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Pandemic Profiteering And The Rise Of The Covidpreneur

Tying The Tourniquet

Franklin Roosevelt said during World War II, “I don’t want to see a single war millionaire created in the United States as a result of this world disaster.”

In South Africa today, overrun as we are with “Covidpreneurs,” this commendable sentiment would fall on more than a few deaf ears.

South Africa is not the only African country with government officials accused of profiteering during the Covid-19 pandemic, but it is surely the one in which corruption and fraud are the most prevalent. In fact, there is hardly a single area of our Covid response that has not been tainted in some way by greedy fingers poked into multiple pies.

Almost every day we read of health workers being infected with the Coronavirus because of a lack of suitable PPE. Of Covid-related tenders inflated to unconscionable levels (we’re talking about a 900% mark-up on protective kit). And of money and food parcels destined for our poorest of the poor being stolen and stockpiled by already bloated government officials.

The rot is pervasive, going as high up as our President’s own spokeswoman, Khusela Diko, whose husband was awarded a juicy R120 million contract to supply PPE to the Gauteng government. She is currently taking a “leave of absence,” along with senior Gauteng province health official Bandile Masuku, while investigations are carried out.

Their case is one of at least 36 currently under investigation.

What Is The Government Doing?

President Cyril Ramaphosa has spoken out vehemently, on more than one occasion, about the high levels of corruption during the greatest health emergency our country has faced in over a century.

“Attempting to profit from a disaster that is claiming the lives of our people every day is the action of scavengers,” the president said. “It is like a pack of hyenas circling wounded prey. Corruption during a national disaster is a particularly heinous type of crime, and perpetrators are going to be dealt with decisively and harshly.”

He went on to say how difficult it is to understand the utter lack of conscience that leads a businessperson who has heeded the call to provide lifesaving supplies during a devastating pandemic to inflate the price of a surgical mask by as much as 900%.

“No can one explain why a councillor would stockpile emergency food parcels meant for the poor for their own family, or why another councillor would divert water tankers en route to a needy community to their own home,” he said. “We are witnessing theft by individuals and companies with no conscience.

“Those found to have broken the law to enrich themselves through this crisis will not get to enjoy their spoils, regardless of who they are or with whom they may be connected,” he warned.

But how comforted are we really by these words?

Apart from a few inspiring weeks at the beginning of lockdown, President Ramaphosa has not been the strongest or most decisive leader during this crisis, and his handling of everything from the months-long cigarette and alcohol ban to the overseeing of the tender award process has been harshly criticised.

But he does at least seem to be committed to rooting out the despicable individuals responsible for the worst acts of corruption during the Covid crisis.

In a recent, nationwide address, the president said an investigation unit had been set up to probe all alleged corruption related to Covid-19 funds the government has allocated to various organisations.

“In order to speed up and strengthen the process of dealing with corruption, I have signed a proclamation authorising the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) to investigate any unlawful or improper conduct in the procurement of any goods, works and services during or related to the national state of disaster in any state institution,” he said.

Can We Really Trust Anything The Government Says?

The people charged with running our country don’t have the best track record when it comes to rooting out and adequately punishing those responsible for the high levels of corruption that continue to undermine any forward strides made in other areas.

And who can ever forget the haunting scenes, witnessed within the first awful days of lockdown, of South African police and soldiers kicking, slapping, whipping, arresting and, yes, shooting those caught violating lockdown regulations. Videos also emerged of security forces using rubber bullets and water cannons, and forcing people into humiliating positions.

By March 31, just five days into the lockdown, police had reportedly killed three people – the same number as had died from Coronavirus at the time.

It was enough to prompt one publication to print an article entitled, “State abuses could match the threat of Covid-19 itself.”

As Andrew Faull, Senior Researcher, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria wrote, “As the state’s representatives on the country’s streets, would [security forces] not be better armed with food, thermometers, sanitisers, masks and informational pamphlets for distribution to the public? Police and soldiers should not only enforce the law during these difficult times. Through their words and actions, they should also build and support the nation.”

What Can We Do?

The challenge now is for ordinary citizens like you and me not to take the default position most of us adopt in response to the latest allegations of corruption and promises of justice being done.

Corruption has become part of our culture. We have become so desensitised to this kind of behaviour that we tend to simply shrug our shoulders, ask a dismissive, “And?” and then carry on with what we were doing.

We are guilty of taking this unacceptable behaviour for granted, but this apathy is not going to make tackling the problem a high enough priority. We have to rage against it! We have to demand justice and retribution. And we have to show Covid profiteers that we will simply not accept this kind of inhuman – and inhumane – greed.

“We are determined that every instance of alleged corruption must be thoroughly investigated, that those responsible for wrongdoing should be prosecuted, and that all government monies stolen or overpriced are recovered,” President Ramaphosa said.

But talk is cheap. Unlike the face masks sold to the Gauteng Health Department.

Time will tell.