the ZANU-PF government."
To the cholera deaths, the report said, it was necessary to add people with diabetes who run out of insulin, appendicitis cases, asthma attacks, bleeding ulcers, and septicemia, "all treatable conditions from which thousands of deaths are now occurring."
Save the Children, a British charity, said hundreds, if not thousands, of pregnant women and their children "stand a very high risk of death."
Zimbabwe director Rachel Pounds said the United Nations reported that 700 women were recently turned away from hospitals in Harare that are no longer able to provide maternity services.
Last week, Health Minister David Parirenyatwa appealed for help from international organizations.
"Our central hospitals are literally not functioning. Our staff is demotivated and we need your support to ensure that they start coming to work and our health system is revived," he was quoted as saying in The Herald.