The Covid-19 Shock and Working from Home

The outbreak of the Covid-19 was a shock to everyone. The scale of the problem and the fast pace of infections meant creative thinking on different fronts. For AFIC staff, ensuring the safety of staff was an immediate objective. We instituted measures to ensure office premises were safe. We also started on a work from the home program as we sought to get more information on how to prevent infections. Three days later, the Government announced a partial lockdown, and this presented new dawn.

Working from home wasn’t easy for us. At the individual staff level, getting used to a new work station was not easy. We had to compete for school/ office space with children. We also needed to negotiate with them not to shout or raise the volume on television screens in order to allow for a quiet environment for meetings. In several residential areas, access to the internet became a real issue.

Orienting work to the new reality

Our work focusses on the promotion of accountability. One of the first tasks our team undertook was to examine the accountability context of Covid-19. Three main issues were identified. First, health crises like Covid-19 increase pressure for public spending while relaxing mechanisms for accountability, thus increasing the risk of corruption and inefficiency. Second, the enforcement of standard operating procedures for creating opportunities for corruption and abuse- giving advantages for a few officials to make money while exposing the entire population to infections and three, distribution of relief food and other items was prone to corruption and abuse, leading to a possibility of eligible beneficiaries being left out while ineligible ones are benefiting.

With the results of this risk mapping, we set out to orient our community monitors to monitor these aspects. In respect to the first issue, we found that. In contrast, Parliament had appropriated trillions for Covid-19 response; none of the Ministries, departments, and agencies updated and published respective procurement plans as required. Neither did any agency publish any information on procurements at all. Without this information, it was going to be difficult to monitor any procurements. Based on our analysis of health sector procurement data in February 2020, we knew the risk for inefficiency, inflated costs, and corruption was very high, yet we were constrained without access to information. This concern was discussed with the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Authority (PPDA), and we were therefore very pleased when PPDA initiated a process to develop Guidelines for emergency procurements with wider stakeholder consultations.

In respect to monitoring of the distribution of relief food items as well as the enforcement of SoPs, we developed a checklist for monitoring but were faced with immediate challenges. How do you orient local community monitors on tracking implementation without meeting them physically? We eventually decided to select a few, taking into account those who were within walking distance to the respective district headquarters and access to a mobile phone. Orientation on the tool was done through telephone calls, and a WhatsApp group was created to facilitate the exercise. In spite of initial challenges, they were able to collect data that was analyzed and used to engage authorities.

Monitoring at the Local Government level indicates that quarantine centers have low supplies of essential items such as hand washing water, food, soap, and quarantine centers are inadequately staffed. The districts have not been engaged in any form of procurement of relief items expect fuel for transporting patients to the testing and isolation centers.   In Kabale district, social distancing is not well observed during the distribution of food relief items. In addition, food rations are inadequate compared to the number of people in need as well as the size of families (1kg per household). All six districts have received learning materials from the Ministry of Education and Sports except that they are inadequate numbers as not all learners are covered. All schools received the items, however, delays in distribution were reported across all project districts. Parents in Ntungamo district have been asked to photocopy and return the original copies to the chairperson LC I. Yet, access to photocopying services is practically impossible in many villages.

On the emergency response, the team operates in line with the Standard Operating Procedures of the Ministry of Health. Health workers have been trained on prevention and case management to minimize the risk of spreading infections as a result, Mbarara and Kabale Regional Referral hospitals have been able to manage COVID 19 positive cases.  In addition to managing positive cases, the district task forces have effectively managed quarantine centers amidst some challenges such as limited access to water and electricity in Matanda in Kanungu, and Nebbi, lack food supply for the COVID-19 suspects being treated or observed.

The New Normal

On May 18, 2020, the Government partially lifted the lockdown, allowing private and public transport with limited restrictions.  Consultations were held with respective Covid-19 District Taskforces of Iganga, Mubende, and Mityana on the possibility of conducting training workshops on access to information and open contracting for public officials and civil society under the Democratic Governance Facility funded project. Enhancing Value for Money in Social Services through Open Contracting and Citizens Access to Information in Uganda.”

The district leadership in the project districts approved the holding of workshops within restricted parameters. We were required to provide handwashing facilities, face masks and sanitizers, a temperature gun, brief participants on prevention measures, use spacious meeting rooms that allow for at least 2-meter spacing and serve meals in an organized manner. A member of the District Covid-19 Task Force had to be in attendance to supervise and provide on-spot guidance from time to time. During the lockdown, AFIC conducted an online project inception meeting with various stakeholders who included District Resident Commissioners (RDCs), Chief Administrative Officers, and district chairpersons, among others. Participants in the inception meeting provided useful feedback on the importance of the project and how best it could be implemented in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.  This may have facilitated quick decision-making on our request.

Guidelines agreed with respective District Covid-19 taskforces were strictly followed. The workshops were very productive. In Iganga, we started two days’ training for public officials on open contracting and access to information. Participants noted that prior to the workshop, they did not know their obligations to disclose public information under both the Access to Information Act and the PPDA Act. Although the district is registered on the Government Procurement Portal, they were not aware of the portal and had never published anything. All district officials, including the Chief Administrative Officer, Chairperson, and Resident District Commissioner, had concerns of lack of openness by the Procurement Officer.  At the same time disclosure, practices were very weak. For example, whereas projects were regularly launched in accordance with the presidential directive, details on the projects such as cost, duration, contractor, and specifications were rarely disclosed.  Consequently, communities remained uninformed and unengaged on projects.

Following the training, officials were very pleased with knowledge acquired and committed to implementing the Access to Information Act actively and also comply with disclosure obligations under the PPDA Act.

‘’I request my technical team to always share accurate, timely, and information consistently to citizens to ensure effective service delivery. I also recommend that you CSOs should appropriately use the information obtained from Government to engage and monitor public projects.’’ Said Francis Kibuuka, the Mubende District LCV Chairperson. This was during the training of public servants in Mubende district.

The process was applied in training public officials in both Mubende and Mityana districts, and the issues were almost the same except in Mubende, where the district chairperson was reported to have been actively disseminating project information through mass media and public meetings.

In respect to CSO training, it was reported by both public officials and civil society themselves that demand for public information was very weak because of a lack of awareness of their right to access public information and how to exercise it under the law. Across the three districts, 45 CSO leaders were trained and deeply appreciated the content and relevance of access to information in empowering their work.

Three main issues were raised across three project districts. They were accessing the information on case management by judicial officers, access to information on projects managed by central government ministries and agencies, and lack of funding and facilitation for respective District Public Accountability Committees. It was strongly recommended that AFIC should consider convening public dialogue at the community level, where judicial officers should be invited to clarify this information gap. It was also recommended that information requests be made on all projects being implemented by the Ministries of Education, Health as well as Agriculture to enable people to get information about them.

Our new normal is getting people to know!

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