The Southern Africa humanitarian crisis represents a wake-up call. It is not just another food crisis. It is an acute humanitarian emergency that has erupted over and above a chronic crisis. Suddenly, more and more people are dying, more are becoming sick, increasingly malnourished , and on the move. It is suddenly like a downward acceleration of a slow process that had been going on for some time, about which we were but now are not succeeding in stopping. And with one year after another year of erratic rains, poor management and lack of preparedness and surveillance, we find ourselves confronted with a humanitarian crisis.
With reduced rainfalls over two years, people have not produced enough maize which is their main staple food. They have not been able to stock it, to exchange it for cash and to purchase what they need. They have started to sell their goats and other assets... With HIV/AIDS, productive adults in the household became ill, unable to work, needed attention and costly medicines. Many died, leaving their children either alone or with elderly grandparents. Widows could not cultivate land and could not feed the orphans and the family more than one meal a day. Some people ate green maize, herbs and roots, and have been drinking and cooking with unsafe water.
Eventually, many children, adults and pregnant women became ill with diarrhoea, cholera, or malaria. When able to reach a health facility, they would be considered lucky if they found a health worker to look after them properly and even luckier if they could get some medicines to cure their illness. Health workers like many others, have moved to places where the situation is better. Prices of maize when found, have risen beyond the reach of nearly 70% of the population.
More pregnant women have died during child birth, unattended by trained staff. Many are HIV positive and don't know it. Many babies are born small, underweight and approximately half of the children in Malawi are stunted, short or have not grown adequately because of chronic reduction in food intake. When their parents became too sick, or because they were needed as an extra hand to bring in money or food to the household, they dropped out of school and were forced into child labour, exploitation and prostitution for girls.
Those who have not been fed properly for the past few months are more exposed to diarrhoea, respiratory illnesses, malaria and tuberculosis. If HIV positive, they develop AIDS quickly and become exposed to opportunistic infections. Hospitals are overwhelmed, and health staff are overworked and badly paid. The system for the detection of outbreaks has also suffered and the cholera outbreak was detected very late.
The people in Southern Africa are not just hungry. They are also suffering. More of them are dying, dying in their homes, unable to get to a health worker to help them. The children, the future population are becoming too weak and more vulnerable, with too many responsibilities at an early age. We need to make sure that we can break the deadly equation, reverse the trend, save and preserve as many lives as possible.