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Corruption and Accountability in the Times of COVID 19

At the time of writing this article, statistics about COVID 19 infections and deaths in Kenya show 619 deaths and 35,969 total infections according to Capital News. Of the total infections, there are 22,771 recoveries. The cumulative tests in the country add up to 494,560 according to The Star.

Despite these rising statistics on the infections from COVID 19, there is a widespread claim that the statistics the government is churning out are fake. These claims include that the government is forging reduced numbers to mean a decrease in the rate of infections thus “flattening the curve”.

There has been a surge in false claims linked to COVID-19 in Kenya which follows existing misinformation trends in the country. The key trend in misinformation about COVID 19 has been around the use of false context (including false connection and clickbait headlines) and manipulation of genuine content.

The COVID 19 situation has also led to corruption scandals which have brought shame on the government. The KEMSA scandal is the most prominent with allegations flaring up that government officials stole millions of dollars of vital medical supplies. KEMSA is under scrutiny concerning allegations that government officials and shady businessmen pilfered $400 million in public money allocated for medical equipment required to fight COVID 19.

The allegations of graft and misappropriation came to light in spite of the rise in new infections. Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) raided the KEMSA offices looking for any evidence on the scandal. At least five politicians, top government officials and directors of 50 companies linked to the Kemsa scandal are expected to be questioned at EACC headquarters.

The Members of Parliament grilled the KEMSA Board (video) over the loss of funds earmarked for COVID 19 response, but the Board maintained that ‘no funds were stolen’. The board of the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority was also grilled at the EACC headquarters over unprocedural tenders worth billions and their handling of procurement of drugs and other goods meant to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an interview with People Daily, Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC) Chief Executive Twalib Mbarak termed the KEMSA scandal as “massive” and warned that investigations will take some time to conclude.

“Mbarak said the anti-corruption commission is investigating aspects of financial impropriety, abuse of procurement regulations through direct sourcing, Kemsa staff using proxies to milk the medical agency, possible price inflation of supplied items as well as profiling companies involved to establish if they are genuine or were registered as conduits.

“This is a big and wide case that will take time to process. The case has very many angles including financial analysis, procurement, to establish if the items were sold at the right price or there was (an) exaggeration of costs or if they were dummy supplies.

We want to look at these companies, which are many, if they have a history and profile or whether they are briefcase entities,” Twalib said.”

All these improprieties raise deep-rooted issues of leadership, corruption and accountability in the times of COVID 19, especially in the aspect of devolution.

corruption and accountability in the times of COVID

The reality is that there is a widespread dereliction of duty when it comes to the management of COVID 19 in Kenya. Meanwhile, accountability is lacking at both levels of government regarding how issues are being handled, especially in terms of leadership and management of funds.

Healthcare workers have engaged in strikes to protest their dire working situations. They have been working with limited resources such as PPEs and most have no medical cover. Many of them have also been infected with COVID 19 while some have succumbed to the disease. Most of them have also been working without pay for several months now.

The reason why most health professionals have no medical covers is that many counties have not submitted their contributions to NHIF. As a result, infected health workers have had to pay for their own treatment from their pockets. Some even claim they have not had their salaries for over six months!

Protests have been taking place countrywide over the alleged misappropriation of COVID 19 funds. However, the protests have been met with force by the police who threw teargas and arrests have been made under false charges of ‘violating COVID 19 protocols’.

We are demanding the arrest of the people who are known thieves, who are known to have stolen COVID-19 [equipment], but they are still free. The police, instead of coming to tear gas us, they should be in the offices investigating, making sure these people are taken to court and jailed.

We are tired of an endless stream of news detailing how much money is being lost in the emergency response efforts. This money could be used in a better way to fight the pandemic

Activist Wanjeri Nderu

Even the Director-General World Health Organization (WHO) understands the dire situation that corruption has caused by limiting accountability in the fight against COVID 19. He described corruption in the procurement of Covid-19 personal protective equipment (PPEs) as unacceptable and likened it to murder.

If health workers work without PPEs, we are risking their lives, and that also risks the lives of the people they serve. It is criminal, and it is murder, and it has to stop.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General

Indeed we can all agree that the misappropriation of COVID 19 funds is criminal and condemns those infected and the healthcare workers alike to death which is akin to murder. The government also seems to neglect health workers’ safety despite claiming that it has availed resources to take care of their welfare.

Another area of concern with regard to accountability is funding for COVID 19 response. First, it is alarming that we did not have an Auditor General when this pandemic started and there is a possibility that the audit reports that will arise from the expenditure of COVID 19 funds will possibly reveal massive irregularities. Second, the government has (deliberately or not) underresourced key programs that are crucial to the COVID 19 response.

According to IBP Kenya, there was a significant budget reduction in the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Water and Sanitation in the last supplementary budget with a significant part of these changes being allocations for Universal Health Coverage spread across two programmes.

A large part of the country’s response to Covid-19 is pegged on strengthening elements of the health care system. This includes the employment of additional staff and the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPEs).

International Budget Partnership (IBP) Kenya

IBP says This is quite concerning because both programmes are crucial in the provision of primary health care. At the time the supplementary budget was tabled before parliament, IBP note4s that there were no significant resources specifically for the Covid-19 response which also raised issues of accountability with regard to how the government could meet its target of treating persons infected with COVID 19.

While water was mentioned as an important resource to maintain hygiene as a preventive measure against COVID 19, the government also went ahead and reduced its budget. The areas most affected by limited access to water are the marginalized areas and informal urban settlements, and according to IBP, the COVID 19 pandemic only amplifies that challenge.

Another cause of concern is that the frequent borrowing of funds to fight COVID 19 is already exacerbating the public debt quagmire that the country is already stuck in. The national government’s appetite for loans has seen the debt more than triple since 2012. The debt is growing at a faster rate than the revenue the national government collects which makes the COVID 19 borrowing a concern.

Lastly, the preparedness of the county governments in managing the pandemic has been lacklustre. A Senate report in July indicated how dire the situation was in the counties. The Senate committee that shared the report said that most counties still lacked adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and had poorly equipped isolation and treatment facilities.

The county governments had also not facilitated adequate COVID-19 training and sensitization for their health workers.

The committee cited limited resources to carry out more tests at the counties. The committee blamed the low testing rate on lack of skilled lab personnel, lack of adequate sample collection kits, insufficient reagents and some faulty test kits which were received as donations.

The Committee also recommended increased funding towards testing for COVID 19.

The lifting of restriction movements in and out of certain areas of the country made the situation in the counties even dire making them call upon the government to intervene. The level of county preparedness to handle the Covid-19 pandemic remains low and they have exposed their inability to handle the situation by calling on the national government to open more testing labs in the counties.

The reality on the ground is that most counties still do not have facilities to test, trace contacts, admit and successfully manage Covid-19 patients.

At the moment, our biggest challenge is the lack of testing kits in our facilities since this is the responsibility of the national government.

Governor Oparanya

This shows a lack of accountability from both levels of government to commit each other towards ensuring full capacity in testing and managing the spread of COVID 19. The statements made by public health officials differed from those made by frontline health workers which indicate that both the national and county governments are only interested in saving face rather than addressing the reality on the ground.

It is this negligence by both governments and their leadership, coupled with the scandals and impunity, that calls into question the issues of corruption and accountability in the times of COVID 19 and if Kenyans can continue to trust both levels of government which are becoming less and less trustable in the face of the public.

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Gĩthĩnji is the founder of afrocave.com. He is passionate about politics and governance, public finance management and cycling.@Afrophi