Left unchecked, virus and graft will badly hunt us all

March 13 changed everything, then it didn’t. In the last 48 hours, Health Cabinet and the Principal Secretaries have separately responded to public concerns with their expenditures. It was only a matter of time that the Covid-19 emergency response would be challenged from an accountability lens well trained by decades of health-based corruption.

Their April 28 briefing to the National Assembly is at the eye of the current storm. Excluding contributions to the Emergency Fund Board, the government has spent Sh8.2 billion to date. Up to Sh300 million has been spent on mitigating measures. The lion’s share has gone to Kenyatta National Hospital (expansion of Mbagathi hospital bed capacity), Defense Ministry (preparedness sic) and the Health ministry (medical logistics at isolation and quarantine centers). These three agencies received 50 per cent, 25 per cent and 8 per cent of the funding. The controversy so far lies in Table 4 that captures the Sh1 billion World Bank grant. The ceilings and expenses figures are astronomical. They include Sh42 million to lease 15 ambulances, Sh13.5 million to accommodate health workers in quarantine for 90 days, staff refreshments, Sh4,000 staff airtime a month and a Sh11 million call center.

This incident is the second after the confusion generated by the presentation of Treasury mini budget to Parliament. The mass media, legislators and the public, were left confused whether Sh40 billion had been budgeted, allocated or spent to date. Even if we can set aside how much money has been spent, one crucial question deserves an answer. Did the Health ministry really plan to spend these astronomical amounts on refreshments, stationary, airtime and equipment leases among others? Can this be possible when we have Kenyans slowly bankrupting in mandatory quarantine, starving in informal settlements and others having to self-evacuate from China?

Globally, there is already evidence that pandemics fuel profit and crises accelerate commercial interest and corruption. Norwegian doctors have been writing bulk prescriptions for families and friends, Ugandan traders are stock-piling or inflating prices and Cameroonian citizens are bribing officials to evade quarantine. US and Ukrainian MPs are currently being investigated for insider trading and preferential testing for themselves and their families respectively. Multi-national companies are racing to convince governments to use their vaccines without disclosing vital data.

It is worth remembering that 10 per cent of drugs and medical equipment financing is lost to corruption even when we are not in a pandemic panic. Or that at least Sh670 million was lost to bribery, funds diversion and mismanagement during the Ebola outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone.

If the global environment is ripe for corruption and mismanagement, there are unaddressed national drivers as well. Despite announcements of budget cuts, the recent Controller of Budget Report reveals ministers continued to splash Sh13.7 billion on non-essential items like travel, publicity and entertainment towards the end of last year. With acute shortages of staff, beds, ventilators and other equipment, petty and grand bribery has to be a major concern. Kenya faces two C viruses – Corruption and Covid-19. The former is much older and has killed and ruined the lives of more Kenyans than the latter. Left unchecked, they will collectively hunt us. A responsive reply to the concerns raised this week would be this: The President accelerates the appointment of the Auditor General. The Health ministry announces a national emergency task-force anti-corruption strategy and a bench of respected anti-corruption whistle-blowers and auditors. These auditors are mandated to run regular emergency response-wide audits and public briefings. No Ministry - including Defense and Interior - is exempt. Every month, all internal audit reports are submitted to Parliament and Office of the Auditor General. All standardised costings, procurement tenders, contracts, bills of quantity, delivery notes and payments are uploaded to a public information portal.

Will Health CS Mutahi Kagwe be the ‘first mover’ to break free of the “Scandal-Deny-Move on” charade that Kenyans are so weary of? If he did, he would borrow a leaf from those Brookhouse parents who successfully sued their school for reduced fees.

The April 28 briefing to the National Assembly sparked off another alarm for me. Is it ethical for so much to be spent on non-essentials when the Health ministry is compelling citizens to meet the costs of mandatory quarantine expenses themselves?

-The writer is Amnesty International Executive Director. The views are personal. [email protected]