The Zimbabwe government says it is dealing with a cholera epidemic which has so far claimed 49 lives but the startling revelation is that the conditions that prevailed before the outbreak have worsened, as shortages of medicines and fuel defeat efforts to fight the preventable water-borne disease. The country’s economy, which is in steep decline, will not be able to create a cholera free environment.
Outside every council and government clinic there is a tent which specifically focuses on suspected cholera and typhoid patients. The numbers who visit these tents have drastically decreased. This can be attributed to improved sanitation conditions, especially in Harare’s high-density suburbs. A vaccination programme was rolled out in the most affected suburbs, Mbare, Glen View and Budiriro.
“Barely any one comes here at the tent. I think the situation is under control but you can never be too comfortable. We are stocked up on medicines and can provide care if anyone is not well,” said a nurse stationed by the tent outside the Parirenyatwa Hospital, one of the largest public hospitals in Harare.
Non-governmental organisations, foreign missions, churches and corporations have moved to fill the gap to fight cholera. The approach has specifically focused on cholera and typhoid. It seems all is well on the surface but underneath a disaster is looming. The streets have been cleared of vendors who have been accused of spreading the bacteria, forcing them to operate at night for fear of having their wares confiscated.
Harare City Council is fighting to ensure a regular supply of water in the city. The Mayor of Harare, Councillor Herbert Gomba, pledged to improve water supply but admitted there are challenges. “We are going to make sure that we put in place mechanisms to avert a recurrence of the disease. You might have noticed that from our 100 day plan the water and sanitation sector is not adequately covered. These issues will go well beyond that 100-day plan but we are looking at a sustainable solution to deal with the current crisis,” he said. The mayor has previously promised to stop water disconnection and rationing but disconnections of bill defaulters and water rationing has continued.
Since the declaration of the outbreak in August the country has been plagued by shortages of fuel, basic commodities and medicines. There are medicines to fend off cholera and typhoid but the scarcity of petrol and diesel could be a possible time bomb if another outbreak starts. The government has said fuel was available but queues have persisted around the city.
Cholera, a water-borne disease, needs the highest quality of hygiene to be completely eradicated. However, government has been focusing on the medical treatment side and there is no movement to revamp the city’s ageing sanitary system. The health system, which detected the outbreak late, is on the verge of collapse because of price hikes in medicines and services.
The move to decongest the city by ridding the streets of vendors is not good enough. Harare needs a win-win situation where vendors trying to fend for their families can still work and the cities can be kept clean. The economy is a major push factor forcing people to sell on the streets. An improved economy will be key in winning the fight against communicable diseases, such as cholera.