By Joseph Elunya
Billions of shillings meant for the procurement and distribution of free masks for the prevention of covid-19 in Uganda have been stolen.
President Yoweri Museveni had while easing the lockdown in May 2020, said reopening of public transport, schools and other public gatherings would be based on compulsory wearing of facemasks.
In the May 18, 2020 address, Museveni, announced that the masks would be distributed free of charge to all Ugandans of six years and above.
“Since many people were expressing concern that they cannot afford to buy these masks, and also to ensure quality and avoid sharing, the government has decided to provide, them free of charge to all Ugandans of six years and above. We shall provide one mask per person of six years and above. They must be worn, all the time, when you are in public”. Said Museveni.
Museveni explained that the country would be in a one month lock down to allow the manufacture and distribution of the masks.
Following the President’s pronouncement, Parliament passed a budget of 35 billion shillings (approximately $9 million) for the procurement and distribution of the masks.
The Minister of Health Dr. Jane Ruth Aceng later told the country that the cost of the masks had jumped from 35 billion shillings (approximately $9 million to 81 billion $22m) for the purchase of 33 million masks that were to be distributed to all Ugandans above six years of age, each at a unit cost of Shs2, 400, starting June 4, 2020.
“The masks are made up of three layers, the outer layer is 65% polyester and 35% cotton, the middle layer is made up of chiffon while the innermost layer is made of cotton.”Aceng stated in her presentation of the Ministry of Health’s performance report on implementing NRM manifesto.
According to Ruth Aceng, the masks were to be distributed at a cost of two billion shillings (over $547,000).
The current population of Uganda as of Friday, March 5, 2021, is 46,700,691 based on Worldometer elaboration of the latest United Nations data.
Nearly nine months later with 40,452 cases and 334 deaths reported, millions of Ugandans are still waiting for the free masks.
Locals and leaders interviewed during this investigation, said the masks, distributed were, very few and of very poor quality.
“We didn’t receive masks we instead got rags and people in my Ward rejected them because they were not fit for human use. The material used was very poor to the extent that a few who took them also refused to put on them because they are ill-fitting” said Joan Akiki Kasirye the LC1 Chairperson, of Nsimbizi Wome, village in Bukoto two Parish.
Kasirye explains that those who tried to wear the few free facemasks that were given say, it suffocates them and subsequently declined to wear them.
Findings of a recent research published in the American Chemical Society reveals that fitting cloth masks improperly could leave gaps between the face and the masks leading to a filtration inefficiency of more than 60%.
Families made to share masks
In Kalinabiri Ward, the second densely populated village in Nakawa West with a population of over 8000 people, only four boxes containing 2375 facemasks were delivered.
The secretary LC1 of Kalinabiri Raymond Akera said they had to devise, a means of distributing the few face masks that were delivered, by the Health Ministry.
“If a household had ten eligible people meant to receive free facemasks you give four to five so that at least each household receives masks” said Akera.
A recent research published in the British Medical Journal found that users of cloth masks could be vulnerable to heightened risk of infection due to reuse, moisture retention and poor filtration.
Local council officials not paid for distributing the masks
Though the Health Minister Dr. Ruth Aceng said the government had approved shillings two billion (approximately $547,000) for distribution of the facemasks, our investigations shows that the people who were contracted to distribute were not paid for their services.
“We lost interest in that exercise that’s why we didn’t bother to compile the data of the people who received the facemasks because we were not paid for our services” said Akera the LC1 Chairperson of Kalinabiri II Ward.
Akera said they were told to distribute the facemasks on goodwill without expecting pay and as a result they also did not bother to compile and submit the data for the exercise.
He showed CIJU several files stashed at a corner of the office and now covered in dust as those containing the names and addresses of the beneficiaries of free facemask. The data is now wasting away as Local Council officials have declined to submit them to the health ministry due to nonpayment of their services.
Government admits the exercise was a mess
In an interview with the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Uganda (CIJU), President Museveni’s senior adviser on epidemiology Dr. Monica Musenero admitted that most of the masks that were given out were of poor quality.
“At some point when the Ministry (health) agreed to contract some companies, they made very poor masks and by the time, they discovered, they were of poor quality, they had already distributed and they had, to stop a number of manufacturers”. Said Musenero.
Musenero explained to CIJU that stopping companies that made poor quality masks slowed the process of distribution of free masks in the country.
She also admits that the Ministry of health failed to develop an effective communication strategy for the distribution of masks.
“You give someone one mask, they lose it, so may be the care for the mask is what we should accept the fault is on our side, we should have communicated that the government is going to give only one mask as a contribution and an individual is supposed to buy additional”.
Musenero said the Ministry has however distributed the masks throughout the country with the exception of four districts. She said even in the four districts the government has so far given out the masks to students.
However Dr. Ekwaro Obuku the former president of Uganda Medical Association points out that one of the indicators of poor accountability of Covid-19 funding is the unavailability of masks among members of the public.
“You see they are telling children to report back to school with two masks now if they had distributed 35 million masks would they be asking parents to buy? Where are the masks they promised people?” Obuku said out of the 35 million masks budgeted for a majority would have been given to the children reporting back to school.
The Budget Monitoring and Accountability Unit in the Finance Ministry has also highlighted a number of flaws in the procurement and distribution of masks.
The report accessed by the Centre for Investigative Journalism in Uganda, identifies several anomalies by contractors that the Health Ministry hired to provide services.
The Accountability Unit says that the ministry was allocated Shillings 35 billion to procure and distribute to Ugandans aged above six years nonmedical masks and that following this allocation, the Health Ministry on 9 July 2020, signed contracts amounting to over 32 billion shillings with 16 suppliers to produce 11 million masks but this was later revised to 21.4 million masks at a cost of 57.3 billion.
The Accountability Unit queried the Shillings 4,946 cost for each procured mask saying that it is expensive and also the absence of witnesses during the contract signing.
According to the monitoring Unit, only 16.1 million masks worth 25.3 billion had been delivered by August, 2020. The unit states that procuring 21.4 million masks indicates that half of the country’s population is below seven years where as not.
It further raised concern on the 6.6 billion shillings that was provided to Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA) to empower women groups to make face masks.
According to the auditors in spite, of the initiative being good, there is need, for clarification on the mandate of the Health Ministry to provide empowerment funds.
A report from the London School of Economics notes that, many people in Uganda have raised questions as to whether the ruling National Resistance Movement used a public health platform and state resources to enhance its political capital when it made and distributed millions of masks in yellow, its official party colour as they did earlier with relief food.
Relief mask distribution cost the Ugandan taxpayer Shs 81 billion (about $22million), a significant increment from the initial budget of Shs 35 billion (approximately $9million).
Yet as political masks in Uganda are principally made from cloth, which makes them less efficacious than surgical and N-95 masks, their proliferation could ruin efforts to combat the spread of the virus. Additionally, most of the relief masks the government distributes are generic ‘one size fits all’, triggering potential problems of fit and leakage of virus-laden particles for users.
Billions of dollars unaccounted for
The Auditor General report for the financial year 2019-2020 indicates that the Health Ministry received a total of 184.3 billion ($50.5m) in cash and in kind donations to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic but did not account for the funds as required.
The report however highlights a number of anomalies that include; delay in delivery of procured supplies and their non-certification by competent authorities, lack of space for expansion of Intensive Care Units, poor staffing of Intensive Care Units, gaps in installation of sleeper tents and construction of border posts.
The other anomalies include the delivery of procurement before the approval of procurement by the contracts committee or signing contracts, initiation of procurement without availability of funds, diversion of Covid-19 funds, doubtful payments, delayed issue of appointment and deployment letters to contracted staff, payment of allowances to individuals without contract records and failure to utilise funds.
The Auditor General report also faults, the health ministry for reporting, outstanding domestic arrears totaling to 38.4 billion ($10.5m), at the close of the financial year in June 2020, contrary to Section 21(2) of the Public Finance Management Act 2015, which limits accounting officers, from committing government beyond the availed resources.
The 38.4 billion Shillings ($10.5m) domestic arrears include, money for National Drug Authority totaling to 5.08 billion ($s1.5m) and National Medical Stores totaling 2.9 billion ($795,740).
“However, there was no reconciliation of the correct debt position between the ministry and the two entities giving rise to a discrepancy that shows that the ministry’s position is understated to the tune of 29.9 billion ($8m) and the absence of the reconciliation brings into question the accuracy of the stated payable position,” the audit report states.
Also queried is the 2.95 billion Shillings ($795,740) which were irregularly diverted from the activities for which they were budgeted and spent on other activities without seeking prior authorizations.
The audit report also unearthed 4.5 billion Shillings ($1.2m) received by the Health Ministry as off budget funding but not transferred to the Uganda Consolidated Funds as required by the law.
The ministry also had unspent balance totaling to 7.6 billion Shillings ($2m) something the Auditor General John Muwanga says that by failing to utilize all the availed funds implies the ministry did not implement some planned activities which impacted on service delivery.
This story is produced with support from African Investigative Journalism Conference-AJC Journalism and Media Studies Programme, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg