Patients in dilemma as pharmacies demand foreign currency for medication: CWGH

The Community Working Group on Health (CWGH) has urged the government to urgently avail enough foreign currency to the pharmaceutical industry to enable patients to access their life-saving medications which they are failing to buy because most pharmacies are demanding payment in foreign currency.


CWGH highlighted that about 90% of the country’s workforce earn their salaries and wages in local currency (the bond note) so demanding payment in foreign currency practically means denying people their right to health as enshrined in the Constitution.

The few pharmacies that are still accepting bond notes have since quadrupled their prices at levels of parallel market rates. These prices are beyond the reach of ordinary Zimbabweans, 90% of which do not even have have medical aid insurance cover, hence have no safety net at all.

As a result many patients, some with chronic illnesses, have not been taking their medication in the past three weeks due to distorted high prices and the demand for payment in American dollars. Additionally, the impact of devaluation and the runaway inflation has rendered people’s salaries meaningless in the face of the current high and unstable prices of commodities, including those of various medical procedures.

“If the obtaining situation continues for a day longer, many patients will develop serious health complications after failing to access medicines, a situation which will cost their lives. There are patients with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, arthritis, HIV/AIDS, Asthma, on dialysis and hypertension, who should not miss their medication.

“It should be highlighted that already some patients are taking cheaper substitutes from the unregulated parallel markets for drugs which might have serious side effects later due to its questionable efficacy while others have turned to faith healing, herbal and traditional medicines out of desperation,” said Itai Rusike the CWGH Executive Director.

There are thousands of patients dying in pain in their homes or health institutions because they cannot access or afford the cost of drugs such as morphine to ease pain. Their relatives and loved ones are watching them die in pain because they are also equally helpless. We applaud government for availing almost $9 million out of the required $29 million by pharmaceutical companies to restock medical supplies that had run out.

“However, the amount is too little taking cognisant of the problem at hand. CWGH implores government to take a pro-active strategy when addressing national issues and the current drug crisis may need the government to declare our health sector situation a state of emergency in order to allow other stakeholders such as the private sector, international partners, UN Agencies and NGOs to chip in with the much needed foreign currency support just like what happened with the cholera response.

Price increases or demands for cash at the point of service in the current environment where salaries are not being increased and hard cash is unavailable can only worsen the suffering of patients. While we do not support charging in foreign currency, directing pharmacies to reduce prices and selling local currency without availing enough foreign currency is a sign of desperation that will not work because the pharmacies need to buy the greenback from the street to import the medicines. Doing so is forcing them to close shop.”

CWGH argued that in the short term, the only logical thing is to avail foreign currency to the pharmaceutical companies to enable them to import the required medicines. In the medium to long-term, the government needs to capacitate the local pharmaceutical manufacturing companies such as Caps, Verichem and Datlabs to make sure that the country does not rely on expensive imports.

Presently, about 90% of drugs in public hospitals are supplied by donors, while private pharmacies mostly rely on imports. It is risky and unsustainable for a country to depend substantially on external partners as donors can withdraw financial support anytime should their interests shift for some reasons.

“The CWGH network calls on the government and stakeholders in the pharmaceutical industry to quickly come with an amicable strategy to make drugs accessible and affordable to thousands of suffering patients in the country. There is need for more immediate policy attention to be given to significant obstacles in drug access, including foreign currency supplies to Natpharm, timely payment to Natpharm of debts, adequacy of trained pharmacists in government service, improved management of drugs with an information system that provides timely information on drug availability, improved equity in the distribution of available drugs with greater support of drug supplies to primary care level.”