GETTING sick in Zimbabwe has become hazardous. Prices of life-saving drugs have almost tripled in the past weeks since President Emmerson Mnangagwa enforced a nationwide lockdown on March 30.
The country has also been hit by a critical shortage of essential drugs caused by foreign currency scarcities. The outbreak of coronavirus has worsened challenges facing the pharmaceutical industry in importing medicines for chronic illnesses like hypertension, auto-immune diseases and diabetes. The source countries have blocked or delayed the export of drugs needed to treat people with hypertension, diabetes and heart diseases who are at higher risk of falling severely ill or dying from Covid-19.
Pharmacies that have critical drugs, including medication for chronic diseases, which are responsible for at least 50% of total deaths that occur worldwide, are charging exorbitant prices in United States dollars, which in Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) is calculated using a rate of US$1 to between ZW$65 and ZW$75.
Year-on-year inflation is now 765,57%, while the cost of living has shot up by 22% in a country with worsening levels of poverty and a population struggling to buy basics such as food and pay rentals. The skyrocketing prices of medicines are further burdening Zimbabweans, whose incomes have been eroding daily.
I had the most frustrating week, shopping for medicines for a relative with aggressive hypertension and hypothyroidism. The cheapest quotation was close to ZW$8 000, ranging between US$105 and US$120, for a monthly supply of the lifesaving drugs. While a few pharmacies were accepting health insurance, the payments from the health insurance were a drop in the ocean, just less than 20% of the total cost of the drugs.
Former finance minister Tendai Biti said in a tweet “despite three months of a lockdown, the regime has failed to provide social safety nets to citizens. With 95% unemployment the provision of cash hand-outs, food and water was obligatory on the state. More have died from vulnerability than from #Covid. Poverty curve needs flattening”.
This just reminded me of a friend with breast cancer who needs a CT scan for the neck, thorax, abdomen and pelvis. She was quoted close to ZW$42 000.
These charges are just ridiculous in a country where the unemployment rate is more than 95% and the majority of the formally employed earn less than ZW$5 000.
How many people can afford these astronomical charges?
Government needs to prioritise health care and stop splurging the scarce foreign currency on luxuries like vehicles. In a story carried in this edition, The Zimbabwe Independent has exposed that the military recently bought top-of-the-range vehicles, which include Toyota Hilux and Land Cruisers, for senior military officials.
Lieutenant-colonels, colonels and brigadier-generals were among officers who benefitted from the vehicle acquisition.The Ministry of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage, which is in charge of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, this week invited bids “from suitable and reputable suppliers for the supply of brand new double cab vehicles”.
Government should support the pharmaceutical wholesalers by availing foreign currency to not only procure the life-saving medicines, but also for pharmaceutical companies to buy raw materials to manufacture some of the drugs locally.
There is need for a social contract that includes government, pharmaceutical companies and medical aid societies to ensure that critical drugs are affordable and accessible to the majority of Zimbabweans.
Inaction from government could have fatal repercussions. Skipping and delaying medical attention, subsequently impacts on the quality of care and patient outcomes.
Government needs to revive plans to introduce national health insurance and stop paying a deaf ear to these problems.
It should now finalise the Medical Services Amendment Bill that has been on the cards since 2004, which guarantees every citizen and person with chronic illnesses the right to access basic healthcare services, to basic healthcare for the illness and every person’s right to emergency medical treatment to any health care.
In the short-term, it must avail foreign currency to the health sector as a top priority.