MPs’ car cash could buy 7.5m Covid jabs

Saturday July 24 2021
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President Museveni and First Lady, Janet undergo a vaccination exercise using the AstraZeneca vaccine from COVAX in March. PHOTO/ FILE

By Tonny Abet

Civil Society leaders have questioned the government’s priorities after it made available Shs105b in the middle of a ravaging pandemic for 529 members of Parliament to acquire new rides amid Covid vaccines shortage.

Uganda has to-date not bought a single jab from its own resources, sixteen months after registering the index Covid-19 case, a disease that by yesterday had cumulatively killed 2,483 out of 91,355 infected persons in the country.

The country targets to immunise 21.9 million citizens and began administering the jabs on March 10, but sporadic supply from donors has meant only slightly more than one million people have been vaccinated, with one-fifth receiving the recommended double Oxford-AstraZeneca shots.

News on Wednesday of the cash out to buy vehicles at Shs200m for each lawmaker coincided with a public appeal by Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja, the leader of Government Business in Parliament, for citizens, corporations and investors to pool monies for vaccine acquisition.

The Ministry of Health last year mustered Shs41b, both from the government and private donations, to buy vaccines and its officials have explained away the non-supply as a result of greedy rich countries snapping up all stocks.

While imposing the ending 42-day second lockdown on June 18, President Museveni said Uganda would fully reopen only after a minimum 4.4m are inoculated.

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With a week to the end of the lockdown, Uganda’s new vaccines acquisition was 175,200 doses offered for free by the French government through Covax.

Health ministry officials, to the consternation of the nation, forked out 2,000 doses for politically-connected businessman, Mr Hamis Kiggundu, alias Ham, to immunise his tenants and staff two weeks after he donated Shs530m on July 2 to bolster Covid response.  

Finance minister Matia Kasaija yesterday said he was busy and unable to speak when reached for an explanation why the government disbursed money to MPs for personal cars yet it had slashed budgets of ministries by 40 per cent to raise money for Covid response, stalling services that benefits majority citizens.

Health ministry has received a Shs560b top-up to procure vaccines, much less than is required to get enough vaccines to vaccinate 21.9 million Ugandans.

In an interview yesterday, Mr Moses Isooba, the head of Uganda National NGO Forum, said MPs should exercise restraint because all Ugandans have made great sacrifices to endure the harsh effects of a second lockdown.

“[The] government has spent Shs50b [in cash relief transfers] on 491,000 [vulnerable persons] and then the same government spent over Shs100 b on only 529 legislators! That alone makes it morally not good at all … monies should be directed to procure vaccines, giving out gifts such as vehicles for MPs is puzzling,” he said.

Mr Isooba said he was “totally persuaded”  that Uganda would only get out of the woods in this pandemic through mass vaccinations, not repeat lockdowns.

“The lockdown is meant to give government time to regroup, re-strategise and find [new] ways to fight the pandemic. The only way out is to get as many Ugandans as possible vaccinated but where are we going to get money if we are spending the little on legislators. They need to move but at a less cost?” he said

Dr Denis Kibira, the executive director of the Coalition for Health Promotion and Social Development (HEPS-Uganda), said health is an obligation of the State that citizens shouldn’t just beg.

“Many people have not even received the Shs100,000 which government promised [in cash relief] and yet we are reaching the end of the 42 days [of lockdown],” he said.

“And this point in time, MPs received Shs200m yet other Ugandans are suffering and the economy of the country is not doing well. Ugandans are struggling to meet high costs of treatment [for Covid-19] in private facilities. It doesn’t augur well with the public that a certain section is receiving so much money,” he added.

In a rejoinder, Mr Ofwono Opondo, the executive director of Uganda Media Centre, said the government dismissed the non-governmental organisation as “busy-body” noise-makers seeking attention.

“Giving transport support to MPs in form of direct cash has been with us since the 6th Parliament. There are many other areas of public spending that have been frozen to raise resource towards Covid-19 response,” he said, referring to the 40 per cent budget cuts.

‘‘The civil society leaders are “busy bodies hopping from one thing to another mainly to seek attention as a means of accountability to their foreign funders.

“Where have they been during the last one-and-half years of Covi-19 to only realise today that it needed better prioritisation. The Budget circle started in September, last year, and [the] government including the parliamentary processes that allocate and appropriate public resources, did consultations to which they must have been invited,” he said.

Like Mr Ofwono, Ms Margaret Muhanga, the State minister for Primary Healthcare, said the lawmakers are entitled to get the cars just like civil servants should get their salaries.

“It is in the law that MPs, once elected, should get [a new car] except if they don’t want it. The money on the account of Parliament was not for vaccine, but for Parliament welfare. The Budget for Parliament was cut by around 40 per cent. They removed travels abroad, committee meetings were reduced, and many other things to make way for health-related issues,” she said.

Members of the 10th Parliament, many of who bounced in the current 11th Parliament, passed the 2021/22 national Budget, but appeared not to align the allocations to the pandemic, necessitating 40 per cent cuts in the first month of the Budget operationalisation.

The initial amount of money proposed to procure a vehicle for each MP was Shs321 million, but this was in April negotiated downwards to Shs200 million.

The gifting of Shs200 million to each MP for a car undermines the earlier requests from experts such as Dr Madina Guloba, an economist at Economic Policy Research Centre, and Dr Arthur Bainomugisha, the director of Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment, that government should prioritise acquisition of vaccines.

In addition to the Budget cuts, Dr Guloba had advised the government to desist from the urge of giving MPs vehicles and acquire vaccines.

Ms Peace Okura, a Ugandan, yesterday wrote on Facebook: “I thought acquiring Covid-19 vaccines is our current national focus.”

Another Facebook user who identifies herself as Ms Margaret Mujumba, wrote: “Ugandans are dying of Covid-19. Instead of equipping our hospitals with enough oxygen, protective gear for the medical workers or vaccinating more people, our government is busy buying cars for MPs.”

An analysis by this newspaper shows that buying cars for each of the 529 MPs at Shs200m would cost Shs105b or $29.8 million, enough to buy 7.5m doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines at the official $4 per dose rate or 4.3m doses at $7 per dose including the syringes and disposal bags.

However, there are 22 ex-officio members of Parliament – ministers without constituencies – and four Parliamentary commissioners who are backbenchers, eligible for a second vehicle, on whose cars the government will additionally spend upwards of Shs5.2b or $1.5m. This is enough to buy anywhere between 214,300 to 375,000 vaccines, depending on whether the asking price is $4 or $7.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is being sold at an average price of $4 (Shs14,150) per dose, excluding transport and logistical expenses, according to information from global statistics agency statista.com.

Yesterday, this newspaper reported that the Prime Minister, Ms Robinah Nabbanja, asked Ugandans to support the government in procuring the vaccines due to limited resources.

Kawempe North MP Muhammad Ssegirinya said he would surrender the car cash for purchase of vaccines.

ISSUE

An analysis by this newspaper shows that buying cars for each of the 529 MPs at Shs200m would cost Shs105b or $29.8 million, enough to buy 7.5m doses of Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines at the official $4 per dose rate or 4.3m doses at $7 per dose including the syringes and disposal bags.



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