Control of Zimbabwe's shattered health system should be handed over to the United Nations, an independent doctors group has demanded.
As the official death toll from the country's cholera epidemic yesterday topped 2,000, Physicians for Human Rights said government corruption was killing innocent people. The international doctors' group also called for President Robert Mugabe to be investigated by the International Criminal Court at the launch of a report titled Health in Ruins – A Man-made Disaster in Zimbabwe.
The World Health Organisation confirmed that at least 40,000 people have contracted cholera, a preventable disease, and 2,024 had died. Doctors and nurses working in Zimbabwe, as well as senior officials at the health ministry, have privately said that the real death toll is likely to be much higher. The report says: "These findings add to the growing evidence that Robert Mugabe and his regime may well be guilty of crimes against humanity."
The findings of the US-based group were signed by the South African Nobel peace laureate Desmond Tutu and the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson among others.
The ongoing international outcry has had little impact on President Mugabe. Power-sharing talks with the opposition MDC have been deadlocked since last September, with the government refusing to dilute its control over the security services. "The Mugabe regime has used any means at its disposal, including the politicisation of the health sector, to maintain its hold on power," the report says.
The cholera crisis has brought renewed attention to the collapse of infrastructure in what was among Africa's wealthiest countries only 15 years ago. The doctors also accuse the government of deliberately using food shortages to political advantage, with supplies being denied to people who do not support Mr Mugabe and his party
"There is a lot of evidence that it [food] is being used as a political weapon," said David Sanders, a Zimbabwean doctor.
Malnutrition which has reached epic proportions, with five million people requiring food aid this year, has compounded existing health problems such as HIV and made curable diseases such as cholera fatal.
Zimbabwe is suffering the worst cholera outbreak in Africa since 1999 when 2,085 people died in Nigeria, according to UN data. The waterborne disease, which causes severe diarrhoea and dehydration, has spread to all 10 provinces of Zimbabwe.
The British Red Cross yesterday expressed concern that the continuing rains are making things worse, while the custom of returning the dead to their rural areas for burial was helping to spread the disease.
While Zimbabwe's government belatedly admitted the existence of the epidemic and called for international assistance, the economic meltdown in the country has destroyed its health system and left ordinary people without medical assistance. A government doctor's pay slip seen by Physicians for Human Rights showed she had been paid a monthly salary equivalent to 22p in sterling.