Globalist Perspective

Health and Human Rights in Zimbabwe

How have recent human rights violations in Zimbabwe led to the deterioration of the country’s health care system?


  • Upwards of 83% of Zimbabweans are living on less than $2 a day — leaving 45% of the population malnourished.
  • Zimbabwe is the country with the fourth-largest rate of HIV infection in the world — one in five adults have HIV/AIDS.
  • "It can no longer be said the health service is near collapse. The emptying of central and other hospitals of staff, and therefore patients, means the health service has collapsed."

The disappearance of Jestina Mukoko, a prominent human rights activist and civil society leader in Zimbabwe, is yet more proof that the country is descending into irreversible chaos.

Hit by a prolonged political crisis, the country is now facing an epidemic of cholera of unknown, but large proportions. Survival has become the priority for most Zimbabweans.

The health crisis is made even more serious by the critical shortage of doctors and nurses, who are leaving the country in increasing numbers. Harare’s three main hospitals do not admit patients. They are left to their own resources to survive.

Doctors have been leaving the country in droves because of low salaries and poor working conditions.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) declared in June 2007, “It can no longer be said the health service is near collapse. The emptying of central and other hospitals of staff, and therefore patients, means the health service has collapsed.”

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Today, the country’s population is suffering the consequences of government policies that seriously affect their health and quality of life. With inflation rates soaring at an unprecedented 231 million percent, the country is trapped in a political impasse that seriously affects the humanitarian situation — and demands urgent measures to avoid a catastrophe.

Hopes for a political settlement following the power-sharing agreement between President Robert Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai are quickly being dashed following these adversaries’ incapacity to agree over control of the most important ministries.

In the meantime, the health situation in the country continues to deteriorate, affecting mainly children and those most vulnerable. The United Nations estimates that more than five million people — almost half of the country’s population — are in need of food aid. Upwards of 83% of Zimbabweans are living on less than $2 a day, and 45% of the population is malnourished, according to the UN World Food Programme.

Rachel Pounds, Save the Children’s Zimbabwe Country Director, has called attention to the increasing malnutrition level among children and to the need for increased food aid.

Many children are eating rats or inedible roots such as makuri (which is riddled with toxic parasites) to control hunger, according to that NGO. The root has no nutritional value and provokes terrible stomach pains.

The food crisis has had a significant impact on children’s education. Many children drop out of school because they cannot afford to go, because they need to work for food or because their teachers cannot afford the journey to the schools. In addition, many teachers have become HIV infected.

Lack of proper nutrition seriously affects people’s immune systems and makes them more vulnerable to illnesses. This is particularly important for those with HIV/AIDS, which affects one in five adults in Zimbabwe — the country with the fourth-highest rate of HIV infection in the world.

Only a third of the 300,000 Zimbabweans who need antiretroviral drugs are now receiving them. Lack of adequate statistics makes it difficult to follow the course of the epidemic.

The situation in Zimbabwe’s main cities is critical, but it is even more dire in rural areas. There is a tremendous lack of basic materials, refrigerators, medicines and medical personnel. Ambulances are grounded for lack of fuel and spare parts. Many of the rural clinics have been left under the supervision of nurses’ aides, who lack the knowledge and means to treat most patients.

Significant gains in child health in the 1980s are being eroded, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Mortality rates for children under five years of age rose from 80 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 123 per 1,000 in 2005. Immunization programs now cover less than 70% of children for some major childhood diseases such as polio, diphtheria and measles. Approximately 115,000 children under 14 years of age are infected with HIV, according to UNICEF.

This is a sad state of affairs for a country whose public health system used to be, together with South Africa, among the most developed of the 40-odd other nations of sub-Saharan Africa just 20 years ago.

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About César Chelala

César Chelala is a global health consultant and contributing editor for The Globalist. [New York, United States]

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