12/25/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Zimbabwe Health Crisis "A Disaster of Unimaginable Proportions"

Imagine for just a moment hospitals shutting down in downtown Los Angeles, dead bodies sprinkled over Sunset Boulevard, free-flowing water and electricity a figment of the imagination and Governor Schwarzenegger intentionally blocking humanitarian relief and food aid into the crumbling state. Something so unimaginable can never happen in this day and age, right? Wrong.

Zimbabwe, a county of 13 million people in southern Africa has been on the brink of collapse for some time now. However, just over the last two weeks, a complete collapse of the health system and sanitation infrastructure has given way to a major cholera epidemic spreading throughout the country, and a breakdown in delivery of medications for HIV-AIDS, TB, malaria and chronic illness.

The government's obstructionism is speeding up the massive loss of life. Just this weekend, a group including former U.N. chief Kofi Annan and former U.S. President Carter had to cancel a humanitarian assessment visit to Zimbabwe when the Mugabe government refused them visas, making travel to the country impossible. The New York Times reported that "Mr. Mugabe's decision to forbid a visit by (the group), was a measure of the Zimbabwean leader's disdain for international opinion at a time when deepening hunger, raging hyperinflation and the collapse of health, sanitation and education services have crippled Zimbabwe".

The situation is so out of hand that health workers from Harare Central and Parirenyatwa Hospitals took the courageous step of publicly protesting this week against the state of the public health system. They gathered in the street, calling for an urgent response to the situation. However, riot police forcefully dispersed the hundreds of doctors, nurses and other health workers who had assembled to protest poor salaries and working conditions. In fact, according to this BBC report, riot police sealed the exits of the country's main referral hospital, Parirenyatwa, to prevent staff including doctors, specialists, nurses and engineers from marching into the city center. "Undeterred by such threats, we continued marching but we were thoroughly beaten by the members of the police force which effectively ended the demonstration, but we believe our voices were heard!" said one Information Officer for the Zimbabwe Health Students' Network.

The health situation in Zimbabwe, which has been declining for years, is now untenable. Public health workers in Harare report that due to lack of medicine, equipment, services, and staff, public hospitals and clinics are essentially closed, resulting in preventable deaths. There is no access to care for those who cannot afford private clinics. The only maternity hospital in the capital is also closed. Patients with fractures, meningitis and other acute and dangerous conditions are being sent home, according to another medical source.

According to the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, a non-partisan and non-political professional association for doctors and other health professionals in Zimbabwe, authorities closed indefinitely the country's most prominent medical school and sent students away. Essential medicines are unavailable to treat the very diseases that the government's gross negligence has exacerbated. Anti-retroviral therapy for HIV/AIDS patients and TB treatment for chronically ill patients has been severely disrupted.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer, reproached the Harare government for failing to maintain the health infrastructure. The deteriorating water and sanitation system has led to a cholera epidemic spreading throughout the country and daily death tolls are on the rise. Nearly 300 people have died in Zimbabwe in recent weeks in the cholera outbreak which has hit about 6,000 people, the The World Health Organization told the BBC last Friday.

Fresh water is no longer pumped into urban areas, which will only exacerbate the spread of this infectious disease caused by contaminated water. One doctor at Harare hospital described the situation as a "disaster of unimaginable proportions."

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), in a press release issued on November 19 stated, "Given the continued gross negligence of the government of Zimbabwe and the callous disregard for the safety and wellbeing of its citizens, together with the dire signs of impending lethal epidemic disease, the Zimbabwe government must admit its failure to manage the national health system and seek assistance from the international community." The organization is calling on governments of the world to act with the utmost urgency. PHR is circulating a petition this week to urge Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to take decisive action immediately.

Diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions against the Mugabe regime have thus far failed to curtail widespread and systematic human rights violations including willful denial of health care and obstruction of humanitarian aid as well as mass killing, forced displacement, torture and arbitrary arrest. The current government has acted with impunity and must be held to account. "We have been left uncertain of our future which we have sweated for all these years and hopes of emancipating ourselves have been shattered," stated the Information Officer for Zimbabwe Health Students' Network.