HPU
Zimbabwe’s inhumane economic and health care disaster
Author: Jasson UrbachDate: 29 January 2009

Zimbabwe’s economic meltdown has caused a number of preventable and curable diseases to run rampant, claiming lives needlessly. Basic services have been neglected and precautionary measures to prevent the outbreak of diseases such as cholera and malaria have been abandoned. It is estimated that 2,755 people have died in the cholera epidemic and approximately 1.6 million people are at risk of contracting malaria.

The Zimbabwean malaria control programme, once the envy of many sub-Saharan African countries, has been neglected, partly because limited resources have been diverted to the cholera outbreak, but primarily due to the economic disaster. The cornerstones of Zimbabwe’s successful malaria control programme hinged on the use of insecticides to control the malaria carrying anopheles mosquito, coupled with effective anti-malaria treatments. The successful Zimbabwean programme meant that many of its citizens did not suffer a bout of malaria in years – so any immunity they had, is now gone, leaving them vulnerable to the disease.

As a result of starvation, malnutrition-related diseases such as kwashiorkor are increasing at astounding rates. It is estimated that between 3,000 and 3,500 people die every week from HIV/AIDS and related opportunistic infections. Tuberculosis cases continue to rise and with unreliable and inconsistent TB treatment, the prospects of drug resistant strains of the bacteria worsen.

If there were to be a break-out of malaria, the potential for an epidemic is high. The monitoring and evaluation component of disease management has been abandoned. Furthermore, with no fuel to carry spraymen to villages to conduct the indoor residual spraying and no money to pay the salaries of the spraymen, the vector control programme has collapsed. Similarly, with no doctors and no supplies in hospitals and clinics the parasite has been allowed to run rampant.

Thousands of Zimbabweans cross the borders into neighbouring countries to escape these horrific conditions, and as they flee their home country, they carry with them the malaria parasites and other communicable diseases such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Public health facilities in neighbouring countries are therefore put under increasing pressure as the incidence of these diseases increases.

Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of the African continent, has been reduced to ruins under the despotic rule of Mugabe. Life expectancy at birth has plummeted from 60 years in 1990 to an estimated 34 years, and according to the World Bank, gross national product per capita in real terms, was lower in 2007 ($340) than it was in 1980 ($599). For several years unemployment has been reported to be over 80 per cent, although realistically it’s probably closer to 100 per cent.

In response to the economic crisis, the Zimbabwean reserve bank has frenetically printed money to support the corrupt and failing government-owned enterprises and to sustain minimal government services. The high growth in money supply has resulted in hyperinflation. The reserve bank recently released a Z$100,000,000,000,000 note, equivalent to approximately US$33. The hyperinflationary environment is not conducive to saving. But savings are imperative for any economy. Without savings there is no investment, which in turn reduces the productivity of the economy and individuals. Without increases in productivity, wages cannot rise, leading to a crash in savings, completing the vicious downward spiral. Not surprisingly, people have resorted to trading in foreign currency but the Zimbabwean government has largely outlawed trade in foreign currency, except for a few licensed traders.

The international donor community is willing to assist Zimbabwe but the problem is and remains the Zimbabwean government. The power sharing agreement has failed.  It could never have worked with opposition party members and human rights activists being arrested and continually harassed. As long as the furore over power continues there will be no end in sight to the political turmoil that is causing untold harm and suffering to Zimbabwe’s citizens. Until there are real and tangible democratic reforms that increase economic freedom and civil liberties for ordinary Zimbabwean citizens, international assistance will not be forthcoming given that these funds could potentially be used for other ends. To restore basic healthcare needs to Zimbabweans and to rebuild the healthcare system, some dramatic and far-reaching political and economic reforms are needed. Price controls and other artificial barriers preventing the market from functioning must be removed immediately and the Zimbabwean dollar must be replaced by a stable currency to curb hyperinflation.

In his inauguration address, US President Obama said that people will judge leaders on what they can build, not destroy and that the US will extend its hand if they are willing to unclench their fist. This message should be heard not just by Mugabe but by his enablers and defenders in SADC and the rest of Africa as well.

Author: Jasson Urbach is an economist with the Free Market Foundation and a director of Africa Fighting Malaria. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

HPU Feature Article / 27 January 2009