HARARE (Reuters) - The Zimbabwean capital, Harare, is offering free graves for victims of a cholera outbreak sweeping the southern African state, which a United Nations agency says is only the tip of a health crisis.
Nearly 400 people have died from the disease, preventable and treatable under normal conditions, which has infected more than 9,400 in the country and spread to some of its neighbors.
Harare City Council has decided to waive fees for burying victims of the water-borne disease as residents are already under pressure from an economic crisis, including shortages of food and banknotes, the state Herald newspaper said on Saturday.
“Council has since resolved to offer free graves to those who have died of cholera since most people are finding it hard to get cash to pay for the graves,” it quoted the town clerk as saying.
A grave in Harare costs an average of $30, a teacher’s monthly salary at the current exchange rate.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday a lack of clean drinking water and adequate toilets were the main triggers for Zimbabwe’s epidemic of cholera, a diarrheal disease that is especially fatal for children.
WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said there are very few places where people infected with cholera in Zimbabwe can seek medical care, and the clinics that are open have far too few health workers to contain the outbreak.
International aid groups are building latrines, distributing medicine and hygiene kits, delivering truckloads of water, and repairing blocked sewers across Zimbabwe to combat the cholera outbreak, which has moved into South Africa and Botswana.
Zimbabwe state media reported on Saturday that a residents association in a town near Harare had taken the state-run water authority to court for failing to provide clean water.
President Robert Mugabe’s government says the health system and the economy are collapsing because of sanctions imposed by Western powers it says are trying to oust him for seizing white-owned farms for redistribution to blacks.
His critics say Mugabe, 84 and in power since independence from Britain in 1980, has ruined one of Africa’s most promising economies through reckless policies and gross mismanagement.
The economy is in virtual meltdown, with unemployment over 90 percent, inflation officially at 230 million percent, and people scrounging daily for food and cash.
On Saturday, the Herald said six soldiers had been arrested in the last week for assaulting bank staff and commuters after failing to get cash at a bank.
Analysts hope a power-sharing deal being negotiated between Mugabe and the opposition MDC after disputed elections early this year may help turn around the economy.
A meeting in Kenya of the African Union’s “panel of the wise” advisory forum said on Saturday Zimbabwe’s humanitarian situation was deteriorating and urged the AU to help speed the establishment of a national unity government in Harare.
“The panel expressed deep concern at the prevailing humanitarian and socio-economic situation in Zimbabwe and the ever escalating suffering of the civilian population,” it said in a statement at the end of a two-day conference.
It called on the AU and the Southern African Development Community, a regional grouping, “to instill a new sense of urgency in their efforts to overcome the current obstacles in the implementation of the power-sharing agreement and to take all actions required to this end.”
Additional reporting by David Clarke in Nairobi; editing by Mark Trevelyan and Gugulakhe Lourie