Mary Muchenje bolted out of a pharmacy in Harare’s Avenues area, only to stop a few metres away scratching her head.
Muchenje’s world had just crumbled after the pharmacists informed her she needed US$400 cash to buy medication for her gravely ill mother.
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A month ago, she had bought the same drugs for less than $50 using electronic money transfer.
“My mother is dying and the pharmacy is demanding hard cash for her medication,” she said. “I am desperate.”
It had been a tough day for Muchenje as doctors had earlier told her that they would not carry out life-saving surgery on her mother unless she paid US$500 upfront.
“I cannot buy the medication at the prevailing foreign currency exchange rates,” she said.
Muchenje is among thousands of Zimbabweans that fell victim to an economic meltdown triggered by government’s new austerity measures that saw the central bank announcing the separation of foreign currency and real time gross settlement (RTGS) bank accounts.
The move sent the value of bond note crashing to a low of 1:6 against the United States dollar triggering a surge in prices of basic commodities and fuel shortages.
After days of panic-buying, some leading retailers closed down as they struggled to restock.
A new electronic money transfer tax that will see consumers paying 2 cents for every transacted dollar above the $10 limit only added fuel to the fire.
Health providers either started demanding US dollars or raised their charges as much as six times. Some pharmacies in Harare and Bulawayo closed down after running out of essential drugs.
A number of clinics, hospitals and pharmacies started turning away people on medical aid and demanded cash.
Tinotenda Mushipe, from Harare’s Waterfalls suburb, said he got the shock of his life when he was told at many pharmacies that he could not buy hypertension medication for his mother using medical aid.
“My mother is a diabetes and hypertension patient who takes eight different drugs daily,” he said.
“This week I went to the pharmacy where I usually access the drugs using medical aid, but I was told I could only pay cash or use electronic money transfer.”
To his dismay, Mushipe said, he was told that the drugs that normally cost $145 had been pegged at $2 000 in the local currency. The other alternative was to pay US$45, which he did not have.
“I was left with very few choices, as my mother had missed a day or two on some of the drugs that had already been exhausted,” he said.
After mobilising some foreign currency with the help of his sister, Mushipe had another tough assignment to hunt for the drugs that were now in short supply.
“We moved up and down until we managed to buy the drugs at different pharmacies at different prices and paid a total of US$100,” he said.
Patrick Muradzi said he had to seek the help of a friend based in Lesotho to buy hypertension medication for his mother, but was shocked by the raft of taxes he was made to pay after receiving the parcel through a courier service company.
He said he was asked to pay $100 for the tablets he bought for R200 in Lesotho.
The Pharmaceutical Society of Zimbabwe (PSZ) said its members were unable to restock due to the foreign currency crisis and warned that stocks of essential drugs were now too low.
“We do have a crisis on our hands in that we have critical medicines running out due to failure to fund the importation of raw materials and medicines,” PSZ president Portifa Mwendera said.
“Our industry is 95% dependent on imports as even for locally manufactured products we have to import the active pharmaceutical ingredients,” Mwendera said.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) said the drug shortages posed a serious threat to ordinary people’s right to healthcare.
“On the other hand, basic antibiotics like azithromycin have gone up to $47 for a three-day course,” ZADHAR said.
“Most pharmacies are also running out of emergency medicines and the situation in public hospitals is deteriorating by each day.”
On Friday, the Health and Childcare ministry said it had since met the Association of Health Care Funders of Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Medical Association, Pharmaceutical Manufacturers’ Association, Pharmaceutical Wholesalers’ Association, Retail Pharmacists’ Association, Private Hospitals Association of Zimbabwe, PSZ and ZADHAR to find solutions to the crisis.
“At these series of meetings held on Thursday October 11, 2018 with different players, the government position was stated confirming that the value of RTGS versus the US$ was 1:1,” the ministry said in a statement.
“The ministry will be taking the recommendations emanating from these engagements to Cabinet.
“It is acknowledged there is limited forex in the country and the health sector has not been spared.
“The RBZ [Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe] governor [John Mangudya] has been engaged for foreign currency allocations to the health sector.
“The goal is to ensure availability and access to health services by citizens, without compromising the sustainability of service providers, pharmaceutical manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers.”
The government urged desperate people to avoid buying medicines from the streets or online vendors as the products’ safety was not guaranteed.
“Chances are high that the medicines could be fake, sub-standard or contain no active ingredient at all,” the Health ministry added.
“The potential harm of buying from the street far outweighs any potential benefit, if any.”
The crisis, which continues to intensify despite the foreign currency exchange rates falling dramatically on the parallel market beginning on Friday, has affected almost all facets of people’s lives.
Sheppard Moto, a commuter omnibus driver in Harare, said he had lost potential earnings as he spent most of the week in fuel queues.
Winding fuel queues started surfacing two weeks ago as traders struggled to get foreign currency to replenish stocks.
“I am a kombi driver and I earn on commission,” Moto said.
“I have worked for a few hours this week because I am always in fuel queues.
“I don’t know how much I will be paid this week and if that would be enough to buy enough food at the prevailing prices for my family.”
Sheri Muronda, a vendor from Manyame, said the past week had seen her problems worsen as she was not able to restock.
“It has been very painful for me,” she said. “I survive through vending and for that alone I need someone to push me around as I am disabled.
The little that I realise from the proceeds is not enough for my upkeep.”
Muronda said she could no longer take care of herself after prices of basic commodities shot up.
Narrating her ordeal, she said she was now failing to buy a bar of soap to wash her clothes and even bathe herself.
“I went into a shop and they said one bar of soap was $5, but the price went up to $7 while I was still absorbing the shock of the initial price,” she said.
“No one is buying from me because it is hard for everyone. At the end of day, I would have sold a few packets of these roasted nuts.
“I order these nuts elsewhere, but they have also hiked their prices.”
As if the price increases were not enough, Zimbabweans will now have to contend with the 2 cents tax on electronic transactions that came into effect yesterday.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa last week said the new tax was a painful but necessary step to economic revival.
Business owners and ordinary citizens have cried foul, saying they are paying for the government’s profligate spending.
“The problems that Zimbabwe is facing right now are not the creation of the current guy or the current government, no. it’s the actions, results of sabotage where there are rogue elements hell-bent on destroying the economy, that’s why there are food shortages and everything,prices skyrocketing by 300% in a day, prices not in any way linked to the tax or to the fuel, so this is totally a result of sabotage,” said Moreprecision Muzadzi, a Harare resident.
Economic analysts said the tax would raise nearly $2 billion annually.
Nelson Banya, an economic analyst based in Harare, said Zimbabwe would need more than $2 billion to revive the economy.
“What would be more needful in our current circumstances is a bailout, which bailout is tied to your ability to service our arrears and that’s one of the issues the Finance minister has identified as a priority and he is actually in Bali, Indonesia, as we speak to try and re-engage the international lenders and see if Zimbabwe can get some sort of bailout package of the order of a couple of billions. without that, I do not see this situation being resolved any time soon,” he said.
Zimbabwe is facing acute shortages of US dollars, which the country adopted in 2009 when it abandoned its own currency after hyperinflation made it worthless. Additional reporting by Reuters.