Cholera in the Time of Mugabe
May 2009

by Will Baxter

The girl is slipping in and out of consciousness when she's brought into the emergency ward on a gurney. At first I just watch as a nurse hooks her up to a saline drip. She's so weak, the only part of her that moves are her eyelids, which occasionally flutter open and then close again. Otherwise she is completely motionless.

© Will Baxter/WpN
A 23-year-old Zimbabwean woman infected with cholera passes in and out of consciousness as she is admitted to the Beatrice Infectious Diseases Hospital and given rehydration fluids through an IV in Harare, Zimbabwe, Dec. 23, 2008.
When the nurse finishes, I move in and shoot a few frames. The girl wakes briefly, but then just as quickly she is asleep again.

The ward is mostly full—with men, women and children – all infected with cholera. I was in Zimbabwe to cover the recent outbreak, and I had finally gained access to a couple of the cholera treatment clinics after a hefty amount of smooth talking with one of the government ministers.

Cholera is a very treatable disease, but Zimbabwe just wasn't ready for it. Ravaged by economic collapse, a failing public health-care system and dysfunctional leadership, the last thing the country needed was a disease capable of exploiting all of its glaring faults. But that's exactly what the cholera epidemic has done.

Lead by gross incompetence on the part of President Robert Mugabe's government, a combination of factors allowed this treatable disease to mushroom into a catastrophe that eventually infected 100,000 people and claimed over 4,200 lives.

In December, just one day before Mugabe brazenly declared, "there is no cholera" in Zimbabwe, I got into the polyclinic in Budiriro and saw dozens of patients receiving medical treatment for the disease. And new patients continued to arrive each day.

During this time, in the capital, Harare, many of the large hospitals closed while doctors and nurses went on strike over pitifully low salaries and lack of medicines. With so many hospitals closing their doors, cholera patients were forced to seek treatment at poorly staffed local government clinics. These centers relied heavily on the skills and knowledge of a limited number of staff from Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) to coordinate patient registration, establish a system of triage and assist in the treatment and recovery of affected patients.

At the same time, the country's water and sanitation systems were barely functioning. In towns like Chitungwiza and Budiriro—both hit hard by the cholera outbreak—garbage piled up along roadsides while raw sewage spewed from broken pipes, the filthy liquid meandered down residential streets, past children's play areas.

© Will Baxter/WpN
A Zimbabwean child infected with cholera is admitted to the Beatrice Infectious Diseases Hospital and given rehydration fluids through an IV in Harare, Zimbabwe, Dec. 23, 2008.
Educating the public on preventing the spread of cholera proved difficult due to lack of infrastructure and economic factors. Mugabe's government also failed to take any initiative in launching a preventative campaign, simply blaming the outbreak on the British.

Cholera is typically transmitted through contaminated water, or through direct contact with fecal matter from a cholera-infected person. But despite warning campaigns by the World Health Organization, UNICEF and MSF, unsafe hygiene practices persisted.

On the outskirts of Budiriro, I found women washing clothes in a stream polluted by sewage from the township. Closer to the city center, in the most ironic of situations, I saw a boy drinking dirty water from a plastic bottle while he waited in line at a water tank that actually contained clean water provided by UNICEF. And then throughout these towns children could be seen playing near open sewage.

Photographing in Zimbabwe is difficult at best, and impossible on a lot of days. A few days later at the Granaville Cemetery there were two funerals for cholera victims happening simultaneously—one for a 37-year-old man and another for a 74-year-old woman. Cemetery workers were also preparing a grave for a child that had died of cholera, but before the funeral procession arrived I was warned by a cemetery employee to leave because a government official had shown up.

Most foreign journalists are banned from reporting in Zimbabwe, and strict media censorship is practiced by the government. After Mugabe's statements regarding the end of cholera in Zimbabwe, orders were sent to cemetery employees not to allow any journalists to photograph funerals.

The same rules applied at the treatment clinics. Even international NGOs were refused permission to take photographs in the clinics, even for the purpose of launching appeals for donations.

© Will Baxter/WpN
A cemetery worker digs a grave for a 7-year-old child that died of cholera in the B Wing of the Granaville Cemetery, designated for cholera victims, near Budiriro, Zimbabwe, Dec. 14, 2008.
The cholera epidemic served as a catalyst for intensified pressure by Western nations and some African neighbors calling on Mugabe to step down. South Africa, however, which garners a great deal of influence in the region, failed to join calls for Mugabe to relinquish power.

It seemed there might be a ray of light when South African President Thabo Mbeki left office, but then against all intelligent reasoning he was allowed to retain his role in mediating issues in Zimbabwe, even though he has consistently failed to put any real pressure on Mugabe to make reforms or step down.

The African regional body SADC (Southern African Development Committee) has also shown itself to be completely powerless when dealing with issues regarding Zimbabwe, either failing to reprimand Mugabe's government for its offenses, or having their rulings completely ignored by the 85-year-old dictator.

While the cholera epidemic seems to have run its course, the country is still in the grip of social and economic collapse. In defiance of a SADC Tribunal ruling, Mugabe has continued the government's program of seizing white-owned property for redistribution to landless blacks. And despite the formation of a power-sharing government, Mugabe and Zanu-PF persist in the illegal detention of opposition political leaders. With no one willing to intervene, the country appears set to continue down this path of continuous turmoil until the aging Mugabe's time comes to an end.

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© Will Baxter

Will Baxter is a 31-year-old photographer based in Bangkok. In the last year he has worked mostly in Burma, Zimbabwe, Nepal and Afghanistan. His recent work has been published by Newsweek, Time, Stern, New York Times, Washington Post, Internazionale, Parade and Medicins Sans Frontieres.

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