Deliver us from cholera

Morning communte in Lusaka. Image credit @rebecca_m via Flickr.

At the beginning of last October, the Zambian Ministry of Health declared a cholera outbreak in the capital Lusaka, many did not anticipate that come January 2018 the country would have a full blown epidemic to contend with. That first confirmed case turned out to be the harbinger of more than two thousand reported cases, concentrated within Lusaka and spreading to a few towns outside the capital. 

By mid-January 2018 Ministry of Health statistics indicated that 3,260 cases had been recorded, with 3,089 of these recorded in Lusaka. Seventy-four deaths had been recorded, which included a significant number of already dead bodies being brought into hospitals and morgues. 

In addition to the regrettable loss of life as a result of cholera, there was a significant shock to the economy as the government announced and implemented a number of measures to try and contain the spread of the disease. These measures included deferring the re-opening of schools, colleges and universities, closing markets, clearing cities of all street vendors and carrying a massive cleaning and drainage unblocking exercise using the country’s defence forces. A media campaign was launched featuring a motley assortment of comedians and opinion makers giving public health advice aimed at stemming the spread of cholera. Church and other group gatherings were suspended, a move which did not go down well with some of the more prominent denominations. 

Of all the measures announced by the government, perhaps the most intriguing was when a “Day of National Prayer and Fasting” was declared with the aim of petitioning God to intervene in the cholera epidemic. Then a week was set aside in which Minister of Religion and National Guidance, Godfridah Sumaili, encouraged Christians to observe thirty minutes of prayer each day in view of the cholera situation in the country. Those with an eye for irony among the Christian fraternity, were quick to point out the fact that the same churches that had been suspended from holding services, were now being called upon to observe a fast and make petitions before God on behalf of the country. The week of prayer culminated in a thanksgiving prayer service, where ironically everyone was required to use hand sanitiser before entering the prayer hall.  

Recent Zambian governments and in particular the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) have a history of reaching out to Christianity to manage crises. In fact, the dabbling of religion in public policy is increasingly becoming mainstream public policy in Zambia. Even before a Ministry of Religion and National Guidance had been created, it was clear that the government intended to make religion the cornerstone of its public policy. 

For example, founder of the ruling PF the late Michael Sata was on record affirming that he was going to govern according to the biblical Ten Commandments once elected president. His successor as party leader, and current Zambian president, Edgar Lungu, has equally gone to great lengths to encourage and entrench the public persona of a “god-fearing” deeply pious man with roots firmly steeped in Christianity. Every once in a while mainstream media carries pictures of him either in reverent reflective pose in church or attending a prayer meeting at a prominent church looking so pious as to turn The Pope green with envy. 

During the 2015 African Freedom Day celebrations at State House, founding republican president Kenneth Kaunda was arraigned before the public like a prized trophy. His duty was to read out a number of pronouncements that purported to release the country from all manner of curses and evil powers, to the obvious satisfaction of a number of “men of god” who had been invited to add clout to the event.  

“I release the nation, its people and the presidency from every negative forces made against Zambia. I submit the souls now living and prosperity and also its presidency to the salvation and lordship of our Lord Jesus Christ and the Father” read the pronouncement in part, to veritable jubilation. 

Either the higher powers didn’t get the memo or they were meting out one of those ubiquitous tests of faith, because the following year, the country would suffer a devastating army worm attack that threatened to cripple the nation’s staple crop, maize. In addition, there was significant volatility experienced in the foreign exchange market, coupled with suppressed economic activity which necessitated the downward revision of GDP growth rate projections. 

The government responded by declaring a day of National Prayer and fasting at which event the strength of the national currency was prayed for. The same day was turned into a national holiday and a commitment made by the government to build a National House of Prayer. A smattering of influential Pentecostal Bishops was organized into a board to oversee the construction of the National House of Prayer, although to date very little actual construction work has taken place, save for a few high-profile fundraising efforts. Some of these efforts have bordered on desperation such as the reported auctioning of a Lionel Messi shirt by the National House of Prayer Board Chairperson Bishop Joshua Banda. It hasn’t stopped the euphoria, flamboyant preaching and Bible-thumping that has now become a mainstay of the National Day of Prayer and fasting.  

Many have however questioned the wisdom, let alone sustainability of such an approach to public policy. For example, the Ministry of Religion and National Guidance is often derided for having no clear mandate and verifiable terms of reference. To date the ministry’s most high profile achievement has been the barring of certain ostensibly dubious, equally flamboyant “Men of God” from entering the country. “Men of God” Eubert Angel and Shepherd Bushiri were probably the most-high profile casualties.  

While all this is going on, Zambia is in the midst of a public health crisis in addition to its other long term developmental challenges. Though a call to prayer might provide a short-term and extremely fickle rallying point, the country will need much more workable and sustainable solutions as opposed to days of fasting and national prayer.

Keith Hamusute

Keith Hamusute is reading for his PhD in Public Policy at the University of Zambia and teaches at the National Institute of Public Administration.

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