- infections and deaths more than double in just three weeks,
- entire nation could be infected by October if current infection curve is not flattened.
Herbert Moyo | Nthatuoa Koeshe
LESOTHO appears to be fighting a losing battle against the dreaded Covid-19 pandemic amid revelations by the National Covid-19 Secretariat (NACOSEC) that the number of infections and deaths have more than doubled in just three weeks.
According to NACOSEC, Lesotho had a cumulative 7656 infections and 123 deaths as of yesterday. The figures reveal that infections and deaths have more than doubled from just 3206 infections and 51 deaths reported by NACOSEC exactly three weeks ago on 1 January 2021.
Just over a month ago on 1 December 2020, Lesotho only had 2137 infections and 44 deaths.
If the trend of infections doubling every month continues, this means that Lesotho’s entire 2,1 million population will be infected by October this year.
Super spreader event
Incidentally the exponential increase in infections and deaths has been recorded just after the end of the festive season.
The government has been widely criticised for allowing tens of thousands of Basotho, who live and work in South Africa, back into the country for the just-ended festive season without testing or presenting valid Covid-19 certificates at the various ports of entry.
South Africa has the highest number of Covid-19 infections in Africa and is 15th in the world.
As of yesterday, it had recorded 1 392 568 infections and 40 076 deaths.
It has been cited as a key source of the new variant of Covid-19 which is said to be more infectious than the first one which originally broke out in January 2019.
Countries like the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and United Arab Emirates have since banned all travel between them and South Africa.
Therefore, allowing people into Lesotho without being tested for Covid-19 could have contributed to the exponential increase in infections which has since prompted Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro to reimpose a national lockdown closing all ports of entry, banning international travel and restricting inter-district travel except for essential services and other exceptional circumstances.
The lockdown is from 14 to 27 January 2021. While announcing the lockdown on 12 January, Dr Majoro himself acknowledged that until late last month, new infections had been low and had never exceeded 20 infections per day.
“But from 18 December 2020 the number of infections increased to at least 100 per day and today looking at the recent statistics, the positive cases have increased to over 800 per day,” Dr Majoro said, adding, “we are in a crisis now”.
“In November (2020), the death rate was low as only one or two deaths were reported per week. But last week (3 to 10 January 2021), we reported 20 deaths and the expectation is that in the coming weeks the numbers are going to increase to over 20 per week and they are going to shock us.”
The premier’s sentiments were yesterday reiterated by NACOSEC chief executive officer (CEO), Malitaba Litaba, who told this publication that the Covid-19 pandemic had indeed become a crisis hence why NACOSEC advised Dr Majoro to impose the lockdown.
Dr Litaba said the Covid-19 positivity rate had massively increased after the Christmas holidays by almost 50 percent.
She said a month before the festive period, the positivity rate had been hovering between 12 and 14 percent.
The massive increase, she said, had led to the high death rates being experienced now which were very “shocking”.
“The situation became worse after the Christmas holidays when the positivity rate increased at an alarming rate hence our advice to the government to implement a hard lockdown. For Covid-19 to be managed properly, our positivity rate should be below five percent,” Dr Litaba said.
She said it was now clear to everyone that the positivity rate had shot up in the past four weeks “from a manageable to the crisis stage”.
“You will agree with me for a long time we had only 44 Covid-19 deaths but now even before four weeks have ended in January, we have 123 deaths.
“That is why we have to take action to flatten the curve because the more the infection rate is allowed to increase, Covid-19 will take lives of people who contribute to the growth of the economy,” Dr Litaba said, adding that the death toll could actually be much higher than what has been reported as some deaths go unreported.
Misplaced NACOSEC priorities
Although both the premier and the NACOSEC boss admitted that the Covid-19 pandemic had escalated into a crisis after the festive season, they did not explain why the escalation had happened at that period or who was to blame for it.
However, NACOSEC and the government have been widely criticised in several quarters for their perceived poor handling of the pandemic.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Mothetjoa Metsing blasted Dr Majoro over what he said was the government’s failure to come up with a clear strategy to fight the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a 13 January 2021 open letter to Dr Majoro, Mr Metsing who leads the opposition Lesotho Congress for Democracy (LCD), accused the government of negligence by allegedly allowing thousands of Basotho to enter the country for the Christmas holiday without presenting valid Covid-19 tests.
“The government you head took a deliberate decision to allow over 100 000 Basotho to cross into the Kingdom without Covid-19 tests, a matter you could have easily addressed by deploying health officials and LDF (Lesotho Defence Force) personnel at all land ports of entry to administer the rapid Covid-19 tests. This would have caused a slight delay to their (travellers’) schedules but it was an indispensable necessity, one that would have been reflective of a caring government.
“That number of people went straight to the villages where they met loved ones. But Your Excellency did not ponder a plan for their return to South Africa,” Mr Metsing said in his letter.
He said after the government’s alleged negligence, Lesotho should not fault the South African government for implementing tough measures which inconvenienced Lesotho nationals seeking to enter that country because it had every right to protect its nationals from contracting Covid-19.
He also said many Basotho were dying from Covid-19 due to the government’s failure to acquire medical equipment like oxygen tanks to help patients who were having difficulty breathing on their own.
NACOSEC also came in for criticism from the Acting Auditor General Monica Besetsa for its misplaced priorities when it came to dealing with the pandemic.
In her recently leaked preliminary report, Ms Besetsa expressed concern that the country could end up failing to win the war against the deadly virus because funds earmarked for interventions to stop the spread of the virus were instead splurged on operational costs of NACOSEC, set up by Dr Majoro last June to spearhead the country’s response to the pandemic.
Ms Besetsa said the Covid-19 budget had ballooned from the initial M698 million to M1, 5 billion mainly to cater for operational costs of NACOSEC and not necessarily interventions required to contain the deadly pandemic.
The operational costs include grossly inflated allowances for NACOSEC staffers, some of whom were ill equipped and ill-qualified for the task at hand, the report further said.
Under a section of her report titled “Budget for NACOSEC”, Ms Besetsa says,
“NECC had an approved budget of M698 million. The proposed budget escalated to M1, 5 billion due to extra expenses to pay for operational costs of NACOSEC.
“This takes Covid-19 issue out of context of being an emergency, disaster and pandemic, hence a need for the involvement of parliament in this kind of establishment…
“It therefore remains a concern as to whether the government will achieve its mandatory role to prevent the spread of the virus and protect Basotho across the country and to support the economy and strengthen the health care systems to cope with the pandemic,” the report titled “Preliminary Report on the Audit of Government Response to Covid-19 Pandemic” said. It was presented to the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, Kemiso Mosenene, on 23 September 2020.
The NECC was the National Emergency Command Centre (NECC) originally established by former premier Thomas Thabane to fight Covid-19. It was disbanded by Dr Majoro in June 2020 after he assumed office a month earlier. The NECC, headed by Communications, Science and Technology, Minister Thesele Maseribane had been rocked by allegations of profligacy and mismanagement. It was then replaced by NACOSEC, a move equally dubbed illegal by the auditor-general.
The AG audited NACOSEC affairs from June 2020 to August 2020. Her report was presented to the government in September 2020 but was never made public. The Lesotho Times managed to obtain a copy two weeks ago.
The direct inference from the report was that the NACOSEC budget had escalated to M1,5 billion because of the body’s need to pay for its operational expenditures as reported in the Lesotho Times a fortnight ago.
However, Dr Majoro’s press attaché, Mosito Moqhekoana; the Principal Secretary for Cabinet Administration, Kabelo Lehora and senior NACOSEC officials on Wednesday denied that NACOSEC had overshot its budget and wasted money on salaries and allowances for staffers.
They said NACOSEC had only spent about M341 million of the initial M698 million set aside to fight the pandemic.
They said about 293,8 million of the M341 million had been spent on “key issues” like purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) and paying private facilities which were used as isolation centres for Covid-19 patients. The remainder had been used to pay the salaries of support staff and other operational expenses like fuel and telephone bills, they added.
Despite the denials and claims by NACOSEC and government, the situation on the ground remains dire as shown by the soaring Covid-19 infections and deaths.