At the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Malawi Government gazetted a law making the wearing of facemasks in public places mandatory. This was one way of containing the spread of the virus, which claimed lives and disrupted economic activities for millions of people in the country and worldwide.
Once the rule went into effect, those who did not comply, had to pay a fine of K10, 000. The government directed the Malawi Police Service-MPS to enforce the rule by arresting those appearing in public places without mouth and nose covering masks.
However, the implementation of this regulation raised concerns among rights advocates. They proposed the distribution of free masks to economically disadvantaged individuals to make the rule justifiable.
In a nation, where according to United Nations data, 70 percent of the population lives below the international poverty threshold of $1.90 per day, rights activists’ proposed free mask distribution held merit.
Government listened. In January 2021, the Treasury released K1 billion to procure free facemasks for around 18 million people through district and city councils.
The funds were from the K17.52 billion President Lazarus Chakwera directed the Treasury to release to various sectors to help combat the pandemic. Councils received funds based on the population and existing development partners in their jurisdictions.
M’mbelwa District Council in Mzimba, like others nationwide, received funds to procure and distribute free facemasks to the district’s citizens. On paper, the council successfully implemented the initiative. However, discrepancies emerged during our three-month investigation into the implementation of the initiative.
Who received the masks?
Reports suggested that many individuals were excluded from the initiative.
For example, at Mzimba Boma, we met Euclid Jere, a resident of Chanthomba location. He did not benefit from the initiative even though adhering to the rule was a tough ask for him. This was because he could not afford to buy masks as he was struggling financially due to the economic disruption brought by the pandemic.
Jere’s inability to wear a facemask in public places once landed him in trouble. One morning while routinely visiting Mzimba Boma, Police arrested him, beat him, and ordered him to pay a K10,000 fine to regain his freedom.
“I was arrested and beaten up for not putting on a mask,” Jere said. “Due to financial problems as by then a single disposable mask was costing around MK1000, I could not afford it. They kept us in a room, we were about 100 people they beat us and asked us to pay K10,000 to be free. I had to borrow money to pay the fine.”
“So, I expected to benefit from the initiative and was surprised that I was not considered,” Jere said.
Similar testimonies arose from other areas. At Euthini in the area of TA Chindi, Eddah Tembo also did not benefit. She said that she remembers hearing the news that there were masks that came through the Area Development Committee-ADC but she never received one and even does not know who received it.
The same applies to Allen Mphaka of Moses Maunda Village in the area of TA Chindi. She said all she knows is that at some point learners at Mnthonje Primary School received some free masks but were unsure whether they were under the free masks initiative.
However, the Chairperson for Moses Maunda Village Development Committee-VDC Matembo Nkhoma admits having received masks to distribute to villagers from the ADC. He could not state the number of masks received and that of beneficiaries.
“We received the masks but were not enough to distribute to every villager. Only a few of them received these masks,” Nkhoma said.
In the area under Group Village Headman Kapokolo Kumwenda, the GVH said no one in his area benefitted. His area is close to Mzimba Boma.
“To say the truth, if there was money for the initiative, I believe they misappropriated the funds because in my area no one received the said masks. Even if there can be an opportunity so that we review the truth according to the matter, I can stand with boldness and inform the nation that the exercise did not take place not only in my village but in most villages,” GVH Kapokolo said.
Therefore, who received the masks and where?
According to information provided by M’mbelwa District Council Spokesperson Joel Chiheni Phiri, the Council distributed 95, 241 masks to all the 10 Traditional Authorities-TAs in the district. The distribution took place on June 20, 2021, through ADCs.
Out of the 95, 241 masks, 15, 000 went to the area of TA M’mbelwa, 16, 000 to TA Chindi, TA Mpherembe received 7, 730, TA Mtwalo 19, 111, TA Jaravikuba 2, 000, TA Mzikubola 10, 000, TA Khosolo 5, 500, TA Mabilabo 8, 500, TA Mzukuzuku 4, 400 and TA Kampingo Sibande received 7, 000.
However, based on a government announcement, which stated that councils would receive funds based on the population, the numbers seem incongruent with the population-based allocation. According to the Malawi Population and Housing Census, the district’s population was 936, 250 in 2018. This disparity prompted queries about the extent of the council’s funding.
So what happened for only a few people to benefit from the initiative and what was the beneficiary identification process?
“I think we can answer that if we know how much the council received for the initiative,” Joel Chiheni Phiri, the Council Spokesperson said. “Without that, it is difficult to answer because it might be that the council only received funds for the masks the council distributed.”
So how much did the council receive?
At the start of appreciating how M’mbelwa District Council implemented the free facemasks distribution exercise, we made several requests for information. Among the requests was the amount the council received for the exercise.
However, despite several reminders, which included being referred from one office to another, no officer we approached at the council has made available the information. No valid reasons have been given for their failure.
Efforts to get the implementation plan for the district from the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 to get the amount approved for the council also proved futile.
What about following procurement processes?
We requested information on how the council identified local mask manufacturers for the exercise and who these suppliers were, but just like information on budgets; the council failed to provide answers.
However, soon after the government announced plans to release funds for the exercise, the Anti-Corruption Bureau-ACB released a statement informing the nation, that it would monitor the procurement process.
In general based on the monitoring report by the ACB, no district or city council flouted procurement procedures in the procurement of these masks for the Bureau to take further action.
“Our part was indeed monitoring and we monitored procurement processes,” ACB Spokesperson Egrita Ndala said. “In cases where we found that procurement processes were flouted, we were able to advise them to restart the processes and they did so, most of them later on did so according to the procurement procedures.”
Ndala added; “Where we received some complaints we followed up but in almost all of them, we did not uncover anything that warranted the bureau to take further action apart from the recommendations that were being made to the concerned councils to restart the procurement processes.”
“If it was delivery of materials in case proper quality materials were not used, we advised them to return, so that they supply again the right quality. So basically that is that it never reached investigations,” Ndala said.
What about general monitoring of the exercise?
The government implemented the free mask exercise through district and city councils. The government released funds to councils responsible for procuring these masks, which they distributed through ADCs.
Asked how the Ministry of Local Government, which is the mother ministry for district and city councils, ensured that councils use the funds prudently, its spokesperson Anjoya Mwanza said they are not the right people to respond on the issue.
“Of course, these were done by district councils but then the councils were reporting directly to the Ministry of Health, so the Ministry of Health may help on that one. It is just the same as disaster one, whereby there are other funds put to councils but they are coming directly from DODMA and they are responsible for responding to these issues,” Mwanza said.
Spokesperson in the Ministry of Health Adrian Chikumbe referred us to the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19, now the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 and Cholera.
“The COVID-19 response was multi-sectoral and the Presidential Taskforce on COVID-19 and Cholera coordinated all the activities, so you have to check with them. It is just that the Honourable Minister of Health is a Co-Chair of the task force but resources were not only coming to the Ministry of Health, they could also come to like Ministry of Education and others but coordinated by the Presidential taskforce, which is under OPC,” Chikumbe said.
Co-chairperson of the task force Wilfred Chalamira Nkhoma said they had various ways to monitor and track the general implementation of COVID-19 activities including that of free facemasks.
“Number one was that DODMA required securing from each council some regular technical and financial reports, which were used to compare what the councils submitted versus what the councils would be reporting on in terms of expenditures,” Nkhoma said.
“The other element, I am sure by now you are aware that there have been two audit reports done by the National Audit Office-NAO and the reports are available as public documents. The other one is the Ombudsman report, which was specific to five district councils,” he added.
Nkhoma said all these including the reports that came to DODMA according to predetermined frequency were monitoring what is happening and what is not happening.
However, Nkhoma pointed out that the said reports covered broader activities in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
Said Nkhoma; “As you will appreciate the reports we are talking about are broader comprehensive reports. Our assessment equates to what was done at the level relative to the implementation plans we had authorized to be funded. The minor ones like the masks, for us, are an element within the plan and our assessment would fail if all we went in for was for how many masks were procured and who got the masks and who did not get the masks.”
We tried to get access to the audit report for the K17.52 billion to compare what is on the report and what we found on the ground but we could not as the report is not yet public.
“We conducted the audit and submitted the copies of the report to the Secretary to Treasury. I am not sure if the report was tabled in parliament, otherwise we are not allowed by law to publish a report, which has not gone through parliament. Usually, when reports have gone through parliament they are published on our website,” NAO spokesperson Rabson Kagwaminga said when contacted.
What are civil society organizations saying?
Mzimba District Civil Society Network-MZISONET Chairperson Christopher Melere said it is unfortunate that many people did not benefit from the initiative and that authorities at M’mbelwa District Council are not making available information regarding the exercise.
“It’s quite challenging to hear that there are such kind of issues coming out,” Melere said. “Probably, it is very unfortunate and I think that kind of behavior needs to be condemned in the strongest terms because the government is very much geared to make sure that we make programs consistently so that everyone should benefit.”
“As a civil society I think we will take the bold step where we will engage the M’mbelwa District Council so that we should understand where we are and how many have benefitted so that probably we should share with the general public the outcome of the issue,” Melere added.
Going forward, Melere pledged that civil society organizations in the district would collaborate with the Council to enhance accountability and engagement in future programs.
“What we will do in the future is that we are engaging with the council on what we call a Memorandum of Understanding with the civil society organizations where we have agreed that for every development issue that might come in the district, we will be able to work together,” he said.
“We will share responsibilities so that being the case we will be able to make sure that every process in terms of procurement or any programming we will work together as civil society and the council so that we can improve issues of transparency and accountability,” he said.
He added; “Through relevant structures that we have at the district level, we should be able to work together and try to plan and also try to implement together and make monitoring and evaluation also together so that we appreciate the value for money that comes into the district.”