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Is Govt failing to curtail abuse of public health resources?

Continued revelations of abuse of resources meant to improve health service delivery in Zambia have started raising questions over the government's seriousness in dealing with the problem.

The concerns follow latest revelations that drugs and HIV test kits were stolen from the Medical Stores Limited, a government agency responsible for procurement and storage of drugs, between 2014 and 2016 and sold to other entities.

An audit report conducted by the Global Fund on AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria entitled "Investigation of Global Fund Grants to the Republic of Zambia: Theft of Health Products from Medical Stores Limited" has identified significant unexplained stock losses of Global Fund-financed pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical health products totaling over 1 million U.S. dollars.

The Global Fund has since demanded that the government repays back the money.

While the government has tried to dismiss the latest revelation as not being "breaking news" as it happened over two years ago, stakeholders are concerned how one ministry has continued to recorded cases of abuse of public resources without putting an end to the problem.

The stakeholders are concerned because this is not the first time that such an incident is happening.

In 2009, the Swedish government froze aid to Zambia's health sector following revelations of siphoning of donated funds by officials from the Ministry of Health. A number of officials were arrested and are still appearing in court.

On the other hand, in 2010, the Global Fund suspended more than US$300 million of health funding to Zambia after concerns of alleged corruption in the health ministry.

However, seven Civil Society Organisations are not happy with what is happening in the Ministry of Health and are demanding for more action from the government to deal with the problem.

The organisations, who have threatened to go round the country and collect signatures to petition President Edgar Lungu to fire the health minister, believe that the government is not doing enough to put a stop to the problem.

"The Civil Society Organisations are particularly disappointed that the country seems to be going backwards and not forward when it comes to issues of transparency and accountability in the public sector. It is very evident from the report findings that the ministry of health did not do due diligence in terms of safeguarding the medical supplies donated to the government," the organisations said in a joint statement.

The statement added that the organisations were deeply concerned by the image damaging Global Fund's investigation report has unearthed, adding that it was disheartening that despite so many corruption scandals in the management of public resources in government institutions, no disciplinary action had been taken.

They also expressed dismay that regardless of having a health minister who is a medical practitioner, with two permanent secretaries to give him checks and balances, a lot of irregularities were still present.

The organisations have since asked President Lungu to take responsibility of what is happening in his government and be more responsible and safeguard tax payers' money.

Wesley Chibamba, the head of Transparency International Zambia (TIZ), an anti-corruption watchdog said health officials should put things in order and deal with negligent controlling officers who are being cited for mischief in misapplication of donor funds.

He said it was disheartening that huge amounts of money were being misappropriated at the cost of poor Zambians.

"It is not enough for government to issue a statement seeking redress by shifting the blame on the supply chain, the weakness in the internal controls in the delivery process of the medical supplies is worrying and has for a number of years had a negative impact on service delivery in the health sector," he said.

The government, he said, needed to put in place stringent measures so as to safeguard the funds given to the country for the good health of citizens.

Laura Miti, executive director of Alliance for Community Action, an advocacy organisation calling for accountability in the use of public resources, says it was unfortunate that the latest revelation shows a lack of accountability in the country's governance as resources meant to benefit vulnerable people do not reach them.

"As Alliance for Community Action, we would like to not only have this issue fully investigated but to have these gaps plugged. Why is it that it's so easy in this country to steal money, to steal goods, to steal assets in very large quantities," she said.

But health minister Chitalu Chilufya said it was unfortunate that stakeholders had feasted on the latest revelations, without taking into considerations the measures government has put in place in strengthening health systems in the country.

He said it was unfortunate that stakeholders have decided to blow the current revelation out of proportion when the matter was already dealt with by the government, with seven government officials and two foreigners arrested in connection with the theft.

"This is an old story that has been very decisively dealt with proactively, both at government and institutional level," he told reporters during a press briefing.

According to him, the government has put in place robust reforms to improve management of health supplies and drugs and reduce pilferage and misappropriation of public resources.

On Thursday, the ministry of health said government is going to make a repayment of US$1 million to the Global Fund as is standard procedure as any recipient country was required to repay the money if there was misapplication of the resources.