AG warns of Covid-19 doomsday

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  • says war against pandemic may not be won
  • as “illegal” NACOSEC splurges M1,5 billion on wasteful expenditure

Pascalinah Kabi

LESOTHO is unlikely to win its fight against Covid-19 amid revelations by the auditor general’s office that the Covid-19 budget, initially pegged at M698 million but which had ballooned to M1, 5 billion by August 2020, was spent more on operational costs instead of empirical interventions required to contain the deadly pandemic.

A huge chunk of the money, according to acting AG Monica Besetsa, was being spent on salaries and allowances for staffers at the National Covid-19 secretariat (NACOSEC), set up by Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro last June to spearhead the country’s response to the pandemic.

The AG audited NACOSEC affairs from June 2020 to August 2020. Her report was presented to the government in September 2020 but was never made public. The Lesotho Times managed to access a copy only this week.

The report exposes the continued mismanagement of funds meant to contain the virus, which is now spreading at an alarming rate, prompting Dr Majoro’s latest decision to impose a hard lockdown. Instead of interventions to contain the pandemic, money continues to be splurged on salaries and illegal and inflated honorariums.

The illegal establishment of NACOSEC had also resulted in a duplication of functions as the new body hired people for positions that already existed in government causing wasteful expenditure.

For instance, NACOSEC hired a chief finance officer earning a monthly salary of M70 000 plus medical aid cover and a cellphone allowance of M1500 per month.  An existing government employee could have been redeployed for this task at no extra cost.

Some staff members at NACOSEC have signed contracts entitling them to monthly honorariums of M20 000 each per month. This according to Ms Besetsa, is against a government policy requiring honorariums not to exceed M5000, payable on a once-off basis upon the completion of a special assignment.

Other NACOSEC staffers were given contracts ranging from four to six months starting from July 2020. These contracts entitled them to gratuities upon termination of employment thus increasing government expenditure. No gratuities should be attached to such short-term contracts.

The AG notes in her report that the government could end up failing to contain the virus because funds earmarked for interventions to stop the spread of the virus are instead splurged on salaries and other operational costs.

The report titled “Preliminary Report on the Audit of Government Response to Covid-19 Pandemic”, was presented to the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Kemiso Mosenene, on 23 September 2020.

While it is not clear how Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro’s administration has responded to the AG’s warnings, there is already strong evidence on the ground to suggest that the government is failing to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Thousands of Basotho living and working in South Africa are said to have entered the country during the festive season without being tested or screened for Covid-19. This raised fears that they could have brought the virus into the country and infected many others.

The government is also said to be releasing Covid-19 patients from quarantine centers earlier than expected because of lack of funds to keep them in these facilities.

Hundreds of Basotho who tested positive at the Maseru and Ficksburg border posts while attempting to return to South Africa over the past weeks were also not quarantined. In fact, as NACOSEC officials admitted last week, they were allowed to mingle with others in public transport to their respective homes.

The rise in Lesotho infections come at a time when Covid-19 infections are soaring all over the world. Many countries including neighbouring South Africa have been hit by a new variant of Covid-19 which is said to be more infectious than the first which originally broke out in January 2019.

South Africa has been cited as a key source of the new variant. Countries like the United Kingdom have since banned travel to and from Lesotho, South Africa and other southern African nations as part of efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

While South Africa and other countries are making arrangements to procure Covid-19 vaccines for their citizens as early as next month, Lesotho will only lay its hands on the vaccine through the COVAX facility (a fully subsidised initiative by the World Health Organisation) only around April. Meanwhile NACOSEC has been wasting money on salaries and honorariums.

Dr Majoro has since announced the government would spend M240 million to acquire vaccines. But Lesotho will have to join the back of the long queue as other countries, that were proactive, had already made direct deals with manufacturers and would have to get their allocations first.

“(The) Covid-19 pandemic has put a burden on the national budget, caused an economic crisis in the country and further put a lot of strain on the already ailing health care systems but the government is seen establishing new institutional structures that are costly, stretching the resources over and above the re-allocated budget,” the AG’s report states, in reference to the illegal establishment of NACOSEC.

“The government of Lesotho may end up not containing the spread of the virus and rapidly rising cases of infections while funds reallocated to Covid-19 are financing operating costs rather than Covid-19 pandemic issues”.

Ms Besetsa says her audit covered the period from March 2020, when the then Thomas Thabane-led government declared Covid-19 a national emergency, to August 2020.

The Thabane government had appointed a National Emergency Command Centre (NECC) chaired by Communications, Science and Technology Minister Thesele Maseribane to coordinate the fight against Covid-19.  The NECC immediately got mired in allegations of embezzlement with highly inflated procurement costs. Those charges have not been probed and culprits brought to book.

The NECC was disbanded in June 2020 by Dr Majoro after he took office a month earlier and he established NACOSEC in its place. The AG maintains NACOSEC is an illegal body.

At the time of its disbandment, the NECC was accused of corruption and wasteful expenditure on none core issues such as food for its officials instead of materials and services to fight the deadly pandemic.  A vivid example of its corruption was the purchase of four gas heaters at a cost of nearly M200 000 yet these gadgets cost less than M5000 in any hardware.

Dr Majoro had then appointed Lesotho Revenue Authority (LRA) commissioner general Thabo Khasipe as NACOSEC CEO and later as head of the Disaster Management Authority (DMA). Mr Khasipe quit in frustration.

The principal secretary for the cabinet, Kabelo Lehora, had questioned the legality of NACOSEC and its attempts to access funds for the Covid-19 response saying it was not properly constituted in the absence of enabling legislation to bring it into being.

Dr Majoro moved to fix the situation by also appointing Mr Khasipe as the DMA CEO. His appointment as DMA CEO was meant to solve the legal conundrum created by NACOSES and enable him to access funds allocated by the government for the fight against Covid-19. This because the DMA is a statutory body established by an act of parliament to coordinate the country’s response to any disasters including pandemics such as Covid-19. NACOSEC would then fall under the DMA.

But even then, it appeared there were still obstacles in Mr Khasipe’s path as the DMA continued to be starved of funds. It was seemingly frustrated by government ministries including the Ministry of Health, which claimed the Covid-19 fight as falling under its purview – resulting in his resignation last October.

In her report, Ms Besetsa still questions the need for establishing NACOSEC and its legality when the DMA was established to deal with emergencies and pandemics such as Covid-19.

“Parliament has enacted laws and regulations that put a country in a state of preparedness for any disaster that may happen. However, instead of strengthening the existing structures, the government opted to establish new ones at a time of emergency and in the process, there was non-compliance with national laws and regulations.

“During an emergency, cabinet assigns the DMA to assume a disaster relief role until the national crisis ends. Upon declaration of state of disaster, the minister responsible for DMA has powers to utilise all available resources of the government as reasonably as necessary to cope with the emergency.

“The objectives of DMA are to reduce Lesotho’s vulnerability to prevalent disasters, in conjunction with other arms of government, the uniformed services, NGOs, United Nations agencies and other resident donors….

“The Ministry of Finance has established a Disaster Management Fund in which all moneys donated from any source or appropriated by the government for the purpose of disaster management are paid into and disbursements paid out.”

But despite this clear mandate of the DMA, the government still established the NECC and thereafter NACOSEC to spearhead the fight against Covid-19, a move the AG says was absolutely unnecessary.

“On 10 July 2020, Legal Notice 61 of 2020 that established the National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) was issued as well as the Legal Notice 62 of 2020 that legalised appointment of the chief executive officer as the new executive secretary to the NACOSEC.

“It is of great concern that the establishment of a body such as the NACOSEC has been made by subordinate legislation instead of being enacted by parliament. The legality of the Legal Notice is therefore highly questionable. The Legal Notice No.61 of 2020 states that NACOSEC should provide professional support without defining what professional support entails in this context. This leads to ambiguity in interpreting professional support in this context, especially with reference to the responsibilities of the executive secretary stated in the same legal notice.

“NACOSEC is headed by the executive secretary contrary to the provisions of the (DMA) Act that the Chief Executive of the (DMA) Authority should head disaster management. NACOSEC moved out of ‘Manthabiseng Convention Centre which was declared as the national command centre for the Covid-19 pandemic to Avani Maseru. There is no evidence that Avani Maseru was declared the national operations centre as required by law. Personnel from key entities expected to be working with NACOSEC such as security personnel being LDF, LMPS, LCS, NSS and DMA work from their head offices in isolation from NACOSEC.

“Coordinating key ministries involved in managing Covid-19 pandemic remain a challenge as there are no clear guidelines as to how these entities should engage,” the report states.

Without the coordination of functions, government may end up making “uninformed decisions,” the AG says.

Equally worrying, Ms Besetsa says, is the fact that NACOSEC has far outspent its initial budget of M689 million. She says despite the budget rising to a whooping M1, 5 billion by August 2020, a huge chunk of that money has been used for operational costs rather than fighting Covid-19.

“NECC had an approved budget of M698 million. The proposed budget escalated to M1, 5 billion due to extra expenses to pay for operational costs at NACOSEC. This takes Covid-19 issue out of context of being an emergency, disaster and pandemic, hence a need for the involvement of parliament in this kind of establishment.

“NACOSEC was established to provide professional support in respect of the national Covid-19 pandemic response. The audit noted some irregularities regarding appointment of staff at NACOSEC… Scrutiny of the positions of these individuals does not show expertise that will provide professional support specifically related to Covid-19.

“Officers deployed at NACOSEC are given contract appointments ranging from four to six months starting from July 2020. Contract appointments attract benefits such as gratuity payable upon termination, increasing expenditures for the government. Some employment contracts stipulate monthly honorarium payable to the value of M20 000 per month. This is against the government policy that states that honorarium should not exceed M5000 payable once on completion of such special assignment.

“Some of the human resources’ expertise deployed at NACOSEC resemble those that already exist within DMA or other ministries of which the Minister has the powers to transfer in case of an emergency. These include finance, procurement, legal and other support staff that NACOSEC is engaging at a cost. For example, there was the recruitment of a chief finance officer at the cost of M70 000 per month, medical aid cover and a cellphone allowance of M1500. The chief finance officer could have been transferred from one entity within government to give necessary support without extra expense to the government.

“It therefore remains a concern as to whether the government will achieve its mandatory role to prevent the spread of the virus and protect Basotho across the country and to support the economy and strengthen the health care systems to cope with the pandemic,” the report states.

 

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