Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

The mishandling of Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic

Posted by CM on December 5, 2008

Nothing seems to be going right for Mr. Mugabe’s government. The sad, horrific cholera epidemic is not just a public health/humanitarian tragedy, it is also a public relations disaster for an already image-battered government.

Mugabe has survived the seemingly un-survivable many times before. There is, therefore, no reason to believe this latest calamity will force him from office the way it would do the administration of a functioning democracy. But still, the cholera epidemic is more of a knock to whatever reputation his government  still had than even anything the perennially out-foxed opposition MDC could throw at it.

The government’s defense has been, “Yes, the water treatment and sewage systems are falling apart, but this is not our fault but that of  ‘illegal’ Western sanctions.”  This is now the standard excuse whenever there is a problem.

But whether one buys the sanctions reason as the reason for the pitiful state of the country or not, there are so many ways in which the Mugabe government has completely dropped the ball in this case, unfortunately as in many others.

The government first disastrously tried to treat the epidemic in an information-control way rather than as an emergency public health issue. It initially denied that there was a cholera crisis. But the evidence was overwhelming so that couldn’t work. Then it tried to downplay the extent of it, just as certain other organisations in the country and outside are trying to exaggerate an already terrible situation for their own fund-raising, propaganda and other reasons.  But the nature of the crisis is such that it could not be easily minimised.

When the weight of  the evidence of the extent of the problem became too clear to deny, the government was grudging about owning up to it in a way that entrenched its growing reputation for callousness.

First it was only the deputy minister of health who came out of the bunker to tentatively, sheepishly admit that there was a problem after all, and that it might well be of a magnitude and of an urgency beyond the ability of the government to handle.  As the crescendo of condemnation of the government increased along with the deaths, the minister of health eventually came out of wherever he had been hiding, seemingly reluctantly.

Some NGOs had been calling for the declaration of a disaster (probably for their own self-serving reasons, as even those with little or no ability to intervene in a public health crisis competed to put out statements showing their ‘concern,’ very useful at fund-raising time with their donors.) The government initially reacted in it’s usual way: with a ‘we can take care of it, everything is under control’ bravado. But the negative publicity against it, the illnesses and the deaths all conspired to force the government to change tack and admit that it had a problem of a scale beyond its ability to handle.  The subsequent appeals for international help were late and sounded grudging, insincere, unconcerned, cynical.

In many countries, even the most notorious dictatorships, a calamity of this magnitude would have shamed the ruler to make at least a show of being personally concerned about and touched by the suffering of ordinary people. Even at a cynical, politicking level, the ruler would have recognised this as an opportunity to claim to be a benevolent, concerned “man of the people.” He would have made a show tour of the worst affected areas to be filmed “with the people” for the evening news shows.

Not Mr. Mugabe. In the midst of this humanitarian crisis, this indictment of his government’s management abilities and this latest shame to its image, he chose to go to Qatar for an economic summit. While there and on his return, not a word did he say about the cholera crisis sweeping the land he wants to continue ruling no matter what. Inappropriately, bizarrely, disastrously, the only comments from him were from Qatar on how he believes developing countries should mobilise funds for their own development bank. Who on earth is going to listen to and respect the opinions of a president on such an issue whose government cannot handle importing water-treatment chemicals or cholera-treatment packages?

His government’s inability to do so cannot be because of “illegal santions.” The money spent on the trip of he, his wife and their entourage to attend a talk-shop in Doha, Qatar would have made a significant difference if it had been instead applied to importing aluminium sulfate for treating water to help prevent cholera, or hydration packages to treat those afflicted. And canceling the trip to instead spend time at home even just pretending to be concerned about Zimbabweans dying of cholera, of all things in 2008, would have prevented the incremental increase in the image of Mugabe as an incredibly small-minded, self-important, deluded despot with no interest in the most pressing problems of his fellow citizens, and of no relevance to addressing those problems.

‘Illegal’ sanctions or not, what the Mugabe government has done with this latest own goal is to show its lack of concern for the citizens it claims it clings to power to serve, and its horribly misplaced sense of priorities at a time of numerous escalating crises.

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