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How Masisi government (mis)managed COVID-19

RYDER GABATHUSE
Twin peaks of power: President Masisi and VP Tsogwane PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Whilst the President Mokgweetsi Masisi-led Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) believes it has eyes on the ball in so far as the fight against the Corona virus is concerned, the opposition bloc and political commentators have been scathing in their condemnation of the ruling party’s failures to deal with the pandemic. Mmegi Staff Writer RYDER GABATHUSE joins the chorus of those who are worried that Botswana is still at the tail end of countries that will receive COVID-19 vaccines.

FRANCISTOWN: Botswana’s National Assembly which commenced beaming live debates at the beginning of the current 12th Parliament has been an interesting affair since the advent of the Corona virus pandemi, which forced the country to go on its first lockdown about a year ago.

It was particularly during debate on critical COVID-19 issues that the BDP-dominated Parliament reared its ugly face by using its numerical advantage to frustratingly defeat majority of the motions the opposition.

Political commentators are agreeable that the BDP might have started some processes at managing the disease very well, until it somewhat removed its eyes from the ball in its pursuance of political expediency. The thinking is that the government enclave might have been hit by fatigue that removed attention from the seemingly prudent management of the tricky disease but chose to dwell on trivial issues that culminated in some critical players being  removed from their positions in the middle of the fight against the pandemic.

Already, whilst other neighbouing nations have commenced vaccinations, Botswana is waiting for the end of this month to begin the vaccinations whilst Corona-related deaths are also spiking in what appears like the leadership’s attention is focused elsewhere.

Botswana Congress Party (BCP) outspoken legislator for Sefhare-Ramokgonami, Dr Kesitegile Gobotswang this week conceded that the government correctly adopted the global strategy of prevention, control and treatment through vaccines.

He said contact tracing was religiously done until the health system got overwhelmed by the cases.

“As the opposition we rejected the state of public emergency (SoPE) because we felt and continue to feel that there is no correlation between the SoPE and the spread of the disease. What we have witnessed as predicted are high levels of corruption necessitated by tenders awarded without following the established tendering processes,” the outspoken legislator told Mmegi.

He was worried that the P2.4 billion allocated to combat the pandemic has not been fully accounted for. As a result, the former University of Botswana (UB) lecturer says there are reported shortages of testing kits, isolation centres and ventilators despite the raging COVID-19 inferno.

He added that for the low-income groups, home-based or self-isolation are  non-starters since most of them live in crowded places.

He pointed out that one of the serious failures on the part of government to deal withe pandemic was to introduce lockdowns before the surge.

“As a result, the government could not introduce lockdowns at the right time since they had spent money during the first lockdowns including money on food relief,” he said.  He added that,” there is also a serious leadership vacuum and ill-defined role of key players such as the Ministry of Health and the Presidential Task Team. The change of guard at the Ministry of Health did not help the situation.” He noted that replacing Dr. Lemogang Kwape with Dr. Edwin Dikoloti at the helm of the Ministry of Health and Wellness was a huge disaster.

He would then point at former permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health and Wellness Solomon Sekwakwa and his deputy Dr. Morrison Simvula and Dr.Malaki Tshipayagae who were inexplicably fired from their roles.

Gobotswang emphasised that it was not surprising that Botswana was at the tail end of countries that will receive COVID vaccines.

“Procrastination compounded by two centres of power led to confusion over what vaccine to order, how and when. Even the poorest of the poor countries have received vaccines and have started vaccinating their people, especially frontline workers,” the  legislator declared worriedly.

The situation in schools, he said, is worrisome yet the government does not seem to have a clear strategy on how to turn it around.

He cited that teachers work under fear. There are inconsistencies when it comes to when to close facilities where COVID-19 positive cases are  identified. For example, he said the district councils are closed when cases are reported yet schools continue business uninterrupted.

“The role of the Presidential Task Team has been reduced to merely announcing COVID-19 cases and deaths. We are not getting value for money. They must disband and leave the Ministry of Health to lead without unnecessary and costly interference,” he suggested.

Meanwhile, another opposition legislator, Wynter Mmolotsi of Francistown South constituency feels that the government could have done better than now because at the time Parliament appropriated P2 billion towards the pandemic fight, “our expectations were that some makeshift hospitals were going to be constructed, ventilators and other equipment were going to be procured so that when the numbers escalate then we are prepared to handle them.”

He said it was unfortunate that the money is now gone but, “we don’t know what it was for and now Sir Ketumile Masire Hospital is overwhelmed.” He said facilities like the Ntshe Clinic in Francistown and Matsiloje centre are operating without a single ventilator.

To him, government initially did well in their contact tracing and isolation

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of those who tested positive but clearly that is not the case anymore because the system cannot cope anymore.

If he was in charge, Mmolotsi would have pursued the community testing approach before lockdown so that all those affected could be treated first before mixing with the community.

“Because it has always been clear that the numbers will explode at some point, government should have used the lockdown to prepare for the worst. It’s clear that government did not anticipate the swelling of numbers hence their unpreparedness,” suggested Mmolotsi.

At the initial stage, after the WHO declared Corona virus a global pandemic,  says a University of Botswana lecturer in Department of Political and Administrative studies, Adam Mfundisi, the government responded not in a strategic manner.

He says the government had adopted what can be best described as ‘ a trial and error’ approach to the pandemic. He described the approach as more of preservation strategy of the BDP and its government after the most controversial elections in the history of Botswana.

“The Corona virus pandemic provided the party and government with some diversionism and redemption. The strategy was to use the pandemic for self-aggrandizement and glorification. The President (Masisi) had to be marketed in the process of dealing with COVID- 19 pandemic,” he noted. The UB lecturer says a cult of leadership was promoted and propagated by the government through the state media. He observed that dealing with the COVID- 19 became part of BDP mobilisation and leadership development.

“ Hence, one of the strategies to deal with the  COVID- 19 pandemic was the introduction of the infamous SoPE to give the President and his government intensive and extensive powers in dealing with socio-economic and political issues,” he says.

Mfundisi added: “The arguments and narratives propagated were that SoPE will empower the President and his administration to deal effectively with the pandemic.”

SoPEs are supposed to be a last resort and for limited period to enable government to mobilise resources and build infrastructure to deal with a crisis, noted the political analyst. But, in Botswana, he says the SoPE has not been used effectively to deal with the pandemic as evidenced by the inability of government to build the health infrastructure and other supportive instruments to deal with the pandemic.

“What we witnessed is the use of SoPE to promote corruptive practices and violation of human rights by the authorities. Instruments that were used to implement drastic measures were ineffective and advanced unethical behaviour by public officials. Corruption became endemic during the implementation of SoPE and concomitant stringent measures,” said Mfundisi.

He indicated that the DCEC has investigated more than 100 cases of corruptive practices perpetuated during lockdown measures and other instruments implemented to fight the pandemic.

He was also worried about lack of coordination between various government agencies which he said was legendary pointing to lack of preparedness and poor leadership at the highest level.

In his view, political forces hijacked the agenda of government. “WHO advise on the strategies to effectively deal with the pandemic was ignored in pursuance of political expediency. WHO advised governments to depoliticise the fight against Covid 19 and adopt a multi-pronged approach involving the broad polity,” he pointed out.  

He accused the President and his administration of having pursued political patronage in policy interventions, amongst others, the appointment of an all-male Presidential Task Force and a communication team comprising of BDP activists.

The Ministry of Health and Wellness, he says, “Was marginalised as the Taskforce dominated policy and implementation of strategies to deal with the pandemic. To make matters worse, the President fired the bureaucratic leadership in the Ministry and replaced them with bureaucrats who were suspected of being lukewarm and were appointed to sanitise unethical behaviour of those in the corridors of power.”

 Subsequently, the Minister in the Ministry tasked with the fight against the pandemic was removed from the ministry and appointed to Foreign Affairs.

A medical Doctor who had acquainted himself well the task was replaced by a veterinary doctor amidst a upsurge in COVID-19 cases. Additionally, the much-celebrated Director of Public Health Services was unceremoniously discharged from office.The UB lecturer says he has watched the BDP MPs trivialising national issues pertinent to the rank-and-file members of our society. He wondered if at all, the MPs were duly elected by the people through a fair, free, and credible electoral process.

He condemned the BDP MPs to have promoted the interests of the President and the BDP at the expense of the public interest. He felt that they failed to use their conscience in debating and voting on issues of national interests.

He hailed the opposition bloc to have performed with aplomb in debating national issues. The use of their numerical nuymbers to subvert progressive and pro-active proposals, Mfundisi concurs, has “exposed the hypocrisy and dis-ingeniousness of the BDP MPs.”



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