BY: ELTON MHANGO
When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country in 2020, the Malawi governemnt moved in quickly to fight the pandemic by releasing K6.2 billion to Local Councils, Central Hospitals and other clusters. From the K6.2 billion, Local Councils received K1.3 billion, while the rest was distributed to other clusters.
Out of that, the M’mbelwa District Council in August 2020 received MK30 million to help in the fight against COVID-19 pandemic which had claimed thousands of peoples’ lives.
The K6.2 billion intended for COVID-19 was the subject of a forensic audit report by the country’s Auditor General in 2021, which showed how District Councils had diverted money for personal allowances and other purposes.
Initially, the funds were among others meant to procure personal protective equipment (PPEs) for health facilities such as face masks, sanitizers, gowns and shields.
Government guidelines on the use of COVID-19 funds were contained in a circular REF. MOLGRD/1/21 dated 19th May 2020 in paragraph five under financial guidelines explicitly stated that the funds were not to be used for other activities or borrowed for other uses that were not related to the fight against COVID-19.
However, there is a mist on how the M’mbelwa District Council used the K30 million COVID-19 funds that government allocated to it.
Our investigations have revealed that the Council did not use the funds as intended because most Health Facilities in Mzimba South District including the main District Hospital lacked the essential PPEs to fight the raging pandemic at the time.
Our investigations also show that all the Health Centres relied on donations from Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) because officials at M’mbelwa District Council including those at the District Health Office had diverted or used the COVID-19 funds for other activities such as unbudgeted for allowances and personal emoluments.
While Health Centres were struggling to ration the use of PPEs which were always insufficient, Council officials including other top health officials were feasting on the funds in the form of allowances on the pretext of conducting awareness campaigns, conducting surveillance and screening errands in some parts of the districts.
According to information sourced from confidential sources at the Council and the District Health Office, the Council did not buy enough COVID -19 personal protective equipment and that the funds were not used according to the guidelines on use of COVID-19 funds.
One source at the District Health office said instead of buying PPEs some of the funds went towards the training of newly recruited Health Surveillance Assistants (HSAs) between December 2020 to March 2021.
“Some HSAs had just been recruited by the Council so there was need to train them hence management decided to get the funds from the COVID-19 package to carter for the training. About K6.2 million was diverted,” the source claimed.
According to the source the then District Commissioner (DC) Emmanuel Bambe single-handedly authorized the diversion. When contacted for comment, Bambe refused to comment and refered this reporter to the District Council’s Spokesperson Joel Phiri.
Another source also confided to us that other unexplained huge sums of money were used on allowances for meetings. The source did not mention the figure.
We requested the Council to provide details on how much from the K30 million given was used to buy PPEs but nothing has been provided despite several attempts.
The Council’s Spokesperson Joel Phiri when contacted also did not provide information requested on how much from the K30 million went to procurement of PPE’s and the allegations raised.
The situation on the ground
As the Council Officials were diverting and feasting on COVID-19 funds, on the ground Health Workers in remote areas were struggling to fight the pandemic.
In an interview Senior Nursing Officer at Kabuwa Health Centre in the area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Khosolo ,Trouble Banda said they relied on PPEs donated by NGOs to contain the pandemic.
“We did not receive enough PPEs from the Council, or the District Health Office. However, we received PPEs such as hand washing facilities, soap and sanitizers from Khosolo Women’s’ Forum who were funded by ActionAid. The group did a lot of awareness campaigns on COVID-19 in the community,” he said.
On his part, a Medical Assistant at Edingeni Health Centre in T/A M’mbelwa – Samuel Tsuka said at one time they were washing their hands with plain water due to lack of soap and had no hand washing gadgets
“We have been struggling most of the times because we faced challenges of shortage of PPEs like face masks and hand washing facilities,” Tsuka said.
He said most of the times they have been bailed out by Non-Governmental Organizations working in the area like Word Alive Commission for Relief and Development – WACRAD.
Investigations also revealed that at the District Hospital they also relied on donations from various stakeholders such as World Vision, Raipy Limited, Action Aid and Unicef among others.
However, it was noted that such donations were also taking time to be distributed to 35 Health Centres which are affiliated to the main Hospital.
Inevitably in Mzimba South alone 74 Health Care Workers were infected with COVID-19. They were from remote based Health Centres suc as Kabuwa, Euthini, Manyamula, Edingeni, Chikangawa, Mkoma, Jenda, Katete, Embangweni Mission Hospital, Raiply and Mzambazi Mission Hospital.
Disgruntled with the way how COVID-19 funds were being used and their general welfare, Health Workers at Mzimba South Health office staged a sit in that led to the transfer of the then Director of Health and Social Services Dr. Lumbani Munthali who was being accused of gross abuse in the use of the funds.
Dr Munthali could not be reached for comment despite several attempts during a two weeks period.
Nothing has happened
President Lazarus Chakwera in 2021 speaking after an audit report was released about the looting of K6.2 billion COVID-19 funds vowed that government will move to recover all the stolen public funds, interdict all public officers implicated, discipline them and ban any businesses implicated from any future government contracts but nothing has happened.
President Chakwera’s even moved harshly by interdicting all the District Commissioners (DCs) in the country including Emmanuel Bambe on February 14, 2021.
The interdictions, which also affected personnel from other government ministries, departments and agencies, were meant to pave the way for an independent audit of the K6.2 billion.
However, in May 2021, the government made a U-turn by reinstating all 27 District Commissioners (DCs) and seven Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) that were interdicted in February 2021.
Ever since nobody has been held accountable for misusing the COVID-19 funds despite glaring evidence in the audit reports and President Chakwera stance to bring to book all offenders. The President’s response on the abuse of the K6.2 billion COVID-19 funds appeared to have been a publicity stunt.
A call to act
In an interview, a Mzimba based Social Activist Teckson Amadu argues that Officers who misused the funds should not go unpunished.
Amadu also believes that the K30 million COVID – 19 funds allocated to the M’mbelwa District Council was enough to buy PPEs for all the District Health Facilities.
He then challenged the Tonse Alliance government to walk the talk as declared by President Chakwera to investigate and bring to book all those who were involved in the plunder of the COVID-19 resources.
“Three years down the line, we have seen nothing happening to appreciate that all those who participated in the malpractices have been brought to book. This is unfair and unfortunate and we call for justice to prevail,” Amadu said.