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Zimbabwe Health Care Beyond Reach of Majority

Six months into its existence Zimbabwe's national unity government points to the opening of hospitals as one of its achievements. Fees at these hospitals are putting health care beyond the reach of the majority of the country's population.

Earlier this year, hospitals in Zimbabwe had been closed for months due to a lack of drugs and equipment to keep them running. The only option for those in need of medical attention was the private health institutions, which demanded high fees in foreign currency.

However, hospitals slowly started to re-open after the unity government came into being.

But for the majority of Zimbabweans health care still remains inaccessible due to the official introduction of the use of foreign currency and the death of the Zimbabwe dollar. Consultation fees range from $40 if one wants to see a private practitioner, $10 for the bigger hospitals and $5 for clinics.

VOA spoke to some Zimbabweans on the streets of Harare and while all of them commended the government for having hospitals working again they said the fees are way too high. Speaking in Shona, a fruit vendor said even the lowest charge is too much.

He says, the money is a problem because $5 is a lot of money. A lot of people cannot spare that much.

Another man, a sales clerk, said although he has a salary it's just not enough to meet medical expenses.

"Right now it's not affordable because the U.S. dollar is very difficult to come by. Like we are working, getting $100 per month which is not enough for your rent, food transport and everything," he said.

One woman said people are already struggling with the basics and the majority of Zimbabweans just can't afford the fees. She also said some people were prevented from leaving a maternity home after they could not settle their bills.

"They actually locked them up until their husband or their friends come and pay so that they can let them out," she said.

Dr. Brighton Chizhande of the Zimbabwe Hospital Doctors Association confirmed this happens especially where there are doubts about the patient's ability to pay once discharged. He said before being attended to a patient must pay a consultation fee. In addition to that they must pay for whatever investigation or procedure is carried out on them.

"If in the event that the patient has to be discharged without having paid all the bills, considering the fact that some of these patients can later say they no longer have any more money, then the hospital is undertaking to engage debt collectors who are going to take property from those patients homes if they don't pay," Chizhande said.

VOA tried unsuccessfully to get a comment from the Zimbabwe Ministry of Health and Child Welfare. The formation of the unity government has arrested the economic meltdown the country has experienced over the past decade. But recovery is proving to be a slow and painful process and more than 90 percent of the workforce is still unemployed.