FORMER National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) chief executive officer (CEO), Thabo Khasipe, quit last October allegedly due to sabotage by senior government officials who would not release funds for the Covid-19 fight.
He was succeeded by Dr Malitaba Litaba. The Sunday Express (SE) recently sat down with Dr Litaba to find out how the battle against the virus is progressing under her stewardship.
This publication also sought to find out whether NACOSEC is receiving adequate support from the government in its fight against the deadly pandemic. Below are excerpts of the interview:
SE: You are at the forefront of the fight against Covid-19 in Lesotho. What are the challenges that you have encountered?
Dr Litaba: Firstly, there is nepotism and corruption in our country. When I was appointed NACOSEC CEO, I received numerous calls from people, some of whom I hadn’t spoken to for five years. They were calling for favours. They wanted me to connect them for tenders or give their relatives and friends jobs. This is wrong, this is the cancer that has affected our country. When I received those calls, I told myself this country is cursed.
I was shocked that the moment you are appointed, some eagle-eyed people talk to you for opportunities to access resources. I asked God to give me grace to be steadfast on my conviction because I believe in fairness. We are where we are as a country because we are giving incompetent people jobs and tenders simply because they are our relatives or friends. We have people occupying top posts that they are not qualified for.
They get these certain positions simply because they belong to a particular party or because they have relations with someone important. It is worrying that people without qualifications are given tenders, those people simply will not deliver and at the end of day we would have wasted money. I do not give people favours and I do not expect anyone to give me favours. I do not want people to own me because of a favour.
Secondly, there is the challenge of poor governance. No one is accountable to anyone for their performance. People are just doing what they want without being accountable. No one is held accountable. Since I joined NACOSEC, I have never been assessed in terms of performance. It worries me because it means this is what is happening to every director, minister and principal secretary in the country, no one is accountable to anyone. I do not see us going anywhere as a country due to lack of accountability.
Thirdly, some of the people I work with are doing all they can to frustrate me. For instance, our strategy is to prevent infections at all costs but they are not implementing this. We had proposed to decentralise the Covid-19 services to fight pandemic but they won’t release the resources. We had asked chiefs and councillors to ensure their communities are abiding by the regulations rather than rely on soldiers and the police.
We had proposed that we send a car and a healthcare team of nurses, laboratory technicians and nurse aids to councils and communities about Covid-19. We test those who are showing symptoms, teach them about quarantine and isolation and how to do it effectively. This is a beautiful strategy but we received opposition from cabinet. They refused to release money yet Covid-19 money was available. They will frustrate the whole process and you will definitely fail.
Rwanda has two things working for them: they decentralised and appointed ministers who can perform. There is no accountability in Lesotho. No one will ask me what I have been doing.
Our leaders lack the spirit of servanthood. The general population is also not doing its part; it’s not holding accountable the people voted into leadership positions. People have every right to question the government.
Let us develop a culture of accountability. We must assess performance at least annually. For instance, in a year’s time someone must ask Dr Litaba to account for her year in charge, they must demand to see what progress has been made, if any. If I am not delivering, I have to leave the office and let someone who can do the job come in.
The same applies to ministers. It would be best if the ministers applied for their jobs on the basis of their qualifications. For instance, one must be suitably qualified in that area to be minister of finance or minister of health.
SE: You succeeded Mr Thabo Khasipe who quit last year allegedly after being frustrated in his work by senior government officials. Are you getting all the support you need to discharge your mandate?
Dr Litaba: The former CEO Thabo Khasipe was an excellent performer. He wanted to see things done and I believe we were going to see good results. But because of our government system, he was sabotaged.
The civil servants made sure that he would not succeed and as an achiever, he could not put up with such nonsense.
He was not happy that things were not happening and the reason why they were not happening was intentional on the part of some people. It did not settle well with him so he left. They sabotaged him by not releasing any resources. I was also appointed CEO so that I can access the resources but they are not allowing me to access them. I do not have access to them.
Covid money is there but they won’t release it. The only reason that I am still here is because of the spirit of servanthood. If it wasn’t for that I would have left a long time ago.
I now understand why Mr Khasipe left the office; he was frustrated by the system. He had the strategy but he could not implement it because they were holding on to the resources.
SE: There has been talk of a third wave of Covid-19 infections. Is NACOSEC well-prepared for this looming threat?
Dr Litaba: Our focus is on prevention. We are aiming for prevention rather than waiting for people to get sick then treat them.
We want to decentralise the Covid-19 fight and to that end, we have been advising the government to provide resources to enable us to offer services in districts and local communities. When you decentralise and focus on prevention, it is easier to control the spread of the virus than wait for people to get sick and treat them.
Our resources have improved over time. We now have 62 intensive care unit (ICU) beds in our hospitals around the country for Covid-19 patients. Of these, Berea Hospital has 20 beds, Mafeteng Hospital 20, Thaba-Tseka 10, Maluti Seventh Day Adventist Mission Hospital four, Butha-Buthe four, Paray Mission Hospital two and Scott Hospital two. Even though we now have many beds, I can’t say if these are enough because this will be determined by the severity of any outbreak of the virus.
However, for now I can say our weekly monitoring of the situation has shown that at most we have had 60 percent of the beds taken up by admitted patients. However, we need people to understand that prevention is better than cure. They must focus on ensuring that they are not infected in the first place rather than having to queue up for the limited beds and oxygen supplies when infected. We must focus on preventive methods like wearing our masks, social distancing and sanitising. That’s the best way to beat Covid-19 rather than thinking about hospital admission.
Not all the medical staff have the expertise to operate the ICU equipment. We have a handful of nurses that were at Queen ‘Mamohato Memorial Hospital who know how to operate the ventilators. But those people cannot attend to the whole country.
People in the first world countries died even when they had state-of-the-art ICUs and the finest technical experts. Look at what happened in the United States of America and the United Kingdom. This is why I am saying people must focus on prevention and not contract the virus in the first place.
SE: You have previously advised the government to implement tougher measures including banning political gatherings and introducing a lockdown after reports of a third wave just next door in Free State. How do you feel about the fact that this advice went unheeded?
Dr Litaba: The government said the numbers of infections in the Free State were not high enough for the borders to be closed. They however, said the infections in India were high enough to warrant a ban on travel to and from India. So, they banned travel to India but kept the borders with South Africa open.
They also refused to stop the political gatherings. However, I must say we did our part by advising them on the measures to take. Our part is to advise and it is up to the government to either heed or reject our recommendations.
However, we advise everyone to continue adhering to all the public health protocols for their own benefit.
SE: Due to the lack of resources, Lesotho only tests travellers and people showing symptoms. We have even failed to quarantine people at one stage, asking them to self-quarantine instead. Do you think we are doing enough as a country to fight Covid?
Dr Litaba: Lack of accountability led to the abuse of funds meant for the Covid-19 fight. The money for quarantining people was wasted yet we do not have anything to show for the effectiveness of the exercise. Last year half of Covid-19 funds were spent on quarantining people but no one was monitoring what was actually happening.
There are reports of people who stayed in hotels for 35 days claiming to be in quarantine. Quarantine can be done at home; it does not necessarily have to be in a hotel or a guest house. Lesotho does not lack resources, it’s just a case of misusing the resources at our disposal. If we account for the little that we have I am sure it will go a long way.
SE: NACOSEC has previously said it has the capacity to test 2000 people per day but it rarely tests 100 people a day. What is the problem?
Dr Litaba: The only reason the laboratories are not testing to full capacity is because the people are not willing to come forward to be tested. We are the ones who have to look for them and request that we test them.
They only come for tests if they want to travel. We have plenty of test kits and we can test up to September with what we currently have. People should come forward because we are testing free of charge.
SE: Lesotho’s mass vaccination programme has been painstakingly slow. Why is this so?
Dr Litaba: Our service delivery is poor. Even if we receive five vaccines now, they will take a week to reach the intended people. People are simply not doing their jobs. If we had accountability people would work knowing that they will be answerable for their actions.
Donors and development partners are complaining that if they give Lesotho money, it will not be used. The thing is that some people in high offices will not release the money as long as they will not personally benefit.
We also need to educate people on the need to be vaccinated. We lack effective experts in health communication. We need health communication experts who can go to a lay person and explain what Covid-19 is and how one can protect themselves from it including by getting vaccinated.