Hundreds of people living with HIV and Aids yesterday demonstrated against Zimbabwe’s National Aids Council (NAC), accusing the management of wrongly prioritising the AIDS levy by spending too much on administration instead of buying drugs.
The group of protesters gathered at NAC headquarters demanding an audience with the relevant authorities then handed over a petition.
Protesters claim NAC is spending more than 40% on administration and support costs, although official figures put this figure at 23%. The protesters also accuse NAC of lending money from its AIDS trust fund to employees, investing on the stock market and spending US$ 70,000 for seven officials to visit the AIDS 2012 conference, which took place in Washington DC, USA in July.
NAC has become one of the country’s biggest employers. Campaigners accuse the organisation of being over staffed and say many roles duplicate duties unnecessarily.
All of NAC’s 800+ employees receive a minimum of US$3,000 in loans to purchase vehicles and other items for their staff and management. Protesters say this leaves less money for the purchase of antiretrovirals, forcing people living with HIV and AIDS to buy expensive drugs at local pharmacies.
Speaking to journalist, demonstrators said people living with HIV continue to die prematurely without accessing diagnostic services and ARVs, and cannot afford basic medication for simple opportunistic infections.
“Some people living with HIV and AIDS are experiencing drug stock outs, short supply and unavailability of second line drugs and developing drug resistance due to the unavailability of drug combinations while huge amounts of money are currently invested in banks and loaned to employees of NAC,” said Joao Zangaroti, spokesperson of the demonstrators.
He added that the NAC board needs urgent refocus on thematic allocations, and that workers, who contribute about 3% to the AIDS Trust Fund, need to be updated on how their money is being used in the fight against the pandemic. He also called for more transparency on the Aids Levy.
“We call…for the setting up of an independent commission or operations to investigate NAC over a condemning report by the controller general that NAC finances were not in order in reference to unused budgetary allocations, when the majority of PLHIV are clamouring for new donated ARVs at Opportunistic Clinics nationwide,” he added.
Responding to these allegations, NAC Operations Director Raymond Yekeye said: “I think what we should not do is use people living with HIV for narrow agendas, what we should try to do is channel the resources towards helping meaningfully to the issues of people living with HIV. I think if we try and get mirage and publicist by using people living with HIV it’s sad and unacceptable.”
Yekeye criticised the demonstration organisers, saying that many of the demonstrators may not have access to ARVs and would have walked long distances to get to NAC head offices. He added that he was unsure how long people were being asked to demonstrate for and if they were going to be given food or bus fare by whoever has organised the march.
He added: “People have printed t-shirts and banners for them and we then say we do not have ARVs. Are we not able to use the resources in a much better way? Is this the way we are going to channel our resources, our energies, towards the fight against HIV by spending the day demonstrating? The facts are there, the information is available and people choose not to [listen],” said Yekeye.
He refuted allegations that the information that NAC makes available is doctored in favour of the organisation by government auditors and NAC internal auditors.
The allocation of Aids Levy funds to different programmes is done by the NAC board, guided by an annual work plan and budget approved by the Minister of Health and Child Welfare. Of the total funds collected official figures state that 50% goes towards antiretroviral therapy programmes, 10% to HIV prevention, 6% to monitoring, evaluation and coordination, 5% to enabling environment, 23% to programme logistics support and 4% to assets accounts.
In 1999, the Zimbabwe government introduced a levy of 3% (of all taxable income) deductions from employees to finance HIV/AIDS activities. NAC is responsible for distributing the funds collected into the National AIDS Levy Trust. Since the introduction of the US Dollar currency to the Zimbabwean economy in 2009, NAC collected US$5.9 million.
As the economy improved through 2010, revenue to the National AIDS Fund increased to US$19.7 million, which still fell short of NAC’s annual budget of US$196 million. The shortfall was covered by other partners such as the Global Fund.