Customs duty for a limb in Zimbabwe

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I was looking for a copy shop along Central Avenue in Harare. Then I got lost within this Central Avenue complex between Seventh and Eighth Streets. Suddenly, I found myself at the back of the complex in this small office grinning at the lady at the reception. I blurted “am I in the right place”.

My happy moods are contagious . . . she chuckled and said ‘‘yes you are’’ eyeing my left shoulder where there is only but a stump. At almost the same time my eyes wonder and I see a form on her desk with the words Prosthetics & Orthopedics Centre. I laugh uncontrollably realising what had just happened. She thought I was in for a check up with the Orthopedic Specialist. I quickly explained that I was not in for “that” but I was just looking for a copy shop.

She, however, took the opportunity to try and convince me to try their products. I equally rebuffed her enthusiastic attempts telling her that I did have an artificial limb at home which I totally loathed.

My dear father, Felix C. Muchairi Mawire (MHDSRIP) had bought me one soon after I had lost my limb some twenty something years ago. It was heavy, cumbersome and did not help me do any of the physical activities that a person normally needs their hand for, so I had dumped it. I promised to bring it to the kind lady the next time I was in the neighbourhood.

On the sixth of August 2018, I met Tapiwanashe Hoko aged just over 3 years. He was born with a deformed leg and hand. When the natural instinct to walk took over from the crawling phase of the baby, his parents watched in pain as he could not walk because of the shorter limb. His deformed leg was too short to enable him to learn the normal walking motions.

When they eventually managed to raise the thousands of dollars needed for the operation and purchase of an artificial limb the young man was now 18 years old.

He had to be amputated to facilitate the wearing of an orthopedic limb. On the day when I met them, his mother had travelled all the way from Mberengwa for a check-up and adjustment of the limb as he has outgrown it.

Mrs Hoko told me that it was now necessary to get a replacement limb for their son as he was now uncomfortable on the limb they had got him two years earlier. She intimated that they had to start saving for a replacement limb years before they needed to buy it.

According to a UNICEF 2013 report, 7 percent of the population which was around 900 000 people was living with various disabilities in Zimbabwe at the time.

The National Association for the care of the Handicapped (NASCOH) puts the figure at about 10 percent of the total population. A large percentage of them have physical disabilities whereby their lives could be improved by having an artificial limb of sorts.

There are 20 registered orthopaedic specialists in Zimbabwe according to Medical & Dental Practitioners Council of Zimbabwe website.

This roughly gives a ratio of 1 to 45 000 persons per specialist doctor. This probably also partly explains the very high cost of orthopaedic surgeries. You can look at figures like $5 000 just for a limb job.

I am not aware of any Zimbabwean manufacturer of “orthopaedic appliances, including crutches, surgical belts and trusses; splints and other fracture appliances; artificial parts of the body; hearing aids and other appliances which are worn or carried or inplanted in the body, to compensate for a defect or disability”. (sic) heading 90.21 in the HS 2017 Tariff. All the appliances as described in the Customs Tariff handbook have to be imported. Only the appliances to do with Teeth, Ears and the Heart are zero rated. The rest of the items have to pay a 5 percent rate of duty on importation.

Even items falling under Heading 90.01 for sight correction pay 5 percent duty on importation.

There is a not so clear suspension of duty n these orthopaedic appliances provision to be discussed later in this article.

Given this scenario where a 5 percent duty has to be paid on importation and the fact that these appliances are already expensive even in their countries of manufacture, the landed cost in Zimbabwe becomes exorbitant and out of reach for many people living with disabilities.

We should take cognisant of the fact that being disabled greatly reduces the income generating ability of people living with disabilities and their care givers.

Sometimes they will have to choose between staying with the disabled person and going out to fend for them.

The high cost of having an artificial limb is further exacerbated as these have to be periodically replaced as they suffer from wear and tear like any other machine.

The costs are even higher for the growing ones as they naturally outgrow them such that on an average of two years, you should change the limb.

An orthopaedics practitioner confirmed that the orthopaedic gadgets prices have been going up in line with the inflation rate.

A limb which cost $1 200 in 2009 would be expected to go for just over $1 300 assuming the 1,01 percent average inflation rate over the years.

On the ground, it is going for around $1 500 probably factoring in the cost of buying the greenback and many other economic distortions within our economy.

This author, therefore, believes it is reasonable to expect that no customs duty should be charged on the orthopaedic appliances just as it is not charged on artificial teeth, dental fittings, hearing aids, pacemakers and related items. I

f the reason for allowing these items duty free is that they are essential for the functioning of the human body, artificial limbs and especially legs should come in duty free and even be subsidised.

Mobility is essential for every person to live a reasonably normal life. If Zimra and its parent Ministry can allow for duty to be suspended on specified motor vehicles, charging a Zero rate of duty on these artificial limbs should not have much impact on their revenue collections.

In terms of the current law, Customs duty is wholly suspended on goods specified in Section 4 of the Customs & Excise Suspension Regulations Statutory Instrument 257 of 2003 as variously amended.

However, scrutiny of this piece of legislation shows that it is ambiguous and impracticable.

As a result, this part has only been generally utilised to bring in vehicles duty free by the few who can afford to buy motor vehicles.

It is generally not used when importing orthopaedic appliances, books, typewriters, wheelchairs, eyesight spectacles; Braille watches etc which could come in duty free had the legislation been more precise as the VAT Regulations.

Zimra and the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development should consider zero rating these items in the Tariff rather than suspending the duties using SI 257 provisions.

Zero rated goods are easier to import than those where duties are suspended.

This is because there are more processes and conditions imposed if someone has to benefit from the duty suspension.

Someone will be forced to engage a Fiscal Expert to assist them with all the processes which would erode the benefit of the duty suspension.

Zimra also has this rigid requirement for a specialist report for a person to qualify.

There are some disabilities which surely do not require such requirements, which are so obvious especially 100 percent amputations which are visible to the human eye.

Internal verifications within Zimra assist the disabled by reducing the cost of compliance.

Another reason why zero rating is preferred is that the importation of these appliances is usually done by Orthopaedic practitioners for resale to their patients. The cost of compliance in trying to import under the suspensions would be next to impossible for them as suspensions are considered on a per individual basis.

It is, however, worth noting that there are other concessions for the people living with disabilities like the $900 per annum tax credit on employment income, Zero Rating of VAT as in Part III of the VAT Amendment Regulations SI 273 as variously amended throughout the years.

VAT is 0 percent on specified goods like books, magazines, maps, typewriters, specified motor vehicle parts, wheelchairs, eyesight lenses, frames, parts, orthopaedic appliances, Braille watches and other items for use by disabled persons.

We also have many items in the Customs Tariff which are Zero Rated specifically for the benefit of disabled people.

Disclaimer: This Article is not meant to create a consultant/client Relationship. Readers are advised to consult their Consultants for specific advisory services.–ebusinessweekly,co,zw

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