Saturday, July 4, 2020

Corruption forces Botswana to fight COVID-19 “blindfolded”

Sunday Standard investigations have turned up information on how procurement double-dealings and deceit exposed Botswana to a national COVID-19 pandemic and forced government to abandon its initial plan to fight the disease.

The Office of the President was last week shaking up the government enclave in an attempt to rein in the COVID-19 procurement systems failures and alleged corruption.

After sacking the Ministry of Health and Wellness Permanent Secretary and Deputy Permanent Secretary last month, The Office of the President last week disbanded the ministry’s procurement following reports of possible collusion with Tenderpreneurs who were taking advantage of the coronavirus panic to overcharge and cheat government.

Permanent Secretary to the President Elias Magosi was expected to have signed the executive order this week to pave way for the removal of the ministry’s procurement officers.

The Directorate on Corruption and Economic Crime (DCEC) has also been called in to investigate reports of corruption in the COVID-19 procurement.

So far, government has cancelled two tenders worth more than P80 million which had been awarded to Pula Rich Investments and Mileage Air (Pty) Ltd to supply testing kits which they sourced from India and China.

This follows a story published exclusively in the Sunday Standard two weeks ago. Government has now decided to procure COVID-19 testing kits and other equipment directly from manufacturers without going through middlemen.

Sunday Standard investigations have turned up information that DCEC sprung into action after COVID19 Task Force Coordinator Dr. Kereng Masupu complained that the procurement sleaze was undermining efforts to contain the pandemic.

It has since emerged that Botswana is being forced to fight the COVID-19 pandemic “blindfolded” after plans to commence community testing on April 20th collapsed because government does not have enough testing kits.

This was almost three months after government commissioned two companies Pula Rich Investments and Mileage Air (Pty) Ltd to supply testing kits which they sourced from India and China.

A fortnight into the national lockdown, which ended on Wednesday night, Botswana’s Ministry of Health and Wellness announced plans to conduct mass community testing alongside contact tracing testing.

The COVID-19 Task team however made an about-turn and opted for contact tracing – the use of location data to identify who an infected individual may have come into contact with and infected. Last Wednesday, the Ministry revealed that it has conducted 14 283 laboratory tests through the contact tracing programme. This is less than 1% of Botswana’s population and is unlikely to give a true indication of the disease penetration.

As a result of the testing kits procurement mess, Botswana finds itself in a situation that the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned against.

After belatedly declaring COVID-19 a pandemic, WHO Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that there was only one way that countries could deal with the coronavirus outbreak sweeping the globe: “Test, test, test.” He warned countries that they couldn’t “fight a fire blindfolded.” 

It has further emerged that the two suppliers inflated prices by more than 1000%. While their combined bill to government for the testing kits was P80 million, the actual costs of the testing kits was P4.8 million, Sunday Standard investigations have revealed.

At the time of going to press, government had already generated a P80 million purchase order, but curiously the testing kits had not been delivered.

Investigations have revealed that the Ministry of Health and Wellness awarded the P80 million tender to the two companies although they did not qualify. Pula Rich Pty (Ltd) whose sole director is Lucas Gaopalelwe was only incorporated on 13th November 2019, hardly two months before it was awarded the lucrative tender.

Mileage Air (Pty) Ltd whose directors are Gengxu Nan and Zhengping Wu on the other hand is in tax arrears and did not have a tax clearance certificate at the time it was awarded the tender.

With the authority to adjudicate and award COVID-19 tenders devolved from the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Board (PPADB) to Permanent Secretaries, the who process happened under former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness, Solomon Sekwakwa’s watch.

It is understood this was one of the issues that cost him his job.

Sunday Standard investigations have turned up information that the situation is so critical that had it not been for the testing kits donated by The Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation, Botswana would be unable even to carry out contact trace testing.

Botswana was fortunate that the testing kits from Jack Ma Foundation arrived before the country registered its first COVID-19 case. It is understood that government has now decided to source the testing kits directly from suppliers without going through middlemen.

After Botswana registered its first few cases which coincided with a number of local transmissions, the COVID-19 Task Force decided to conduct community testing, parallel to the contact trace testing.

The Covid-19 Task Force had initially planned to commence community testing for COVID-19 by April 20th. Former Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness Moses Keetile and Director of Health Services, Dr Malaki Tshipayagae, issued statements mind April that they have collaborated with the University of Botswana, National Strategy Office, Statistics Botswana and Botswana-Harvard Partnership to conduct the tests. The testing which were to be done at selected households in greater Gaborone, greater Francistown, Gantsi, Ngamiland and Chobe areas were scheduled to run for 14 days. A total of 20,000 tests were to be done.

Unconfirmed report revealed that the 20 000 test which were scheduled for 14 days were planned around the 20 000 testing kits which had been donated by the Jack Ma Foundation and Alibaba Foundation.

The plan however meant there would be no testing kits to do contact trace testing.

Hardly a week after Keetile and Tshipayagae, issued statements that the COVID-19 Task Force would conduct community testing and contact trace testing concurrently, Coordinator of the COVID-19 Task Force announced a new and revised plan at a press conference. He explained that due to limited resources, they were unable to do community testing.


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Sunday Standard June 28 – 4 July

Digital copy of Sunday Standard issue of June 28 - 4 July, 2020.