Covid-19 crisis should not be a window of opportunity for crooks to make a quick buck.
As the world comes to terms with the COVID-19 pandemic and countries do everything humanly possible to contain the spread of the virus, the list of worries across the world now stretches from health to economic effects of this challenge. António Guterres, the United Nations Secretary General has described the pandemic that was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan last year as the most challenging time in the world since World War II that span from 1939 to 1945. As the world wars did, this pandemic’s toll on our economies is dire. In the case of Uganda, experts anticipate that the virus will ease out no earlier than 90 days from first confirmation.
The situation could get worse. No country is capable of precise estimation of when life will return to normal. We are concerned with the way we plan for calamitous times such as these. In February, the government requested in three batches, sums amounting to more than sh38b to battle the desert locusts that had invaded East Africa, like large parts of Arabia and the Indian sub-continent. What drove Uganda’s figures up was not the actual cost of fighting the locusts, but the arrears that had accumulated over time due to non-payment to the Desert Locust Control Organisation of East Africa. The organization, which boasts of aircraft for aerial spraying of the desert locust had earlier threatened not to offer any support to Uganda since it has not been paying the fees which had accumulated to about sh18b.
The issue of locusts was not an emergency as many of us had been meant to believe, technocrats knew the locusts were coming several months in advance so rushing to get all these monies and equipment was a means for a few well-placed people to make a quick buck.
The same has happened with COVID-19. China first reported the matter in December 2019, the rate at which it was spreading, made it a matter of time before it got to other parts of the world, Uganda inclusive, but we waited until it was at our door step. Such ‘emergency situations’ are where the well placed, again fetch a windfall. Only recently, the government asked for sh305b supplementary budget to combat the COVID-19 Pandemic. This is the first of what will become several supplementary budget requests. Of this money, some sh82b has been requested for security. It is a given that in difficult times such as these, security is a requirement, but the same security was provided for the fight against locusts by an ill-trained, ill- equipped team of largely paramilitary Local Defense Unit (LDU).
In what Naomi Klein, author of the ‘Shock Doctrine’ calls disaster capitalism, our nation seems hijacked by crisis entrepreneurs. The President and health ministry, whose efforts are commendable thus far in ensuring we are all safe, despite room for improvement in several areas should be on the lookout against these selfish interests. No one should take advantage of life and death crises such as these to profiteer. The ICT ministry, for instance, has requested for sh14.7bn to do things that are already being done, for free, things that fall under the mandate of other ministries, or things designed to target the wrong audiences. Items such as billboards to share infographics is ill-informed as billboards require excellent vision, there is only so much you can put into an infographic and hope that will be legible, let alone target an audience of market dwellers.
The same ministry also wants to pay for airtime and print space to media houses that are already doing it without pay, and are happy to continue with that, if it passes as their civic duty. Also, behavior change communication, which this is, is a mainstay of the health ministry, who have a budget for it, what is the ICT ministry trying to prove, if not to grab for themselves whatever they can from this bonanza? The President, in one of his addresses to the nation mentioned that he had received a donation of thousands of dollars which he intended to use for the purchase of motor vehicles, this is commendable, but is that what the nation needs? Uganda has very few ventilators and specialized equipment to manage Covid-19, should it take that direction, that equipment can serve other purposes after Covid-19 passes and these will by far outlast the vehicles, benefit more people and will ease an insatiable appetite for foreign medical travel, among others.
The Members of Parliament want a piece of the action as well. Some of them have asked that the support planned out by the Office of the Prime Minister to the most vulnerable be channeled through them. They argue that they know their constituents better. Whereas this is true, we cannot put our hands on the chopping board and swear that they too aren’t looking at this crisis and the state’s intervention, as an opportunity to milk political capital and possibly even make a few millions. I say this with the greatest respect for those members of our parliament who are well intentioned. But, as the president said in his address on April 3, 2020; “…we have some crooks as usual…”. It is these crooks in these unusual times that must be weeded and exposed wherever they are. After Covid-19 has passed, Uganda will still be here. What kind of country are we planning to settle into post the pandemic? Are we planning to borrow more money to implement activities and services that had already been catered for during the pandemic?