HomeOpinion & AnalysisThe culprits behind the cholera outbreak

The culprits behind the cholera outbreak

A festering cholera outbreak has killed at least 28 people in a short period. Government is blaming the Harare municipality and the local authority says it’s government. And conspiracy theorists think a prowling Chemical Ali has planted the vibrio cholerae bacterium to kill people for some weird reason.

corruptionwatch WITH TAWANDA MAJONI

The third theory is as interesting as it is bizarre. You will remember Ali Hassan Abd Al-Majid, the former Iraqi Defence minister and head of intelligence services. He was nicknamed Chemical Ali for the mass killing of Kurds in the 1980s and 1990s using chemical weapons. Here, some people seem convinced that there is at least one person who is in the business of tossing the cholera bacterium into our sewers whenever there is a disputed election.

The theorists bring a sexy argument to the podium, and it goes like this: There are people who want to use disease outbreaks like cholera to undermine Zanu PF governments. The outbreaks are meant to bring pain and death to a lot of people and then make the surviving ones very angry so that they can rise up against the administration. This happens when there are acutely disputed elections in which the opposition would have apparently won, but had the ballots stolen from them.

You see, this is what happened in 2008, they say. When Morgan Tsvangirai beat Robert Mugabe in the March elections, Zanu PF started maiming and killing people ahead of the June 27 run-off. Tsvangirai pulled out of the run-off in cowed protest, Mugabe ran on his own and got a fresh mandate as president, but the result was widely condemned. This time around, something similar happened. Nelson Chamisa still insists he beat Emmerson Mnangagwa on July 30. The Constitutional Court may have ruled that Chamisa had no case challenging Mnangagwa’s victory, but the fact remains that the presidential poll result was hotly disputed. That made Chemical Ali so, so angry, never mind who he or she might be.

And there is another awkward similarity between the 2008 and 2018 outbreaks that points to the involvement of Chemical Ali, the conspiracy theorists add. The last outbreak occurred in August, two months after the run-off. The current one is coming in September, two months after the July polls. That must be the time Chemical Ali needs to scout for sewer pipes in which to place the cholera bacterium, they say.

What the theorists conveniently forget to tell us, though, is that Chemical Ali, if ever he or she existed, is not the one who goes around blocking sewers, ripping sewer pipes and starving residents of water. That means the real blame lies elsewhere. Obadiah Moyo, the new Health minister, last week decided to dump the buck at the Harare City Council doorstep. He accused the municipality of failing to attend to burst sewer pipes in Glen View and Budiriro, which so far form the epicentre of the outbreak. Then Herbert Gomba, the new mayor, struck back and said it was in fact government that was failing to provide the necessary resources to fix the pipes.

The truth is plain enough to see. Both the municipality and government are squarely to blame. You need to locate the drivers of cholera first for this to stick. Cholera outbreaks have social, economic and political dimensions to them. You easily get them when there is poor access to health care, relevant infrastructure is wanting, there is overcrowding and people are poor. Economic problems like the current cash shortages, lack of foreign currency to buy water chemicals and the inability to motivate employees through sustainable salaries worsen the situation. And where you have political instability, bad governance and misplaced priorities as well as prevalent corruption, cholera finds a good home for itself. Chemical Ali can only step in when the conditions are good to go.

Gomba has been with the Harare municipality for a long time and knows what I am talking about here. We are still to get answers as to what happened to the $144 million loan that was sourced from China about a decade ago. What we know, though, is that the municipality didn’t get the full loan as it was busy bungling things. It failed to adequately rehabilitate old and install new sewer and water reticulation equipment as was supposed to be the case. What we also know is that the municipality went about buying luxury cars that hardly had anything to do with the rehabilitation and upgrading of the works. We know too that a big chunk of the money was used to pay hefty salaries to people working on the projects and little was set aside to buy much-needed water chemicals. Had that loan been properly handled, the sewer and water supply systems would be in far better shape.

Both government and the municipality just don’t know how to arrange their priorities. As a result, resources have wound up at the wrong destinations and at the wrong time. Take Mnangagwa, for instance. He recently chartered an expensive Gulfstream 650 plane to ferry former first lady Grace Mugabe from Qatar so that she could attend her mother’s funeral. The last time I checked, that money was drawn from government and is said to have run into millions.

That means such a huge bag of money being used to benefit just one person. If that money had been used to repair burst sewer pipes and buy water treatment chemicals, the risk of cholera would have been minimised significantly and the deaths we have seen so far averted. But that is not all. Over the months and years, government has been busy putting money where it mustn’t go. There was no point, for instance, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars buying cars for chiefs when it was well known that people were literally swimming in sewage in most of the south-western suburbs.

Chemical Ali is not the one who has been settling people illegally and causing overcrowding in places that don’t have piped water or toilets. The Zanu PF government has been doing that to win voters in urban areas. But then, councillors have been doing something similar, criminally selling land to hapless home-seekers and turning a blind eye to illegal settlements.

Vendors now choke the streets of Harare, providing fertile ground for the spread of diseases like cholera. Yes, the vending malaise is fed by high levels of unemployment and stinging poverty. But who is responsible for this? What do you get when you adopt a useless surrogate currency like bond notes, against all the advice from experts? The economy goes into coma, more jobs are lost and the centre fails to hold. That is bad governance. Add to that municipal and government corruption in the awarding of tenders critical for health delivery, good water distribution and sanitation and the time bomb explodes.

Tawanda Majoni is the national coordinator at Information for Development Trust and can be contacted on tmajoni@idt.org.zw

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