As Obama Urges Action on Zimbabwe, Health Crisis Worsens

The Obama administration faces a major challenge in making Zimbabwe a top priority in its Africa foreign policy. In a bold move last week, President Obama by phone told President Motlanthe of South Africa that he had an important role to play in helping resolve Zimbabwe's political crisis.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, outspoken about the crisis during and after her confirmation hearing, has also pressed South Africa, which has the most regional economic and diplomatic clout.

As hopeful rhetoric permeates US leadership, Zimbabwe's health crisis is taking a turn for the worse. The average life expectancy has plummeted from 62 in the early 1990s to 36 today. The average life expectancy for females in Zimbabwe (34) is the lowest on the planet.

When Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) released its emergency report on January 13 detailing the country's health system collapse, the reported cholera death toll soared past 2,000. The number currently exceeds 3,000, according the World Health Organization, with over 60,000 infected.

Echoing PHR, United States Ambassador James McGee said the epidemic was a "man-made disaster." "This is something that if we had a proper functioning health system, if we had a water company that was providing what the people of Zimbabwe deserve, which is clean drinking water it wouldn't have happened," he added during a visit to a cholera treatment center last week.

The rapidly climbing cholera death toll is but one symptom of Zimbabwe's health system collapse. Every day, 400 Zimbabweans die of AIDS. PHR reports that many people living with HIV have experienced interruptions of their anti-retroviral drug supplies. Further, many have been forced to change their drug regimes, risking the development of new and drug-resistant strains of HIV. These dangerous practices constitute a significant threat to public health since the development and transmission of multi-drug resistant variants of HIV in Zimbabwe could undermine not only Zimbabwe's HIV/ AIDS program, but regional programs as well.

There is also concerns about the development and spread of multi-drug resistant strains of tuberculosis due to the countries' failing TB treatment and control programs.

The health crisis in Zimbabwe is a direct outcome of the malfeasance of the Mugabe regime and the systematic violation of a wide range of human rights, including the right to participate in government and failure to respect, protect and fulfill the right to health. In the 2009 report, PHR calls the government of Zimbabwe to hand over its health services, water supply, sanitation, disease surveillance, Ministry of Health operations, and other public health functions to a United Nations-designated agency or consortium.

The Obama administration should follow through on pledges made to bolster US leadership in the UN and engage in preventive diplomacy to strengthen respect for human rights. Specifically, the US should consult on an urgent basis with other Security Council members and build consensus for UN action to address the crisis in Zimbabwe, which represents a growing threat to the peace and stability of the region.