A couple of weeks ago, Members of Parliament questioned why Chief Administrative Officers, district chairpersons, Community Development Officers and other leaders, especially at the local government level were getting a slice of the COVID-19 action and yet they were being excluded from it.
Little known to the rest of the population was that these MPs were indirectly asking for relief money to cushion their already comfortable lives at the expense of the country, all in the name of fighting the pandemic that has become a concern for many and led to the partial lockdown of the country.
It has now become a public secret that Parliament quietly awarded itself sh10b to support the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. At a rate of some 700 staff and members that would translate to a payout of about sh14m per head, although the principle of all being equal will not be applied in this case as some are more equal than others.
It should be remembered that Kawempe Division North Constituency MP Abdulatif Sebaggala Sengendo questioned the rationale of including all the other leaders except MPs in the fight against COVID-19. This open request was followed by cheers from other members who fronted the argument that they alone knew their constituents and what was best for them.
It is still not clear how the MPs are going to fit into the task force established to fight COVID-19. Whatever the expertise they would bring on board is already provided for by the Ministry of Health, a number of organisations and other state and non-state actors.
To justify their actions, Parliament has since established half a dozen or so committees, saying these would complement the COVID-19 National Taskforce in the fight against the deadly disease. The House has also given a fleet of vans, minibuses and drivers to transport health workers and other health ministry’s essential staff during the pandemic fight period.
While this is commendable, provisions have been made available such as fuel, allowances and other amenities to ensure the task force does their work within the available meagre resources. Creating other avenues to spend money is not only selfish but also spreads the already depleted resources to achieve less, as much of these monies will go into administration and not the actual work needed to create an impact.
The argument advanced by those responsible for managing the affairs of Parliament is that there are committees including Parliament’s health committee traversing the country on the preparedness to handle the disease. Other committees include those on national borders, food distribution oversight and also members on the national task force.
What we need right now is not another committee assessing the preparedness of the country, as we already have the disease within the borders, but one that would ensure service delivery is reaching where it is needed the most, and the Local Governments already have these committees, more from Parliament is tantamount to duplication of roles, at a ‘small fee’ of course.
During the Ebola outbreak, in West Africa, audits of international development partners’ spending showed that funds for health and awareness-raising efforts were fraudulently documented, it is expected that the same is going to happen here when the time to account comes. There was also failure to provide healthcare workers’ salaries and monies destined for organisations were paid out to private individuals by those charged with distribution. From the Red Cross associations in West Africa alone it was reported that 5% of total disbursements was lost.
Last week, an unsubstantiated report surfaced alleging that allowances for support staff in the fight against COVID-19 have not been paid since the establishment of the National Task Force, also usable items such as gloves, hazmat suits, surgical masks and sanitisers, among others, are in low supply, but we are paying MPs substantial sums of money to do a job that already has other resources channelled to it.
A study; Corruption in the time of COVID-19: A double-threat for low-income countries by Sarah Steingrüber, Monica Kirya, David Jackson and Saul Mullard which was published by Chr. Michelsen Institute Anti-Corruption Resource Centre detailed that there would be grand and petty corruption at the service delivery level, a lack of transparency and corruption in health workforce governance, recruitment, and management, procurement of goods and services for disease management and health system corruption risks during disease outbreaks.
Already, we have seen corruption in the procurement of food items under the Office of the Prime Minister, food items the MPs want to go and supervise, cases of lack of transparency in the appointment to the task forces, abuse of excess power given to the Resident District Commissioners and excesses among the law enforcement teams, to mention, but a few.
These are difficult times and we are all in unchartered waters, but the basic principles should not be thrown out with the bathwater. Every time we take money out of a sector should be a time of reflection on what good that money will bring to us, increasing the wage bill for work already being done by other departments is not a wise spend.
We are all trying to pull our weights here, us, by staying home and ensuring hospitals are less congested by not catching COVID-19 and the health workers, by ensuring that those already admitted into hospital get the best medical care possible, wherein this equation do the MPs fall in?
The writer is the Executive Director – Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda