Band-aid for a terminal illness

Richard Tren | 21 Dec 2004
Business Day (South Africa)
Two years ago I, along with public health experts, criticised the Nobel Prize-winning health-care organisation Doctors Without Borders for supporting the Zimbabwean government's decision to import generic AIDS drugs. The move, I argued, would do nothing to improve access to medicines as it did not address the fundamental problems of a lack of infrastructure, corruption and the Zimbabwean government's failure when it comes to HIV and AIDS.

Recently I felt myself slipping from the moral high ground I had assumed when I found myself sitting near Zimbabwean Health Minister David Parirenyatwa. Zimbabwe's government has decided to reintroduce DDT spraying to control malaria, which is a good thing. For decades DDT ensured that malaria was well under control in the country but when it was removed in the early 1990s, malaria cases and deaths began to rise.

At the same time, Zimbabwe's economy began its decline under the tyrannical grip of President Robert Mugabe and as a consequence all medical care and public-health programmes began to suffer. The Zimbabwean government invited me to a press conference in Harare to raise the profile of malaria and dispel any myths about DDT. I felt that I could possibly do some good and help save lives by assisting. I was probably wrong.

Yet there I was, sitting near a senior member of Mugabe's government. I have met many people who have been arrested and tortured by Mugabe's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organisation. Their horrific stories kept playing in my head as I listened to Parirenyatwa say that Zimbabwe was well prepared to deal with malaria. Certainly, if the government were as effective in its battle against the Anopheles mosquitoes as it is against its opponents, there wouldn't be a malaria problem.

To be fair, Parirenyatwa is quite widely respected as a health minister. Yet he is a high-profile member of Mugabe's regime, and in Zimbabwe you can judge a man by the company he keeps. In any event, his assurances rang hollow, as I had already spoken to several Zimbabwean doctors and read many reports that describe the almost complete breakdown of the country's health-care system. But it was curious that the minister felt he had to defend himself and his government's policies.

Since passing the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Mugabe's government has silenced most of the independent media. No independent journalists were invited to the malaria press conference, just the state broadcasters, journalists working for the state-backed newspaper and Zanu (PF)'s newspaper, the Voice. These socalled journalists think nothing of writing hate-filled stories designed to belittle Mugabe's opponents. Their favourite phrase is to call Mugabe's critics the "running dogs of imperialist Britain and the US". Their writing often incites violence and is normally completely divorced from the truth. So when one of the journalists started to question me fairly aggressively about the use of DDT, the effrontery was too much.

Was I expected to argue and explain myself to these disciples of Goebbels? What is the point in trying to impart truths to people only interested in lies? However, within Zimbabwe's health department there are ordinary men and women who are trying their best to save lives and improve malaria control. Unfortunately the main reason malaria cases have risen is that the malaria-control programme has been starved of funds. Only 3,4% of the houses that are supposed to be sprayed with insecticides were sprayed last year. Malaria-control officers had no budgets.

Zimbabwe is in a sort of truth twilight zone. One or two public health experts I spoke to would tell me of their hatred of Mugabe and the real health-care problems only in private. Publicly, of course, the government blames the "running dogs" for everything. The decision to use DDT is a good one, but this is overshadowed by countless human rights outrages and ongoing state violence. DDT may save the lives of some Zimbabweans, only for them to be denied food and starved, raped, tortured or murdered for the crime of not belonging to Zanu (PF). Until Mugabe's reign of terror ends and democracy is restored, this running dog is staying away.

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