Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, another bombshell has been dropped. Foreign drug manufacturers have decided to stop supplying Zimbabwe over unpaid debt amounting to over US$39 million. This is a huge blow for an already struggling pharmaceutical industry which imports about 80% of its requirements. Drug shortages have been on the rise since last year. Some pharmacies have hiked prices while others are selling certain drugs in foreign currency to try and cushion themselves. Are we in for even tougher times?

RBZ allocations

According to Pharmaceutical Society of Zimbabwe President Portifa Mwendera, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) is behind in allocating them foreign currency to keep afloat. “As of close of last year, the pharmaceutical importers owed $32.5 million to foreign suppliers while pharmaceutical manufacturers owed about US$7 million for importation of raw materials. So the central bank is not up to date in terms of allocations. The industry needs consistent allocations to fund the importation of raw materials and finished products with a bias towards the promotion of local production to ensure import substitution and also exports into the region,” Mr Mwendera was quoted in a local daily, Newsday.

Kuda Chapfika, Pharmaceutical Wholesalers’ Association Chairperson adds, “Most of our credit lines have been cut due to non-payment and the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe has not allocated us any foreign currency in three months. We are now at the mercy of our suppliers.” Specifically, Chapfika says they have received only 27.8% of their requirements for 2018 from the RBZ. Government recently appointed a Foreign Currency Allocation Committee to deal with these and other problems more transparently. Unfortunately, it looks like there is not enough foreign currency in the economy to allocate equitably. Engagements with government are ongoing and hopefully something concrete comes out of it soonest.

Negative effects

As a result of the above, drug shortages are likely to persist. More critically, many patients will end up having to deal with changes in treatment regimes since prescribed drugs may not always be available on the market. This may have negative health implications. For those with chronic illnesses, unavailability of drugs will feel like a death sentence. Those with resources will have to buy their drugs abroad. In times like these, a parallel market always crops up. In the pharmaceutical industry, a black market is a dangerous phenomenon, dispensing of drugs is not for all and sundry. It is for those fully trained, certificated and registered. On the other hand, even government doctors have always lamented lack of essential drugs and pharmaceuticals in government institutions. Erratic drug supply was one of their grievances when they went on a 40 day strike. Evidently, the effects of drug shortages are widespread.

There is no time to dilly dally on this one. Government, through the RBZ needs to avail the foreign currency without thinking twice. All that is needed is a monitoring mechanism to avoid abuse of resources. There is no time at all.