Merchants of Death ...Grim reapers make a killing from COVID-19

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David Muchagoneyi

While COVID-19 has brought grief and anguish to many families across the world, and stretched the resources even well-off countries, some people have seen it as an opportunity to “make a killing”.

The novel coronavirus, which causes the disease that is fatal in about 20 percent of cases, was first detected in China in December 2019, and has infected over nine million people around the world, leaving 450 000 dead.

Through the death and despair, some people are smiling all the way to the bank; styling themselves as manufacturers of health products and middlemen who can supply protective personnel equipment.

From the Americas to Europe to Africa, dubious contracts have been awarded.

Self-styled merchants have sprouted like mushrooms – fertilised by death and under the fertile conditions of the cover of the darkness of people’s desperation - to pocket millions from their astronomical government-approved mark-ups.

 

Shady Men at State House

In Zimbabwe, the government has bowed to a groundswell of public pressure to cancel a contract that had been controversially awarded to a company called Drax International.

Drax International won a government contract to supply imported personal protective equipment – and grossly inflated the prices.

For example, the government had been billed to pay US$90 for equipment that was locally available at a cost of US$20.

The price for a test kit was pegged at US$34 by Drax International when suppliers of the same test kits in Zimbabwe were selling them for US$ 15 each; netting Delish Nguwaya – the man fronting the company – a profit of more than 100 percent.

Nguwaya was set to supply 15 000 test kits, meaning his Drax International would make a profit of US$285,000 on that component of the contract alone.

N-95 breathing masks had been billed at US$28 each against a local price of between US$2 and US$5. This meant the company was going to get itself at least US$25 more on each mask than what other companies would profit.

In all, the government of Zimbabwe was billed US$987 720 for the contract.

As pressure grew, the government renegotiated the bill downwards to around US$600 000, a figure that was still significantly more than would have been paid had the state gone to any other local supplier.

So why was the government willing to be overcharged so much?

Indications are that Nguwaya has a personal relationship with close family members of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Pictures have emerged of the shady businessman – who is no stranger to the criminal courts – cosying up with President Mnangagwa at State House.

President Mnangagwa’s administration has tried to distance itself from Nguwaya, and the businessman has been arrested.

Further, Health and Child Care Minister Dr Obadiah Moyo has also been arrested on allegations related to that contract, as well as on other charges involving dubious contracts amounting to US$60 million.

 

Porsches & Lamborghinis

Across the Limpopo River, South Africa is home to the highest number of COVID-19 cases on the continent.

This week, the country surpassed China – where the virus originated late in 2019 – in terms of caseload, reaching 97,302 cases on Sunday night, with 1,930 deaths against 51,608 recoveries. At that point, China had 83,396 infections, 78,413 recoveries, and 4,634 deaths.

Those grim statistics are ostensibly cause for others to smile.

Businessman Hamilton Ndlovu is in the eye of a storm after he posted pictures on social media showing off a fleet of luxurious cars.

The cars included the 2020 version of the Porsche 992, a 2020 version of the Porsche Cayenne GTS, the 2020 version of the Porsche GTS Carrera, a Jeep Grand Cherokee and a Lamborghini Urus.

In total, the fleet is said to be worth anything in the region of R11 million – a small drop in the ocean of the R120 million contract he was awarded for the supply of personal protective equipment.

 

Ventilators? What Ventilators?

The world loves to talk about corruption as an African problem.

But like COVID-19, corruption is not restricted by race or geography.

In the United States, New York State paid US$69,1 million to Yaron Oren-Pines in late March for the supply of 1,450 ventilators.

Oren-Pines is a Silicon Valley-based electrical engineer with zero background in the supply of medical equipment.

So it really is no great wonder that since March, the ventilators have not been supplied to the State of New York.

And in shades of the shady businessman who was pictured being all buddy-buddy with President Mnangagwa at State House in Harare before getting the contract to supply the over-priced equipment, the White House Coronavirus Taskforce recommended that Oren-Pines supply the State of New York with ventilators.

New York's payment to Oren-Pines was the largest of many unscrutinised procurements made by the New York Department of Health following a March 7 executive order issued by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The order allowed the department to pay for goods before receiving them – and apparently without inspecting them - with the dubious rationale being that this would result in quick supplies of products to desperate hospitals.

In all, the New York’s Health Department paid out 77 cheques (the lowest value cheque was about US$1 million) for medical supplies between March 19 and April 27, totalling nearly US$735 million.

A majority of the payments were to "firms, many with little or no apparent experience in medicine," including several private equity and investment firms, clothing brands, an iron ore company and "a company that sells hair and wrinkle removal products".

 

Bird netters get their cut

As pandemic unfolded in the United Kingdom, the government evoked emergency procurement procedures.

This resulted in some very queer contracts being awarded to some very queer operators.

For instance, some businesspersons registered a company called Excalibur in January 2020 and a few weeks later they got a £25 million for the supply of N-95 and KN-95 breathing masks.

Perhaps they were just enterprising. Perhaps it was a case of good timing. After all, corruption is an African disease.

Or is it?

A small company called PestFix, which had assets of around £18,000, was awarded a contract worth more than £108 million for the supply of protective personal equipment.

As anyone can guess from the company’s name, it specialises in pest control.

PestFix is a family-owned business that has 18 employees and no history in the medical sector - unless by some stretch of the definition the sale of nets to cover trees so that birds do not build nests in them counts.

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