Zimbabwe Denies Citizens Right to Health, Group Says

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

JOHANNESBURG, Jan. 13 -- Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's government should be investigated for crimes against humanity for overseeing and ignoring the breakdown of the nation's health-care system, an international doctors group said in a report released Tuesday.

The cholera outbreak gripping the country is just one sign of the disintegration of a once-admired health-care structure that essentially ceased to function in late 2008, denying Zimbabweans their human right to health, according to U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights.

"Cholera is not the issue," said Frank Donaghue, chief executive of the group, which presented the report at a news conference here in South Africa. "Cholera is a symptom of a grossly collapsed health system due to the blatant disregard by Mugabe of his people."

Donaghue was a member of a four-person team that visited Zimbabwe for a week in December to examine the nation's health crisis. According to its study, the health care that two decades ago lay within six miles of 85 percent of the population is all but gone, while only a tiny elite can afford private care.

"There are no -- no -- public hospitals. Clinics have closed. The support of health-care workers is nonexistent," Donaghue said.

The health crisis is exacerbated by poor nutrition, the report said. Food aid, which the United Nations estimates will be the main source of nourishment for nearly half of Zimbabwe's population this year, is used as a "weapon of war" by Mugabe's party, which keeps it from opposition supporters, the report said.

The doctors group added its voice to the growing calls for international action against Mugabe, who has led Zimbabwe for nearly 30 years and is haggling over a power-sharing agreement with the opposition.

George Charamba, a spokesman for the Zimbabwean government, called the group a "stupid, Western-created organization" and refused to comment on the report, according to the Associated Press.

The physicians' report came as the World Health Organization announced that more than 2,000 Zimbabweans have died from cholera since the outbreak in August.

Although cholera is not uncommon in African nations, the 5 percent fatality rate in Zimbabwe is five times as high as the rate during typical outbreaks, the report said. Such outbreaks usually follow a war or a natural disaster, it said, adding that Zimbabwe's peacetime epidemic indicates that the country is "tantamount to a failed state."

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