UN experts call for rebuilding Zimbabwe’s health, food systems

Cholera patients under treatment at a clinic in Zimbabwe

22 December 2008 – Four independent United Nations human rights experts today called on the Government of Zimbabwe and the international community to do more to rebuild the country’s health system, end the worst cholera epidemic ever recorded there and ensure adequate food for all people as millions face hunger.

“Zimbabwe’s health system has completely collapsed – it cannot control the cholera outbreak which is spreading throughout the country, with a daily increase in the death toll,” the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health, Anand Grover, said of the epidemic which has already infected 20,000 people, killing over 1,100.

“New cholera cases are being reported with no medical system or staff with the capacity to contain the epidemic,” he added.

Meanwhile, the first ever UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) airlift of critical emergency supplies to Zimbabwe has landed in Harare, the capital, bringing intravenous fluids, drip equipment, essential drugs, midwifery and obstetric kits to boost the agency’s cholera response and help the Government to deliver some essential health services to expecting mothers.

“This is a strategic measure to address a desperate situation,” acting UNICEF Country Representative Roeland Monasch said. “We are already supplying 70 per cent of the country’s essential drugs, and these airlifted supplies will further boost UNICEF’s lifesaving support.”

The experts, whose comments ranged over a wide range of issues from lack of clean water and food to the unjustified use of force by the authorities and civil rights abuses, expressed particular concern about the closure of the main public hospitals due to lack of medical supplies and health professionals.

They also highlighted the shortage of anti-retroviral therapies and essential medicines to treat acute diseases, stressing that the participation of communities was crucial for the development and implementation of plans to rebuild the failing health system and warning that the situation was becoming disastrous and was likely to deteriorate as the rainy season approached.

“There is no access to clean water sources and the country is faced with poor sanitation and meagre waste disposal and management infrastructure, greatly exacerbating the incidence of the disease,” the Independent Expert on the issue of human rights obligations related to access to safe drinking water and sanitation, Catarina de Albuquerque, said, noting that unsafe drinking water is also contributing to severe malnutrition.

The Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter, warned there was just not enough food at the national or household level. “An estimated 5.5 million people may need food assistance. Food and agricultural production have decreased drastically. With rising unemployment, and hyperinflation due to several years of economic instability, people have been suffering for too long in Zimbabwe; their right to adequate food has to be fulfilled now.”

Ongoing violations of civil and political rights make it harder for the authorities and the people of Zimbabwe to unite and cooperate with the international community to tackle the humanitarian crisis, the experts stressed.

“The crisis is compounded by the use of unjustified force by the authorities in response to peaceful demonstrations and the recent abductions of human rights defenders,” the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, said.

The Rapporteurs, who are independent unpaid experts reporting to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, noted that Zimbabwe had one of the best public health systems in sub-Saharan Africa, and was considered its ‘breadbasket.’

“Stable systems for providing access to health, water, sanitation and food must be restored and respect for civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights assured,” they added, reiterating their willingness to work with the Government and the international community to find urgent solutions to these problems.


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