Zimbabwe Is Dying

Every time I write about Zimbabwe, the news is even worse than before. Every time, I cannot imagine how Robert Mugabe could possibly stay in power when things are so bad. And every time, I remember all the previous times and think: things have gotten so much worse than I ever thought possible that I have no idea whether there is a bottom to Zimbabwe’s misery, and if so, where it might be.

The latest catastrophe is a cholera epidemic:

“In recent months, cholera has killed more than 570 people and infected more than 12,700 others in Zimbabwe. The disease has since surfaced in Botswana and Mozambique. Zambia, to the north, is screening for symptoms at border posts. (…)”

“The outbreak is worst in Harare, much of which has no running water because the bankrupt government cannot buy purifying chemicals and pipes are broken. In the packed townships, sewage runs freely.

The start of the rainy season is threatening to spread bacteria, while the summer heat is increasing the need to drink — though many people are too poor to buy wood to build fires for boiling what little water they can find.

Making matters worse, a health-care system that was once one of Africa’s finest has fully collapsed after years of deterioration, Western diplomats and local health-care workers say. Government hospitals have shut down, in part because hyperinflation has left employees unable to pay for transportation to work on their salaries.

“Our central hospitals are literally not functioning,” Health Minister David Parirenyatwa said at a meeting of government and international aid officials Wednesday, according to the state-run Herald newspaper.

Western diplomats and health-care workers say emergency services are nonexistent because of shortages of supplies and staff. Power outages mean surgeries are performed by the light of cellphones. A scarcity of coal means medical waste is incinerated only sporadically.”

The cholera epidemic is due to a lack of clean water, garbage collection, and functioning sewage systems:

“Most of Zimbabwe’s urban areas have gone for several months without water. Many urban households are unable to use their toilets, which are completely blocked by overflowing sewage. Last month, key institutions such as the High Court and Parliament buildings in Harare had to be closed because of the acute lack of water.

Zimbabwean cities have battled to provide water and refuse collection services while the country is subject to frequent power cuts, a result of a severe foreign currency squeeze. The current cholera outbreak is blamed on broken down sewers, uncollected garbage and a shortage of clean drinking water in Zimbabwe’s cities.”

And that is due to the fact that Zimbabwe’s water company took over providing (and charging money for) water, but didn’t bother to maintain the water system. In other words, they used it to get cash as long as they could, and let it collapse.

Meanwhile, Oxfam’s Country Director for Zimbabwe says that “almost half of Zimbabwe’s 13 million population have been weakened by serious food shortages and indications were that more than 5 million people will urgently need food aid by January.” As of Nov. 14th, Zimbabwe’s inflation rate was estimated at 89,700,000,000,000,000,000,000%. (And no, my finger didn’t just get stuck on the zero key: that is 89.7 sextillion percent.) A lot of transactions are now carried out in foreign currencies, which leaves people who don’t have a ready way of getting dollars or rand out in the cold.

The one possible sign of hope is that the Army is rioting (more background here and here):

“Starting Nov. 27 and continuing until Monday, Army soldiers rampaged through the capital, Harare, after hearing that the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe would be unable to print enough currency to pay their daily wages. Hundreds of soldiers took their anger out on street vendors, looting the markets for food and other goods. (…)

The looting by members of the armed forces is the beginning of an end to Mr. Mugabe’s regime, says University of Zimbabwe political science lecturer John Makumbe. “It might look or sound small, but it is an indication of the dissatisfaction that is in the Army and the general public of Zimbabwe,” he says.”

The riots are, of course, horrible for the shopkeepers, forex traders, and other civilians who are harmed in them. But they are the only sign so far that Mugabe’s hold on power might possibly be weakening.