Thousands in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare have been infected by the outbreak of cholera with at least 45 deaths recorded in less than 3 weeks.
Cholera is a waterborne disease that is common among many others in the Southern African nation.
In a bid to contain the contagious disease, police have tried to clear Harare’s streets of vendors selling fresh fruit and vegetables. But the daring and desperate ones defy the orders, despite facing the wrath of law enforcers.
Many Zimbabweans have resorted to street vending that is attributed to battling a liquidity crisis that has led to cash and fuel shortages, and a significant rise in basic commodity prices in recent years.
While some fear the widespread clampdown on the sale of fresh produce is too harsh, Michael Chideme, public relations manager for Harare City Council said containing the outbreak was the government’s top priority.
“The major thrust of our work right now is to contain cholera so we have to do what is necessary. If vending must be controlled, that is what we will do,” said Chideme.
The rise in prices of basic goods, coupled with persistent fuel shortages, has revived fears of economic collapse from hyperinflation that occurred in 2008.
A disputed and violent presidential runoff vote in June 2008 declared then president Robert Mugabe the winner.
Months later, deaths of more than 4,000 people from cholera was one of the key factors that pushed Mugabe to accept a pact to form a government of national unity with several opposition parties.
The Movement for Democratic Change – led by Morgan Tsvangirai, Mugabe’s biggest rival – was appointed prime minister in February 2009.
A decade later, Zimbabwe seems to be back at a familiar crossroads.
Emmerson Mnangagwa, Mugabe’s successor, narrowly won the presidential vote held in July against his younger, charismatic competitor Nelson Chamisa.
Despite losing a constitutional court challenge last month, Chamisa claims he won the popular vote and has vowed to install himself as the “people’s president”, but because of the cholera outbreak, the inauguration was postponed.
In a similar vein, mass gatherings have been restricted by police leading to music concerts and festivals being rescheduled.
According to WHO, an oral vaccination campaign will be rolled out shortly targeting 450,000 people living in the worst-affected areas of the capital.
Anderson Chimusoro, WHO Zimbabwe’s disease prevention and control officer, attributes cholera’s recurrence in Zimbabwe due to rapid urban expansion.
“There are some areas in the country with poor access to clean water,” Chimusoro said.
“This was caused by rapid and unplanned urbanisation with limited access to clean water and sanitation. This has also led to overcrowding and poor hygiene among the population.”
Historically, the lack of a strong city management in Harare has led to the rise of unplanned suburbs, sprawling rubbish sites, and poor water treatment forcing the growing city population to resort to its own means of housing, water and refuse disposal.
Recently, Mnangagwa acknowledged Harare’s water is contaminated with raw sewage.
“In the area of sanitation, which has caused cholera in Zimbabwe, we now understand that the system is over 60 years old,” Mnangagwa said recently in an address to Zimbabweans living in the United States.
“Sewage and water pipes leak and interexchange quantities resulting in cholera.”
The president is currently in the US attending the UN General Assembly and soliciting international support, but so far the post-Mugabe regime has received a lukewarm response particularly from the US, which recently renewed targeted sanctions until there is significant change in Zimbabwe’s human-rights situation.
Without US support, the chances of Zimbabwe accessing a bailout from international financiers could be difficult, dashing hopes for a speedy economic turnaround for the country.
While Mugabe’s former ally struggles to gain credibility abroad, at home authorities are battling to address a problem with long roots.
As part of its long-term solution strategy, Chideme said the city council was replacing blocked sewer lines.
“We are mobilising all available resources to replace the piping system to make sure that we get this problem under control. As city council, we aren’t really able to say how long the programme will go on, but it depends on how best we can mobilise funding and manage the situation.”
The government has launched an appeal to local and international donors for $63 million in order to support its health and sanitation response. However, limited donor support for Zimbabwe, as well as the economic uncertainty, could stall the realisation of Mnangagwa’s victory promise of a new dawn.