Not Even Covid-19 Funds Would Escape Graft in Zambia as Heads Begin to Roll

While at least 350 people have died and nearly 17,000 have contracted the Coronavirus, the world’s largest copper producer, now dependent on donor funds to finance the health crisis, has however, fallen short of appropriately managing Covid-19 funds.

October 23, 2020, the World Bank approved $25 million to support Zambia’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Of the amount, $20 million would come from the international development Association’s crisis Response window, while $5 million is a grant funding from the Global Financing Facility.

But just weeks after the good news from the World Bank came through, government’s use of Covid-19 related funding came into question.

The first interim report on the utilization of Covid-19 resources has revealed financial irregularities in the use of Covid-19 Money, the highest being over-commitment of K652 million (about USD3,7 million).

“…Over commitment in this regard, entails that the procurements made for various Medical Supplies were not adequately supported by an approved budget and exceeded the entire budget for the Multi-sectoral Contingent Plan for a period of three (3) years…” reads the report released by the Auditor General, Dr. Dick Chellah Sichembe.

In a statement sent to Timescape Magazine, the Auditor General’s Head of Public Relations, Ellen Chikala also highlights questionable award of contracts amounting to K384 million (about USD18,6).

Here, the irregularity includes supplying medical provisions before signing the contract, as well as the award of procurement contracts without competition in amounts totalling K194 million (about USD9,4).

The report indicates that the Ministry of Health also engaged in uncompetitive procurement involving K10 million (about USD486,000) through cover bidding in respect of four  contracts where a competitor submitted bids that were  intended to be unsuccessful so that another conspirator can win the contract.

“The audit also revealed irregular transfer of GRZ funds to a commercial bank in amounts totalling K60 million (about USD2,9 million) and irregular withdrawal of Cash amounting to K3 million”.

Further, the Auditor General has recommended the operationalization of the National Disaster Relief Trust Fund to overcome non-financial weakness in the management of Covid-19 fund.

And while corruption dents Zambia’s anti-Covid-19 fight, noticeable weaknesses in the health system continues to make it harder for people to get the kind of healthcare they need.

For instance, there is a lack of highly infectious disease isolation hospital; delayed preparation of the multi-sectoral contingency and response plan and failure to provide adequate incentives for front line personnel.

In the face of such corruption, President Edgar Lungu has promised disciplinary action against those cited in the report. Already, 25 officials have been charged in connection with their roles in the financial misappropriations.

“Depending on the exculpatory statement provided, appropriate disciplinary action will be taken against the erring controlling officers and their staff,” says a statement by the Secretary to the Cabinet of the President, Dr. Simon Miti.

The 25 controlling officers will appear before the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee in due course because of violations of the public finance management Act N0. 1of 2018 and the financial regulation of 2006.

And while public officials continue to bite into Covid-19 funds, the raging pandemic continues negatively to affect the country’s resources, forcing the government to review its 2020 budget.

According to a statement issued by the Ministry of Finance’s Office of the Secretary to the Treasury, the budget review process called for planned expenditure to be adjusted in line with revised revenue projections.

One of the key outcomes of this process is the containment of the 2020 fiscal deficit within manageable limits. Nonetheless, social spending will remain a priority and will continue to be supported,” said a statement issued by Zambia’s Finance Ministry.