Zimbabwe: Hunger bites the health and education sectors

MHONDORO, 26 July 2007 (IRIN) - The effects of the government's month-old price-control policies, which have brought widespread shortages of basic commodities, are also beginning to tell in the education, health and social service sectors.

The government launched "Operation Reduce Prices" in late June in an attempt to cap escalating prices as businesses tried to cushion themselves against the world's highest inflation rate - over 4,000 percent - although some independent economists estimate the actual inflation rate at about 20,000 percent.

President Robert Mugabe accused manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers and other service providers of trying to undermine his ZANU-PF government by sowing discontent among the electorate ahead of next year's scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections.

However, the price-control operation, managed by industry minister Obert Mpofu, who heads the Cabinet Task Force on Price Monitoring and Stabilisation, also has high-profile detractors, with Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono warning that price slashes would fuel the inflation rate.

Shortages of bread, cooking oil and beef have forced a church-run Presbyterian High school, in the Mashonaland Central Province's Mhondoro district, about 60km southwest of the capital, Harare, to set up a makeshift feeding programme.

"The pupils are now having potatoes and tea in the morning because there is no bread to give them. During lunch and supper, unlike in the past, when we alternated between rice and sadza [thick mealiemeal porridge, a staple food], and beef or chicken, we have had to resort invariably to the potatoes and beans," a senior schoolteacher, who declined to be identified, told IRIN.

The boarding school used to source beef and poultry from local businesses, but these have stopped since the government enforced price cuts, as suppliers would have to sell at a loss.

This mirrors action taken by Irvines, the country's largest chicken and egg producer, which became one of the first companies to stop operations last week after a hoarde of people, under the protection of police and soldiers, descended on their outlets and bought cartons of eggs and trolley-loads of frozen chicken at the government's new reduced prices.

Hunger distracting learners

The Presbyterian school teacher said the institution was considering approaching freshwater fishermen to sell them their catch as an alternative source of protein, but it was doubtful whether they had the capacity to "supply adequate amounts" of fish.

"Morale has evidently gone down, not only among the pupils, but the teachers and kitchen staff, who have to deal with the unforeseen effects of the shortages of foodstuffs. It is difficult to teach in such an atmosphere, and we fear that the pupils might stage a protest," the teacher said.

Onismus Chakanetsa, a parent of a pupil at the nearby Musengezi High school, told IRIN: "When I visited my daughter recently to find out how she and others were coping after she complained of a poor diet, I got to learn of reduced concentration in class and, in some cases, open rebellion, as pupils deliberately chose not to attend classes."

The school authorities told Chakanetsa, an engineer, that supplies of cooking oil and sugar were low, and procuring fresh supplies was proving to be difficult, but he said "there is much irony in it because we are being asked to top up school fees".

While education facilities are considering additional levies to keep up with hyperinflation, the official daily newspaper, The Herald, quoted Mugabe as saying on Wednesday that if the price control taskforce was unable to reduce school fees, ways would have to be found to regulate or compel schools to charge reasonable fees.

According to the World Food Programme (WFP), Zimbabwe enjoys an adult literacy rate of 80 percent, but the country's economic meltdown in recent years has caused an exodus of teachers seeking better employment opportunities in neighbouring countries, such as South Africa and Botswana, or further afield in Britain.

Jameson Timba, chairman of the Association of Trust Schools, which respresents private schools, told IRIN the food shortages were "something we would expect to have an adverse impact on schools", although he had yet to receive complaints from schools belonging to the association. "In our case, the schools are owned and managed by businesspeople and we would always make contingent plans to address the problem."

In spite of countrywide shortages of commodities, those with money can still access what is available on the parallel market, but at much higher prices than before the crackdown. The poor continue to be affected most acutely.

In Chitungwiza, a dormitory town about 35km from Harare, parents were told the creche would close in August. "We used to ask parents to buy groceries, including rice, drinks and toilet paper, which we kept on our premises, but at the beginning of this month most of them could not find ... [these items]," Grace Mudiwa, the owner, told IRIN.

Hospitals and clinics running out of food

A kitchen worker at a government hospital in Chitungwiza, who declined to be identified, said the food shortages were so bad that there were "realistic chances of starvation" among patients, prompting local musicians to organise a charity show this weekend to raise funds for the hospital.

"The situation has always been bad, with relatives of patients being asked to bring food to those in the wards, because of lack of money, but the shortage of basic commodities has heightened the plight," the hospital employee told IRIN.

Residents in an old age home in Chitungwiza are being fed only a breakfast of porridge with a scant sprinkling of sugar. "It is better to die than experience this kind of hunger," said Adam Joseph, 75. "These days, we are mainly fed on porridge and, even when we get our sadza, the rations are now very small; I am always hungry and my cough has worsened."

Mugabe admitted in his speech at the opening of parliament that the government had been paying lip service to the welfare of old people, and announced a bill to promote their wellbeing.

With the government adamant that the price blitz would continue until inflation was arrested, Dan Toole, director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) emergency programmes in Zimbabwe, said earlier this month the humanitarian situation would worsen.

"What we know in Zimbabwe is that malnutrition is growing rather radically - 20 percent of the population currently needs food assistance - and that food assistance is yet to come in ... There is a shortage of medicine; there is a shortage of doctors and nurses, and thus the healthcare system has been devastated."

Supermarkets closing

According to The Herald newspaper, 4,926 businesspeople have been arrested since the start of Operation Reduce Prices, after they had failed to cut their prices by 50 percent, and there is an accelerating trend of stores shutting down, despite the government threatening action against those who do.

Two of Zimbabwe's largest supermarket chain stores, OK Zimbabwe and Bon Marche, closed some of their shops last week after being forced by government officials to cut their prices.

Nhamo Marandu, a spokesman for OK Zimbabwe, told IRIN the shutdown of stores was a consequence of power outages. "We could not open some of our outlets because of the ongoing power cuts. We have generators which we could use but, again, we have no fuel to power the generators."

Other businesses have found various reasons not to open. In Harare's upmarket First Street area, a sign on one shop reads: "We have gone abroad for a family wedding."

A senior official of a manufacturing company told IRIN: "Following the government directive for manufacturers and retailers to halve their prices, it is no longer viable to run a business in Zimbabwe because of the huge losses incurred as a result of the order to cut prices."