Connect to share and comment

Doctors Without Borders: Zimbabwe restricting access

Aid organization says mounting cholera death toll is just one sign of a collapsed health care system.

Zimbabwe used to have a health system that was the envy of other African countries. According to World Health Organization statistics, in 1990, a Zimbabwean could expect to live to 62. By 2008, just 18 years later, that number had fallen to 37 for men and 34 for women, the lowest life expectancy in the world. 

The country is in the midst of a food crisis as well, with 7 million people, more than half of its population, in need of food aid. For much of the developing world, February and March represent the hungry season — the time after food from the last harvest has run out and before this year's crop is edible. The World Food Programme expects to feed 5.1 million Zimbabweans in February, but in order to do so, it has halved its per person food rations.

As the country has fallen deeper into crisis, more than 3 million Zimbabweans have fled, most of them to South Africa. Having risked their lives to escape Zimbabwe, reaching South Africa provides no guarantee of safety. According to Doctors Without Borders, a group of 500 women and children crossed the Limpopo River last week. Once on the South African side, several were raped by a group of bandits known as “guma-guma.”

“Two babies were literally taken off their mothers’ backs and thrown into the river to drown,” said Rachel Cohen, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders South Africa.

The South African government considers Zimbabwean refugees to be “voluntary economic migrants,” a classification that affords no rights under South African law. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 18,000 are deported every month back to Zimbabwe.

“This is currently Africa’s most extraordinary exodus from a country not in open conflict,” said Cohen.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Zimbabwe:

Tsvangirai sworn in as Zimbabwe's new prime minister 

Mugabe should be charged