Africa

Zambia: Edgar Lungu’s heavy hand shows in response to cholera outbreak

By Kristen Van Schie 16 January 2018

That Zambia wants to be seen as attacking its cholera outbreak head-on is understandable, but some of its chosen tactics are questionable at best. By KRISTEN VAN SCHIE.

The headline shouldn’t have come as a surprise: “Zambia police arrest 55 in riots over cholera control rules”.

Zambia’s response to the cholera outbreak, which began in October and has killed more than 70 people, has in the last few weeks been a show of force.

Earlier in January, President Edgar Lungu took to the streets of Lusaka flanked by soldiers in a clean-up operation that saw unhygienic markets and restaurants shuttered. He railed against the city council’s failings. Street vending was banned across the city.

But then the government began introducing regulations that granted powers to suppress, starting with a ban on gatherings of five or more people.

The interdict encompassed weddings, funerals and sports events. In one instance, police used tear gas to break up a church service.

To prevent travel, Lusaka’s main passport office was closed, while the start of the school year was postponed.

In the badly affected Kanyama township, an 18:00 curfew was declared. The residents felt otherwise about the situation. Last week, they rioted.

That Zambia wants to be seen attacking the cholera outbreak head-on is understandable, but some of its chosen tactics are questionable at best.

Cholera doesn’t spread through the air, or even by casual person-to-person contact. It has to be ingested through contaminated water or food.

A December report by the country’s National Public Health Institute pointed to water drawn from shallow wells for household use and drinking as the main driver behind the outbreak.

And when the fundamentals of cholera prevention – like access to clean water – are missing, markets and public gatherings can indeed become places of transmission.

But Lungu’s heavy-handed response to the crisis is a distraction from the fact that his government has failed to provide those fundamentals – and provides one more chapter in a presidency marked by autocracy.

In April 2017, opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was jailed and charged with treason after his motorcade failed to give way to Lungu’s as they both headed to the same event.

The midnight arrest was an over-the-top affair, with about 100 police officers reportedly damaging property and assaulting employees before Hichilema was taken into custody.

It would be another four months before he was released.

Then, in July, Lungu declared a partial state of emergency following a string of fires at some of Lusaka’s major markets – a declaration that allowed for meetings to be banned, premises shut down and curfews implemented, while people could be arrested and properties searched without warrants.

The government says its fight against cholera is bearing fruit. The rate of infection is slowing, and schools and markets are expected to reopen soon.

But any success Zambia is experiencing has less to do with curfews and crowd control than with leaning in to the basics of cholera management: clean water, proper sanitation and good hand hygiene.

Cholera is a regular event in Zambia. No small wonder: about 4.8-million Zambians don’t have access to clean water, according to Unicef, while 6.6-million – half of the population – have no access to sanitation facilities.

And this year’s outbreak has hit the country particularly hard, with more than 3,200 cases reported.

The next outbreak will only be prevented by investing in access to safe water and hygiene now. Curfews and arrests will be futile in the fight. DM

Photo: Sustainable Sanitation Alliance (flickr)

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