Procurement corruption darkens Africa’s COVID-19 fight
- Public health systems have been vulnerable to COVID-19 corruption in Africa
- Kenyan Senate Health Committee is investigating misuse of over US$69 million COVID-19 funds
- But COVID-19, expert says, offers Africa the opportunity for building resilient healthcare systems
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Procurement corruption is hampering Africa’s struggle to contain COVID-19.
Corruption was rife in Africa even before the COVID-19 pandemic became an additional burden for the continent’s weak health systems.
But the devastation caused by the virus has been compounded by another level of looting, in which public procurement has become the centre of corruption in a number of African countries.
“The risk of corruption during an emergency is higher across Africa,” Edward Baraza, director of the Wellcome Trust Nairobi programme told SciDev.Net.
“You want to respond faster, to develop mechanisms for a crisis response as opposed to the normal situations and therein lies the charm for corruption in COVID-19 containment efforts in the continent.”
Across Africa, procurement processes have been circumvented, with Kenya, Ghana and South Africa most seriously affected.
“The risk of corruption during an emergency is higher across Africa.”
Edward Baraza, Wellcome Trust Nairobi programme
In Zimbabwe, health minister Obediah Moyo was fired in July last year after he was accused of illegally awarding a multimillion-dollar contract, which inflated the cost of medical equipment.
Before his sacking, Zimbabwe’s Anti-Corruption Commission arrested Moyo and charged him in court with criminal abuse of duty as a public officer.
In Kenya, the country’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) initiated investigations into allegations of graft over the procurement and supply of COVID-19 equipment by the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA).
It concluded there was “irregular expenditure” of about US$71.96 million.
“The investigation established criminal culpability on the part of public officials in the purchase and supply of COVID-19 emergency commodities at KEMSA that led to irregular expenditure of public funds,” it said.
The commission recommended charging of suspected public officers and businesses under the country’s anti-corruption and economic crimes law, administrative action against some public officers for breaches in the procurement process, and a review of the policies, procedures and practices at KEMSA.
On top of this, Kenya’s Senate Health Committee is investigating the misuse of Kenya shillings 7.8 billion (over US$69 million) COVID-19 funds, according to the Auditor General’s special report on utilisation of COVID-19 funds by KEMSA.
SciDev.Net contacted KEMSA by telephone this month (18 February). However, their promise to respond to our queries immediately by email had not been honoured by the time of going to the press.
The Auditor General’s report also revealed so-called fly-by-night companies that were given contracts despite having only been in existence for less than a year and could not be deemed to have the necessary experience in supplying specialised medical equipment and products.
It cites Shop ‘N’ Buy Ltd, which was registered on 14 February, 2020, and given a US$8 million contract to supply N95 facemasks and personal protective equipment. Shop ‘N’ Buy Ltd promised on 16 February to respond to the allegations the following day through email but a response was never received by SciDev.Net.
Similarly, cereal company Briema Grains Stores turned on a dime and was awarded a contract to supply surgical masks, despite the fact it had limited experience in the sector.
The company directors told a televised proceeding before the committee on 11 December they had wanted to cash in on the COVID-19 demands as the grain sector struggled in the pandemic.
Public officials have also cashed in, misappropriating funds and diverting money away from health services.
Joachim Osur, technical director at Amref Health Africa and dean of the School of Medicine Service at the AMREF International University, says that official inquiries and reports in the Kenyan media have revealed that the pandemic has been misused by some government officials.
“There have been irregularities in procurement in Kenya and other countries in Africa that needs serious action to be taken,” Osur says. “We do not know where the money is going but it is certainly not going to the communities and healthcare workers as it should. Infections are continuing unabated.”
The situation, he says, is getting more complicated as money meant for other healthcare services such as immunisation programmes, the malaria fight and reproductive health is being channelled to COVID-19. “There will be an upsurge of other diseases,” he said.
More developed South Africa is not immune either. According to Transparency International, a German NGO, there have also been rising cases of corruption in the country related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For instance, a temporary employer-employee relief scheme has been abused by private firms who claim benefits on behalf of unknowing employees or deceased people and then pocketing the cash, the organisation says.
But in Sub-Saharan Africa, the health sector was already reeling under challenges long before COVID-19 appeared.
“Our health system is already in a deplorably moribund state and instead of flattening the COVID-19 curve, the disease has come to further flatten our health system,” says Oyewole Tomori, a virologist and former president of the Nigerian Academy of Science.
“COVID-19 is an equal opportunity invader, the end of whose tenure we do not yet know. It has come to bulldoze the refuse dump [that] we call our health system, render our health services impotent and decimate our health facilities.”
“I am still hopeful that we can use the ongoing COVID-19 experience to prepare for a better future of disease control and organised response.”
Oyewole Tomori, Nigerian Academy of Science
Tomori explains that COVID-19 has exposed the continent’s perennial unpreparedness to effectively tackle and respond to epidemics.
“We live on and operate by lessons forgotten,” he said. “Years of Lassa fever outbreaks since 1969, and Ebola outbreaks since 1976, not to mention major yellow fever outbreaks since the 1920s, have provided evidence for that assertion.”
Yet Tomori says that COVID-19 also offers Africa the opportunity to build new, resilient healthcare delivery systems.
‘‘I am still hopeful that we can use the ongoing COVID-19 experience to prepare for a better future of disease control and organised response,” he said.
“But it takes courage for us to get out of the constraining box that limits our thinking and look inwards and re-build the health sector.”
A shining example of this is Ghana’s first ever infectious disease and isolation centre.
Prompted by the pandemic, the 100-bed facility is being constructed with support from a COVID-19 private fund, according to Réseau Afrique Digital, a content development agency in Ghana that has been producing multimedia on the project.
The private fund also aims to construct three more infectious disease and isolation centres in the country.
It is a speck of light in an otherwise dark story of misappropriation and graft that has so far characterised much of Africa’s response to the pandemic.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.