Death by Hunger or by Cholera?


Recently, Zambians were in a dilemma: they could either die of hunger or cholera. This came about in the wake of a cholera outbreak in the capital, Lusaka, which was first reported September 2017. To curb further spread of the disease, the government banned street vending from which many earn a living.

The outbreak once again put Minister of Health, Dr. Chitalu Chilufya (in picture above), on center stage just as he was recovering from bruises of the mandatory HIV testing his government imposed August 2017. He said government in conjunction with other partners was putting in place measures to contain the outbreak of cholera in Lusaka.

The putting in place of measures to contain the outbreak included issuance of a Statutory Instrument (SI). Thus SI No. 79 of 2017 was circulated in the most susceptible institutions including religious organizations. It states in section 10:

An authorised officer shall prohibit or restrict trading in or vending of food in unsanitary conditions.

So, the government told all street vendors to relocate to ‘designated’ areas, failure to which section 11 should be invoked:

A person who fails to comply with the direction, prohibition or restriction of an authorised officer under these Regulations commits an offence and is liable, upon conviction, to a fine not exceeding two thousand five hundred penalty units or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to both.

Then the Minister applied section 10 paragraph (2) of the SI:

An authorised officer may order the cleaning or closure of the public premises or burial of any contaminated water body where the officer determines that a public premises does not have sufficient sanitation and hygiene to prevent the occurrence or transmission of cholera.

Off the bat, a cleanup campaign was under way spearheaded by military personnel in full combat gear. Vendors who did not take the warning seriously and went to the streets, hoping to make some money for a loaf of bread as they normally did, found their stalls demolished and piled ready for disposal. The presence of soldiers and paramilitary police was enough to shut up any vocal mouth.

The government took that measure with the objective of safeguarding the lives of its subjects. It does not take a genius to understand that cholera is a killer disease and can easily spread in filthy and crowded areas. As a matter of fact, there were confirmed report of people who had died of this epidemic.

However, good as the intention may have been, the implementation is what many said had been misplaced. In a snap survey conducted by this writer, four in every five respondents expressed disapproval of the action taken by the government. They felt that people’s means of subsistence had been severed on a spur of a moment by the same government that had allowed them to trade in the streets to have ‘money in their pockets’.

“We do not want cholera and it is good to have clean cities but the streets are our working placed. How are we going to feed our families if we don’t sell?” Said one vendor who did not want to be named.

Another one said, “The problem of street vending should have been solved a long time ago and slowly but they want to solve it when there is cholera, where were they all this time?”

Such sentiments were common not only in Lusaka but in all other areas where street vendors were kicked out of the streets and gatherings of more than five people prohibited.

Luckily, the cleaning campaign aimed at eradicating cholera seems to have worked in favor of the government and the disease is receding. What is not clear is whether the vendors will be allowed back in the streets or not.

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