THE BLOG
02/24/2009 04:58 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Why Obama Needs A Special Envoy to Africa (and not just George Clooney)

This hardly seems like the time to worry about cholera in Zimbabwe. Or the rapidly deteriorating availability of medical care for the dying and women unfortunate enough to be pregnant. Heaven knows we've got our own problems, what with zombie banks, people losing their homes and suddenly budget-conscious GOP governors fighting over whether to take money from those spend-happy Democrats. (As someone not particularly eager to see my state fall off the proverbial cliff, I'm rooting for Team Schwarzenegger vs. Team Jindal.)

But as grim as our troubles are, things could be much worse. As Bill Clinton might note in his effort to get our current president to lighten up, we could have a despot like Robert Mugabe, who threatens his political rivals and denies that a cholera epidemic is ravaging his people and complicating other problems like starvation. In fact, Mugabe seems to be doing his best to deepen the crisis by thwarting aid groups from providing medical supplies and care.

The situation in Zimbabwe is so dire that last week Doctors Without Borders or MSF, the humanitarian organization, felt compelled to hold a press teleconference.

"What I witnessed in the last few days is the kind of health crisis that we as MSF doctors usually only see in war zones, or in countries in the immediate aftermath of conflict," Dr. Christophe Fournier, International Council President of MSF, who had just returned from a visit, said during the teleconference from Johannesburg. "Zimbabwe is a country literally falling apart at the seams."

Since last August alone MSF has treated 45,000 suspected cases of cholera. On the surface this might sound like everything's going swimmingly or at least is marginally under control.

But as Manuel Lopez, who's been leading MSF's mission in Zimbabwe for two years, told reporters: "In the last week of January and the first week of February, we've had the highest number of cases since the epidemic started in August, still affecting all the ten provinces in Zimbabwe and 56 out of 62 districts in the whole country so we are far from over."

It hasn't helped that the country's health system is collapsing. Clinics and hospitals are closed. Doctors and medicine are scarce. And many Zimbabweans, especially those in rural areas, can't afford the 2 or 3 U.S. dollars it takes to get treated anyway. So they die at home.

And that's not the half of it. I haven't even mentioned the thousands of AIDS patients who are going untreated. Or that maternity wards in hospitals are closing because women can't afford the fees. Or that when mothers do go to a clinic to give birth, they sometimes have to bring their own water and gloves.

In the meantime, children who are fleeing across the border into South Africa to find food and medical care are being attacked and robbed.

I know this is not very cheerful, but try to stay with me here.

MSF has been trying to ease the crisis, but the government hasn't exactly been cooperative. When I asked Lopez for specifics, here are a few things he mentioned in an email:

In December, when the number of cholera patients in Harare had reached a peak with close to 2,000 admissions a week, it took weeks to get permission to open a second empty ward in Harare's Infectious Disease Hospital to increase the capacity for cholera treatment.


"Despite the shortages of health professionals in Zimbabwe, MSF faces restrictions on bringing staff into the country.

"Medical doctors are required to undertake a three-month internship. This has been more problematic since the major hospitals where these internships are performed have closed.

Work permits for international staff are difficult to obtain and renew. On average, it takes about three months to obtain a work permit.

Needless to say, Dr. Fournier would like the government to let MSF do its work. He's also calling on the U.N. and donor groups to stop sitting on the fence because they have issues with a guy who wasn't really elected, and to get in there and pitch in.

I have a suggestion, too. Why doesn't Obama appoint a special envoy to Africa, not just Darfur, considering his family ties and the continent's unrealized promise? I know we're in debt to Asia, as evidenced by Hillary Clinton's tour where she met with virtually everyone except rapper M.I.A. But Africa deserves our attention too. And not just from George Clooney's occasional outings along the border of Darfur.

For the post I'd like to nominate Samantha Power. Whenever you're ready, Ms. Power, I'd be happy to bunk with you in Zimbabwe.