A corrupt network involving some laboratory staff working at the National Tuberculosis Reference Laboratory and some doctors at Mpilo Central Hospital in Bulawayo have been illegally selling Covid-19 certificates to desperate individuals wanting to travel outside the country, CITE can reveal.
The National Tuberculosis Reference Laboratory located at Mpilo conducts Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) testing of Covid-19 samples drawn from the city and surrounding areas.
PCR tests can tell if someone is actively infected with Covid-19 or is clear of infection and in order to travel out of the country whether, by road or air, Zimbabwean regulations specify a valid PCR test must be done 48 hours before leaving the country.
According to Acting Bulawayo Provincial Medical Director, Dr Welcome Mlilo, all clinics and public hospitals offer free Covid-19 testing but do not test “for the purposes of travelling to manage resources.”
“Travellers can access testing facilities offered in the private sector. The turn around time for these results in 24 hours or less,” he said.
Private institutions or laboratories charge US$60 for the PCR test, which is beyond the reach of some, forcing desperate individuals to buy ‘cheaper’ fake certificates.
These fake certificates are issued without one having to undertake the Covid-19 test, while those who are also positive but want to travel can also buy them.
This poses a risk of widespread Covid-19 infection as people who are positive do not isolate themselves but travel freely, breaking health protocols.
In January this year, CITE received a tip-off that some staffers at Mpilo Hospital were selling fake Covid-19 clearance certificates.
On January 8, posing as a prospective buyer named Marilyn, a CITE staffer engaged the Mpilo Contact Person (name withheld for ethical reasons) using WhatsApp to facilitate the purchase of the Covid-19 certificate.
The Contact Person was on guard and instituted an inquiry of their own demanded to know who had referred the Marlyn to them.
At this stage, Marlyn had no name but expressed desperation to go back to South Africa to work as the festive holidays were over.
The Contact Person did not budge as they wanted to know the name of the person who made the referral.
A false name was supplied to the Contact Person, who denied knowing them and stopped communication.
On February 5, 2021, using a foreign number, CITE posed as Melusi Ndlovu from Dublin in Ireland, and told the contact person that they had been referred by a certain doctor (name gathered from investigations and will also be withheld).
This time, the contact person was ready to assist ‘Melusi’ who wanted two certificates for his ‘mother and cousin supposed to travel to South Africa for medical purposes.’
To facilitate the clearance, the contact person asked for the copies of their passports.
After five days, on February 10, the contact person said the travel certificates were ready and the collection would be done at Barbourfields Shopping Centre.
A CITE staffer, whose passport copy had been used, went to meet with the contact person who charged US$50 each for the two PCR certificates.
Reached for Comment, Acting Mpilo Hospital Clinical Director, Dr Xolani Ndlovu, acknowledged it was possible such could be taking place, as institutions were wrought with corruption.
“In an institution, you find one or two people who take advantage of the system for their own gain. There is a case where a private company made an official complaint and the matter is currently under investigation with our control department as well as the police. That is as much information I can give now on that issue. I’m sure the issue is much bigger than just our department,” he said.
Dr Ndlovu explained that Mpilo conducted Covid-19 tests on patients for clinically related decisions and not for purposes of travelling because the testing laboratory was inundated with samples.
“Your chances of having a Covid-19 test for purposes of travel are impossible, as those must be done no less than 48 hours, which you will unlikely have. If there are exceptions for urgent results, my office is the one that will ask for urgent processing. For example, a man was admitted Wednesday morning but died that evening but his test result is still not out. I had to phone the laboratory to process the result fast.
“These are the normal timelines because this is a public laboratory, inundated with samples from all Matabeleland South and Matabeleland North. Genuine sample tests will not come out in 24 hours and if they do within 48 hours, you would have pushed,” he said
Dr Ndlovu added that if the laboratory were to run the sample numbers listed on the Covid-19 certificates CITE purchased, “it won’t be there in the system,” and that the certificates were supposed to list the name of the clinician in charge or doctor requesting the tests.
“If it’s the hospital requesting, the certificate must state either my name or that of the acting hospital CEO, Professor Solwayo Ngwenya. So the starting point of investigation is to find out the person who approve those certificates,” he said.
He also highlighted that Mpilo, on its own, did not conduct Covid-19 tests but the National TB Reference lab, located within the hospital.
“… and the National TB Reference lab, is a national laboratory,” Dr Ndlovu said and suggested that CITE relays this information to police
“The police must root out the corruption in the system and we will provide assistance that is needed.”