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Three questions to ask about Zimbabwe’s cholera outbreak
Posted: Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Angola reported 82,000 cases of cholera last year and over 3,000 deaths – five times as many cases as Zimbabwe has experienced this year and four times as many deaths. [1] The West, which has substantial investments in Angolan oil, did not say that Angola was approaching failed state status, call for its government to step down, or seek authorization to forcibly remove it.

The Nigerian Supreme Court recently ruled that the country's April 2007 elections were marred by widespread voting irregularities. Election observers declared the elections to be fraudulent and criticized the government for using violence and intimidation. Despite being the second wealthiest country in Africa, most Nigerians have no access to clean drinking water and basic healthcare. Western oil firms have substantial investments in Nigeria. They profit, while most Nigerians live in abject poverty. [2] The West has not said that Nigeria is approaching failed state status, called for its government to step down, or sought authorization to forcibly remove it.

By Stephen Gowans
December 14, 2008

Western powers have tried many ways to bring down the Mugabe government of Zimbabwe. They've created a political party, the MDC, whose policy platforms they've had a hand in shaping, to contest elections. They've nurtured human rights and other civil society groups to oppose the Mugabe government. They've funded community newspapers to spread anti-government propaganda. They've financed short-wave radio programs to broadcast anti-Mugabe programming. [3] They've materially backed campaigns of civil disobedience, in failed attempts to foment a color revolution. [4] And they've blocked, through the US Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of 2001 (the act), Zimbabwe's access to balance of payment support and development aid. [5] All of these attempts to force the Mugabe government into submission have failed.

I've elaborated elsewhere on the reasons why Western powers have sought Mugabe's ouster. [6] The reasons can be briefly summarized as follows: the Mugabe government has acted to thwart imperialist designs on the Democratic Republic of Congo; it opposed the pro-foreign investment policies of the International Monetary Fund; it expropriated income-producing property (farms owned by Europeans and descendants of white settlers) without compensation – an affront against private property that the United States, the guarantor of the imperialist system, could not let stand.

The way the Western media tell the story, Zimbabweans are eager to see Mugabe go. But despite Western powers acting to poison public opinion against Mugabe, the Zanu-PF government retains considerable popular support. One indication that Mugabe commands the backing of at least a sizeable minority of the population is that the United States has acknowledged that "a popular Zimbabwean uprising against Mugabe is unlikely." [7] In elections earlier this year, which featured massive Western interference on the side of the opposition, Mugabe's Zanu-PF party won roughly half of the legislative assembly seats and roughly half of the Senate seats. In the first round of presidential voting, Mugabe got over 40 percent of the vote – despite the considerable pressure Western powers put on Zimbabweans to reject the national liberation hero. With the president retaining strong backing, Western powers are now using a cholera outbreak – a not uncommon event in poor countries – to argue that Zimbabwe has become a failed state. By making the case that Zimbabwe's government is no longer able to provide its citizens with basic hygiene and access to safe drinking water, Western powers hope to either secure a United Nations Security Council Resolution authorizing the use of force to oust Mugabe, or to pressure Zimbabwe's neighbors to close their borders to the landlocked country, starving the government – and the people of Zimbabwe – into submission. "The closure of the borders, literally, in a week, would bring this country to its knees," said a US official. [8] The readiness to escalate the misery Zimbabweans already endure with a total blockade undermines the Western powers' own claim that they are galvanized to act by humanitarian concern. One needn't be reminded that the greatest existing humanitarian catastrophes – to wit, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo – have been authored by the United States and Britain (directly in Iraq and through Rwanda and Uganda in the Congo). These are the very same powers that claim a "responsibility to protect."

According to the World Health Organization, there were over 16,000 cases of cholera in Zimbabwe as of December 9, and 775 deaths. The WHO attributes the outbreak to an under-resourced and under-staffed health care system, and to inadequate access to safe drinking water. We should ask three questions. [9]

1. How common are cholera outbreaks in the Third World?

2. Have Western powers sought to forcibly remove governments in other countries that have suffered comparable or greater cholera outbreaks?

3. Why is Zimbabwe's health care system under-resourced and under-staffed and why do Zimbabweans have inadequate access to safe drinking water?

Cholera outbreaks are hardly rare in the Third World. Between 13 February 2006 and 9 May 2007, there were over 82,000 cases of cholera and almost 3,100 deaths in Angola [10]. Since May, there have been 13,781 cases of cholera in Guinea-Bisseau, with 221 deaths as of November. [11] There were 14,297 cases and 254 deaths in Tanzania in 2006 [12]. Last year, there were 30,000 cases of cholera in Iraq [13], almost twice as many as in Zimbabwe this year. In 2005, cholera swept through Western Africa, affecting 45,000 people in eight countries. [14] In none of these cases did Western powers call for the governments of the affected countries to step down, or seek authorization to remove them by force.

The inadequacies of Zimbabwe's health care system are due, in part, to doctors being lured away by the higher wages and better working conditions of the West. There are more than 13,000 doctors trained in sub-Saharan Africa who are now practicing in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia. [15] This, according to the British medical journal, The Lancet, has led to the "dilapidation of health infrastructure" and has threatened to produce a "public health crisis." The West's pilfering of sub-Saharan Africa's doctors is "an international crime." [16]

Zimbabwe's health care system is also affected by the economic devastation wrought by the United States denying the country access to balance of payment support and development aid. If doctors are lured to the West under the best of circumstances, the incentives for abandoning a Zimbabwe in a virtual state of economic collapse are irresistible. Add to that the reality that hyperinflation – a by-product of Harare's attempts to deal with foreign exchange shortages caused by the act – has eroded the purchasing power of Zimbabwe's currency, deterring medical staff (and employees generally) from showing up for work. The act has also undermined the government's ability to secure funds to make needed repairs to water and sewage treatment infrastructure and to import water purification chemicals. While the purveyors of misinformation at the New York Times and other Western media outlets attribute the cholera outbreak to what are called Mugabe's "disastrously failed policies," the origins lie closer to home.


2. Will Connors, "Legal victory can't erase Nigerian leader's troubles," The New York Times, December 13, 2008.

3. ;




7. US Government, "Zimbabwe approaching 'failed state' status, U.S. ambassador says," December 11, 2008.

8. Ibid.







15. The Lancet, cited in Reuters, February 22, 2008.

16. Ibid.


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