Why going to hospital means entering a financial mine field
The Zimbabwean government's apparently far-sighted decision to allow hospitals and clinics to charge patients in foreign currency has proved, predictably, to be another disaster. While the hospitals may still be functioning, thanks to finance from non-government organisations and others, the prognosis for the average would-be patient remains grim.
It was our old friend Health minister David Parirenyatwa who decided that patients were to be given the option of paying in foreign currency if they wished. But, given the choice, the hospitals obviously prefer payment in good solid US dollars, rather than the Zimbabwe dollar, which shrivels into meaningless paper in your hand.
The result has been that now to get treatment you need the hard stuff. The hospitals simply aren't interested in local currency. And this has faced Steve Banda, a young petrol attendant friend of mine, with severe problems.
Steve is an expectant father. His wife Promise is due at the end of February. And Steve is currently scurrying around town in a desperate bid to find enough dollars to pay for her confinement.
He first approached a private clinic in the Avenues, Harare, where Promise could expect the best and safest treatment. He was asked to produce a signing-in fee of US$500 - an impossibly large sum for someone like Steve.
He then went to the recently re-opened Parirenyatwa Hospital, which wanted US$300 in advance. Other charges would include US$70 per additional night in hospital, US$150 if a caesarian is required, and US$5 per day for the use of an incubator.
Steve is still hunting the necessary dollars. He has little more than a month to find them.
Meanwhile the doctors and nurses who still remain in Zimbabwe are now being paid in very welcome hard currency. But, once again, there's a snag. Isn't there always?
The government has indicated that it will pay the foreign currency salaries only into the recipient's Foreign Currency bank account. Our doctors and nurses have therefore gone to the banks to open such accounts. But to do so, the banks are demanding an up-front fee of US$200 - an amount which the average health worker just doesn't have.
The Health Ministry has given staff waiver letters. But these have been largely ignored by the banks, which of course need hard dollars as much as anyone else. Result- stalemate. And continued deprivation and suffering.
In international publications and on websites we here in Zimbabwe read that the rest of the world is struggling in the grip of a financial crisis. Believe me, foreign readers all, compared to us here in Zimbabwe you haven't even started.