By Thomas Vandi Gbow
Official mouthpiece of the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NACOVERC), Solomon Jamiru, has reportedly expressed Government’s profound apologies and disappointment over delayed payments of weekly cash allowances to frontline health workers for the last eight months. His profound apologies and disappointment on behalf of the Government comes after some aggrieved frontline health workers on Monday 1st June, 2020 embarked on an indefinite strike action due to delays in payment of their incentives. Their strike action continued on Tuesday and they intend to remain adamant until their backlogs are paid.
The aggrieved frontline health workers, including surveillance officers, contact tracers, case investigators, quarantine and psychosocial counselors, among other categories of workers, claimed they have not received a dime from the Government since the country began responding to the pandemic on 31st March, 2020.
It could be recalled that on 21st April 2020, the Government of Sierra Leone (GoSL) represented by the Ministries of Finance and Health and Sanitation signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with representatives of healthcare workers – the Sierra Leone Medical and Dental Association, Pharmaceutical Society of Sierra Leone, Sierra Leone Nursing Association and the Sierra Leone Association of Community Health Officer – establishing a compensation and incentive package for the COVID-19 response in Sierra Leone.
During the second day of the strike action by the aggrieved frontline health workers, the Ministry of Finance issued a press release to allay their fears regarding the compensation and incentive package.
According to the news release, “One of the commitments of the incentive package was that ‘All healthcare workers will be provided with a cash risk allowance in lieu of their PAYE (Pay As You Earn) tax reduction for the period of three (3) months commencing 1st April 2020, subject to review as may be necessary.”
The Government, the release states, has paid Le6, 529,184,393 to 8,889 healthcare workers as PAYE in fulfillment of this commitment by the Government and tax rebate for the months of April and May, while the tax refund was paid into their accounts directly during the payment of the salaries for May, 2020.
This payment, according to the release, is in addition to the weekly allowances of Le1, 000,000.00 paid by the COVID-19 Emergency Operations Centre to health workers at the treatment and isolation centres and laboratories and quarantine homes/centres.
If it is fact that the Government has fulfilled its commitment of paying the aforesaid money to 8,889 healthcare workers as PAYE tax rebate for the months of April and May, I believe the beneficiaries were never informed about such development until when they downed tools before the Ministry of Finance could have the guts to hastily prepare a news release in an attempt to pacify the aggrieved frontline health workers.
The news release also indicted the National COVID-19 Emergency Response Centre (NACOVERC) is responsible for the payment of weekly allowances of Le1, 000, 000.00 to health workers at the treatment and isolation centres, laboratories and quarantine homes/centres. But the aggrieved frontline health workers have however told the general public that they have not received a dime from the Government since the country began responding to the pandemic on 31st March, this year.
So what has actually happened to the COVID-19 local and foreign accounts if the frontline workers, who are the real vanguards of the COVID-19 war, have not been paid cash risk allowances? Where has all the money gone?
In its second update, the Financial Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, Sahr Lamin Jusu, on 24th April, 2020 issued a Public Notice indicating what the local and international donors had donated; the revenue and expenditure, and balance of amount left in the two COVID-19 local and foreign accounts. A total of Le42, 379, 280,000.00 (Forty-Two Billion, Three Hundred and Seventy-Nine Million, Two Hundred and Eighty Thousand Leones) was paid as donation into the COVID-19 Leone Account and US$50,000 (Fifty Thousand United States Dollars) paid into the Foreign Account.
Out of the aforesaid whopping sum of money, the Ministry of Finance claimed to have spent Le33, 086, 816, 357 (Thirty-Three Billion, Eighty-Six Million, Eight Hundred and Sixteen Thousand, Three Hundred and Fifty-Seven Leones) from the Leone Account which, unfortunately, did not include payment of cask risk allowances to frontline health workers.
The Finance Ministry also claimed to have spent 45,000.00 Pounds Sterling for the airfreight of an untested COVID-19 organic treatment from Madagascar, which could have been used for the payment of the cash risk allowances to the frontline health workers that are yet to receive a dime from Government.
A very confusing issue is that Solomon Jamiru quoted the Ministry of Finance as saying that one of the delays in the payments of the cash risk allowances is that the Ministry is yet to verify the bank accounts of frontline health workers. He however assured that the Ministry and Department responsible for the payments continue to reassure them of the availability of the money and the readiness to pay once those verifications are completed.
But in the press release of the Ministry of Finance issued on Tuesday 2nd June, 2020, the tax refund, which Government paid to 8,889 health workers for the months of April and May, was paid into their accounts directly during the payments of the salaries for May, 2020. The one-million-dollar question is, if the Ministry of Finance paid the tax return into the accounts of the frontline health workers directly in May, where did Solomon Jamiru borrow the idea of ‘verification of accounts of frontline health workers?’
It is now crystal clear that other surreptitious factors, instead of the so-called verification of accounts of frontline health workers, are deliberately delaying the payments of the cash risk allowances of the frontline workers, including the Government paying lip service to the MOU it signed with representatives of healthcare workers. The negligence of Government to fulfill its agreement with representatives of health workers, as a matter of urgency, is a clear indication of having some weak links within the chain of NACOVERC, which need to be strengthened if we are to succeed in curbing the global scourge from our backyard. How would the Ministry of Finance spend more than Le33bn of the Le42bn in the COVID-19 Leone Account without any consideration to the payments of cash risk allowances to frontline health workers if Government had prioritized its agreement with representatives of the health workers?
There are also other categories of beneficiaries of the compensation and incentive package, which the press release of the Ministry of Finance failed to address. For instance, there are frontline workers that were supposed to be getting Le750, 000.00 weekly cash risk allowances, while another category of frontline workers was to receive Le500, 000.00 weekly. They too have been working without receiving their allowances despite donations, financial support from local and international partners. Why?
By and large, the Government may have fulfilled the payment of tax return for health workers; the Government may be concluding arrangements with the National Insurance Company (NIC) on a life policy for health workers that would become infected with the virus and die during the course of the outbreak; the Government may also provide free tuition and other educational support to children of health workers that will succumb to the pandemic; the Government may also provide frontline health workers with the required incentives to facilitate their efforts and activities in combatting the global scourge; but the fact remains that actions speak louder than words. The paying of lip service by Government has become unbearable and it is about time it lived up to expectations for the sake of fighting to combat the pandemic oce and for all.
What we are witnessing in the COVID-19 fight is more of fanfare than commitment to the COVID-19 activities that would help combat the pandemic in the country. If the frontline workers, who are leading the COVID-19 fight, are being overlooked by Government, would you expect the pandemic to be defeated so soon?
In fact, the failure of Government to uphold its side of the agreement has culminated in the late delivery of test results, abandonment of postings by frontline health workers as well as leaving quarantine homes/centres unattended. Yet, the Government wants the people and the international community to believe hook, line and sinker what it is preaching about the pandemic, when what is happening on the ground is one thing, while the Government is saying another. Oh Salone!
By Thomas Vandi Gbow