Andrew Meldrum, Guardian (Manchester), Feb. 19, 2007
Police in Zimbabwe fired teargas and used water cannon to break up an opposition rally yesterday as it was confirmed that three people had died in a cholera outbreak caused by water contamination in the country’s increasingly chaotic towns and cities.
More than 10 trucks of heavily armed riot police prevented the meeting of supporters of the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai in Highfield township, despite Zimbabwe’s courts declaring the rally legal. Police stopped a football match and sealed off the Highfield sports ground to prevent any gathering of people in the rising political tension.
Before the armed patrols moved in, angry youths had pelted police foot patrols with rocks.
The cholera deaths are the first fatalities to be officially reported since the disease took hold last month. Nineteen people in the eastern Mabvuku township have been taken to hospital and residents report that scores more are ill but cannot afford to go to a doctor.
The health minister, David Parirenyatwa, said the cholera threat was under control, but health experts disagree.
“The spread of cholera is an indictment of the government’s neglect of basic services,” said a Harare doctor, who did not want to be named. “The systemic decline in standards is a threat to public health. Child mortality is rising, life expectancy is dropping. And people are getting angry.”
Labour unrest is growing. Government hospitals are crippled by a strike of doctors and nurses, now entering its eighth week. More than 180,000 civil servants are poised to strike tomorrow after rejecting the government’s offer of a 250% pay raise, which falls far short of the country’s inflation rate of 1,600%.
State-owned newspapers claimed that the civil servants were planning the strike merely to spoil President Robert Mugabe’s 83rd birthday on Wednesday. Officials are working to raise more than £600,000 for a lavish party for Mr Mugabe to be held in the central city of Gweru at the weekend.
The cholera deaths highlight Zimbabwe’s rapidly declining health standards. Until recently the country enjoyed some of the best public health standards in Africa. Since 2000, however, the situation has worsened. Zimbabwe now has the world’s lowest life expectancy of 34 years for women and 37 years for men, according to the World Health Organisation.
Zimbabwean officials confirm a widespread breakdown in the water distribution system. Many Harare areas go without water for weeks. People dig shallow wells and sell water that has been contaminated by the widespread use of pit latrines.
Raw sewage flows through township streets because broken pipes are not repaired for months, said a township dweller.
Officials admit raw sewage is being pumped into Harare’s main reservoir, Lake Chivero.