As the world reckons with the covid-19 pandemic, we are learning firsthand how health epidemics often reveal underlying social, political and economic tensions in a society. In his latest book, “The Political Life of an Epidemic,” offers a vivid and rigorous account of the causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s 2008-2009 cholera outbreak. Chigudu, associate professor of African politics and Fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, argues the cholera outbreak served as a “perfect storm,” opening a window to understanding the multiple ways disease affects the relationship of citizens with their government.
Scholars of diseases may look at the weakness and dysfunction of the Zimbabwean health system, and predict that a cholera outbreak was inevitable. However, Chigudu offers a “one disease, many crises” framework, where he argues that the cholera outbreak is not an isolated moment, or a result of the predetermined weakness of the Zimbabwean government or health infrastructure. Rather, the outbreak highlighted the years of failed strategies by the ZANU-PF, Zimbabwe’s ruling party since 1980, to remain in power.
These strategies, along with the post-2000 political economic crisis, undermined previously strong bureaucratic institutions. This also cut into the government’s ability to adequately develop and provide public services, which eventually led to the breakdown of the political and social relationship between the government and its citizens.
Chigudu makes three main arguments
First, the cholera outbreak showed how years of social inequality and post-colonial segregation undermined public infrastructure and bureaucratic institutions, which contributed to the inadequacy of the ZANU-PF and its ability to provide public services such as clean water, clean sanitation facilities and to the citizens of Zimbabwe. This inadequacy, in turn, exacerbated the outbreak.
Second, cholera became a site for political contestation domestically and internationally. Here’s why: An international humanitarian response converged on a short-term “salvation agenda,” while the ZANU-PF saw the outbreak as racial biological warfare from the West to bring regime change. This helped create a domestic political battle, with the MDC opposition party critiquing the ZANU-PF response as a human rights failure.
And third, the cholera outbreak created multiple contexts and relationships in which people believed the government considered them disposable. The disease outbreak made it appear as if Zimbabwe’s government was effectively punishing its citizens through deadly disease and neglect. The politics of expectation also came into play, as citizens believed their government had a primary responsibility to provide public goods. And the outbreak also gave rise to the politics of adaptation, referring to the range of survival strategies citizens took to get through the outbreak.
In making these arguments, Chigudu illustrates how the cholera outbreak was not an invisible enemy, but rather the result of a man-made, mutually reinforced policy failure by the ZANU-PF which also created political debates about the role of government in providing basic needs. Chigudu contends that the onset and response to cholera was deeply politicized at every phase of the outbreak, from its emergence to the actions the government took — or failed to take.
This is a well-researched effort
The strength of Chidugu’s work comes through his combination of rich interview data with citizens, politicians and documentary sources, all of which he uses to tell the story of Zimbabwean citizens and rigorously show how people experienced the political, social and economic issues in the country, through the cholera outbreak. Chigudu focuses intently on the lived experiences of citizens and how they wrestled with a government that failed them. Yet in that failure, cholera provided an opportunity for citizens to vent their frustrations with their government and demand better public service and infrastructure.
For example, in Chapter 5, Chigudu uses the story of 62-year-old masseuse named “Tsitsi,” who complained that the water supply would often have traces of human waste. Or how a Harare-based journalist noted how resources that should have gone to public service delivery instead went to political campaigning. Chigudu offers a vivid and often grim picture of how cholera ravished the livelihoods of Zimbabweans, laying bare the impact of years of political and economic vulnerabilities of their society.
It’s a timely book for pandemic reading
Chigudu’s account of cholera in Zimbabwe is timely and relevant to the politics of global health today. Amid a global pandemic, Chigudu’s rich account offers a framework in which to contextualize how health crises disproportionately affect the most vulnerable segments of society. More importantly, health outbreaks also offer an opportunity for governments to reconfigure policy and programs in a more equitable way.
Chigudu focused on the subjective experiences of citizenship to gain an understanding of how Zimbabweans felt either included or excluded from society, and in that, how they transformed those sentiments to stake their claim and explore how the government could best serve them. “The Political Life of an Epidemic” excels in its ability to engage in a reflexive exercise of how citizens adapt and survive to the conditions of disease outbreaks. For 2020, it’s a great way to understand how diseases help clarify just how important lived experiences are to shaping citizens’ political expectations.
Emmanuel Balogun (@ea_balogun) is an assistant professor of political science at Skidmore College and author of “Convergence and Agency in West Africa: Region-Building in ECOWAS” (Routledge, forthcoming 2020).