Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Playing Politics with Malaria

Government’s politicisation of healthcare hampers work of malaria control workers at every turn.
By Richard Tren

The rainy season has begun in Zimbabwe, which is welcome news for gardeners and farmers alike. Over the past few weeks, dramatic thunderstorms and heavy downpours have covered much of the country, sparking vigorous growth in plants and whatever few crops have been planted. But while the rains bring new life, they unfortunately also mark the beginning of the malaria transmission season.

This year, malaria, along with almost every aspect of life in Zimbabwe has a political slant to it. This deadly mix of politics and disease does not augur well for ordinary Zimbabweans now more than ever at peril from mosquitoes and their own government.

I was recently asked by Zimbabwe’s malaria control programme to assist them in communicating their new malaria control policy, which includes the use of DDT. DDT is sprayed in tiny quantities inside houses and is one of the most effective ways of controlling the disease. It is also somewhat controversial because of the bad reputation that DDT has among environmentalists. I agreed to assist as I thought that I may help to save some lives and improve malaria control in that country. This was a mistake.

The Zimbabwean Department of Health had organised two events, a press conference in Harare followed by a public rally near Lake Kariba in the north west of the country. Both events had an overt political agenda that in the current climate in Zimbabwe is both sickening and dangerous.

Not a single journalist from the remains of Zimbabwe’s independent media had been invited to the press conference in Harare. Only writers from the state media, who unquestioningly regurgitate the violent and abusive messages of the Mugabe government, were involved.

Matters deteriorated at the public rally, which was held in an area that is not a stronghold for the ruling ZANU PF party. During the last parliamentary election, a number of awful atrocities were committed in the area against supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, party. While Kariba is a highly malarial area, the choice to hold a government malaria rally there was probably a carefully thought out strategy.

The audience was divided between the locals from the village, who crowded underneath a large green tent that had seen better days, and supposed VIPs, such as World Health Organisation, WHO, staff and dignitaries who were under a slightly smarter large striped tent. A raised, covered stage, decked in the colours of the Zimbabwean flag and flanked by large photographs of Mugabe, housed the event’s speakers which included the ministers of health for Zimbabwe and Malawi as well as a representative from UNICEF and, interestingly, one from Mugabe’s arch enemy, the British Aid agency, DFID.

Before the speeches and songs about malaria could begin, the master of ceremonies asked local ZANU PF office bearers from the VIP tent to identify themselves and give a rousing message to the crowd. One “comrade” after another stood up and shouted “Forward with Mugabe” and “Down with the MDC” to which the crowd was supposed to respond “Forward” and “Down” in turn. The lack of enthusiasm from the locals was very apparent, but there were many in the VIP tent gleefully raising their fists.

Before the Zimbabwean minister of health gave his speech, he was asked to think up an anti-malaria slogan. The minister duly stood up, raised his fist and shouted “Down with the MDC” and then “Down with Mosquitoes”. As someone who has followed Zimbabwean politics for a while, I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.

In Zimbabwe, almost everything is politicised. People are denied access to food if they cannot produce a ZANU PF party card. Worse still, they are frequently beaten, tortured and raped for supporting the opposition MDC. Politicising malaria control in such a blatant way marks a new low for Mugabe’s government. Zimbabwe always had an excellent malaria control programme, but in the past few years it has all but disintegrated. Starved of funds due to the economic chaos caused by Mugabe’s disastrous policies, along with the fact that public funds have been diverted to Mugabe’s hated secret police, the Central Intelligence Organisation, most of the anti-malaria personnel have left.

Last year, the malaria control programme only managed to protect 3.4 per cent of households from malaria because they did not even have petrol to drive out to the malaria areas.

Some of the malaria control staff are simply trying to do their job under very trying circumstances, but the politicisation of healthcare by the country’s leadership hampers their work at every turn. More worrying is the fact that various UN bodies as well as aid agencies appear to be endorsing and legitimising this political abuse by standing shoulder to shoulder with the ZANU PF leadership. This should stop immediately. The only way for the long-term health of Zimbabwe’s people to improve is to ensure peace, democracy and economic growth. That will not and cannot happen under Mugabe’s government and the UN should come out and say so.

Richard Tren is a director of the South Africa-based health advocacy group Africa Fighting Malaria.

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