New Covid-19 infections are now steadily declining in many parts of Africa, but this good news has been marred by scandals over corruption and missing funds earmarked for the pandemic.
In countries that are already graft-weary, the public has been stunned by revelations of inflated contracts awarded to the politically connected, as well as inflated invoicing and plain theft.
Heading the scandal list is South Africa, where government investigators are probing more than 600 companies and institutions awarded five billion rand ($300 million) in contracts to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) for health workers and distribute relief aid.
Pocketing state funds is not a new phenomenon in South Africa – scandals date back years to the time of former president Jacob Zuma.
But the notion of funds being siphoned off for PPE and emergency help has stung many South Africans to the core. Plunderers have earned themselves the epithet “Covidpreneurs”.
Health workers have staged rolling lunch-hour protests at their work places, culminating last week with a picket outside President Cyril Ramaphosa’s office in Pretoria, to highlight the shortage of masks, gowns, gloves and goggles for frontline workers.
They have already lost at least 240 of their colleagues to Covid-19 out of the more than 27,000 infected in the line of duty.
“We can no longer keep quiet anymore,” complained nurse Frans Mokgope.
The country’s chief tax collector, Edward Kieswetter, revealed on Thursday that 63 percent of awarded PPE tenders were not tax compliant — and many companies that won tenders had no experience in PPE supplies.
Missing gear, missing funds
Africa has recorded 1.33 million cases and nearly 32,000 fatalities, according to official figures.
If the toll is accurate, the pandemic has had a far less severe impact on health than initially feared.
But for many countries, this success has come at crippling economic cost because of curfews and lockdowns – and despite a glaring lack of PPE for frontline workers and intensive-care equipment for the seriously ill.
In East Africa, images posted by doctors and nurses of defective PPE distributed to hospital ICUs across Kenya have been circulated widely, embarrassing the government.
Under particular scrutiny is the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (Kemsa), where officials are accused of pilfering huge sums earmarked for PPE.
Investigators cannot account for some $64 million, but activists say that is just the beginning.
A television expose called “Covid millionaires” that first aired the allegations claims the theft is many times larger, hovering around $400 million.
In Uganda, four senior government officials face jail for allegedly skimming about half a million dollars from a food relief programme meant for the most vulnerable during the pandemic.
Uganda’s ambassador to Denmark and her deputy meanwhile were recorded apparently plotting in a Zoom meeting to steal funds earmarked for the pandemic. The government has vowed to investigate.
In Somalia, nine ministry officials have been convicted of misusing funds and sentenced to prison terms between three and eight years.
In central Africa, Democratic Republic of Congo premier Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba announced in May that he had disbursed $10.7 million ($8.4 million) to fight the virus.
But a month later the country’s coronavirus tsar, Jean-Jacques Muyembe, said he had only received $1.4 million from the government.
Virus corruption is ‘murder’
“Corruption related to PPE, lifesaving, for me it’s actually murder,” World Health Organization (WHO) boss Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last month.
“If health workers work without PPE, we are risking their lives, and that also risks the lives of the people they serve.”
Diversion of funds meant to save lives “is a human rights issue that has to be condemned and penalised,” said Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) head John Nkengasong.
Civil society groups say pandemic-related financial sleaze has been widespread.
“Corruption is extremely deep-seated and deep-rooted,” David Lewis, director of Corruption Watch, told AFP.
“During war time it used to be the people who were caught profiteering from a war who were executed… (were) shot on the spot because it was considered to be treasonous,” Lewis said.
An association of traditional leaders in South Africa this week censured government officials who they said ransacked the public purse at the expense of saving lives.
“It is a mutiny against citizenry that is tantamount to treason,” said the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa in a statement.