As scores of Malawians were dying of Covid-19 every day, top public officials in charge of the pandemic’s emergency response could for at least five months afford to bicker over what life-saving medical supplies to buy.
At a time critical supplies such as ventilators were in short supply in public hospitals due to inadequate funding, officials had the heart to divert millions from the Covid budget to such non-essential activities as financing a Cabinet minister and his officials foreign travel that had nothing to do with helping to ease the pain of the deadly disease.
All the while, officials—including those in the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19—were busy trying to find ways of lining up their pockets through dubious payouts in form of “professional allowances”, questionable procurements methods and unsupported cash sharing that left little to invest in an overwhelmed health care system.
The above examples of maladministration are among the revelations in the National Audit Office (NAO) investigative report on the usage and accountability of the K6.2 billion Covid-19 disbursement that have the supreme auditing authority demanding heads to roll and for relevant agencies to launch criminal proceedings against suspected culprits.
The report decries a glaring lack of leadership and insufficient interest to enforce financial prudence by the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, which it partly blames for the most brazen heist since Cashgate.
For example, NAO says the task force failed to scrutinise budgets by the 17 clusters in the pandemic’s fight before authorising funding— leadership lapses that resulted in K720 million being squandered.
The K720 million represents 12 percent of the total K6.2 billion Covid-19 funds disbursed from August 2020 to help in the fight against the pandemic.
Another glaring evidence of the task force’s oversight failure is demonstrated in the procurement debacle of personal protective equipment (PPE), which took 170 days to execute due to protracted misunderstandings between Central Medical Stores Trust (CMST) and Ministry of Health (MoH), with little leadership intervention to resolve the conflict and get the job done to save lives.
Out of the K6.2 billion, the MoH received the biggest chunk of K1.6 billion and from this, it set aside K850 million towards procurement of PPE, with CMST taking charge of procurement.
However, the report states that misunderstandings arose between the two parties, resulting in a long and protracted battle over what to buy.
The misunderstanding festered for 170 days from September 2020 to March10 2021. Meanwhile, the K850 million funds meant for the procurement were still idle in the account.
At least 1 100 people have died of Covid in Malawi, with the majority of them perishing between January and March 2021 out of more than 33 000 cases.
The report thus faults the task force, saying it could have been following up on the issue considering the significance of the amount at stake as well as the importance of the items under procurement.
The audit also shows that task force leaders were in the forefront of benefitting from the abuse.
Under Dodma cluster, for example, investigators discovered dubious payment of conference packages to Umodzi Park amounting to K8 662 019.10 that included payment of “professional” allowances for members of the task force.
According to the report, Umodzi Park management revealed to auditors that the department paid K1 237 4219.10 through cheque number 654 as conference package charges for the meetings of
the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 held at Bingu Conference Centre.
Reads part of the report: “However, the payment included professional allowances, fuel and airtime for Presidential Task Force and allowances to support staff amounting to K8 662 019.10.
“The conference package charges, according to the invoices attached to the payment voucher should have been K3 712 200, therefore, K8 662 019 are funds, which are not accrued to Umodzi Park since they are not in the business of paying professional allowances, fuel and airtime to the Presidential Task Force members; hence, dubious payment.”
In some clusters, there was financial indiscipline as money was spent on activities that were either not budgeted for or unrelated to Covid-19.
A case in point pops up at the Ministry of Labour, which used K1.4 million Covid-19 funds to fund Minister of Labour Ken Kandodo and Labour Commissioner H.K.K Nyangulu to accompany President Lazarus Chakwera to South Africa for a summit.
The report says it was indicated that management would refund the amount from other recurrent transactions (ORT), but that had not occurred by the time of the audit.
Kandodo pocketed K614 000 in allowances during the trip while Nyangulu bagged K829 000, according to the report.
The audit also found that most of the 17 clusters did not comply with procurement regulations on the use of open tendering.
Instead, they resorted to using ‘request for quotation method’ in breach of a circular dated April 15 2020 issued by the Director of Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets requiring all ministries, departments and agencies(MDAs) to follow the open tender method when procuring items using Covid-19 funds regardless of value.
Among other curious payments, Dodma cluster is accused of making an irregular procurement of fumigation services amounting to K97.2 million for 26 buildings located at Capital Hill, City Centre and Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe, which was awarded to Pest Chem 1B without any open competitive tender process.
At the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services, there was also an irregular procurement of PPE valued at K5.7 million which was paid to a company identified as Starmile General Suppliers.
The audit has, however, questioned the manner in which the company got the contract to supply the PPE, alleging that Starmile was not a genuine bidder.
At Ministry of Information, fuel valued at K7.7 million “went missing” as the audit found that there was no information in terms of fuel cards in which the fuel was loaded, fuel ledgers, fuel register and motor vehicle log-book.
A majority of clusters, especially Dodma, failed to fully liquidate the resources advanced to them and there was ambiguity in the guidelines that led to cases such as double payments of allowances for workers in isolation centres.
According to the report, payments to health workers were based on two circulars: one issued by then MoH chief of health services Charles Mwansambo on April 20 2020, and the other by Bestone Chisamile for Secretary for Health on September 2020.
Health workers, who spent nights at isolation centres, received a full rate of subsistence allowance in cash despite being given government accommodation and meals, resulting in double payment.
Meanwhile, the report, among others, has recommended that those officers who took part in the malpractices, which resulted in the loss of funds, should pay back the money and that the government must ensure that all malpractices that are criminal in nature should be handed over to law enforcement agencies for further attention and action.
Meanwhile, Minister of Information Gospel Kazako yesterday said the report shows that Chakwera is committed to transparency and accountability.