Sierra Leone to prosecute fraudulent Ebola "ghostworkers"

DAKAR (Reuters) - Sierra Leone said on Tuesday it had cleaned up a list thought to contain thousands of “ghostworkers” on its Ebola staff and would prosecute those who sought to swindle money from the government, tackling a problem that has dogged its fight against the epidemic.

More than 10,000 Ebola cases have been reported in Sierra Leone since last May, making it the hardest hit country in the world’s worst outbreak of the hemorrhagic fever. The epidemic has been concentrated in West Africa and killed nearly 9,000 people out of 22,495 known cases since December 2013.

In Sierra Leone, payments to Ebola staff have repeatedly been frozen because of the difficulty distinguishing between genuine workers -- such as ambulance drivers and grave diggers -- and those forging their identities to claim hazard bonuses or registering twice to claim double pay.

The delays in payments have prompted frequent strikes by Ebola workers in the impoverished country, in some cases leaving patients untreated and highly contagious bodies unburied.

“The issue of ghostworkers has been disingenuous on the part of some Sierra Leoneans who think this is time to make money when we are in a crisis,” said government spokesman Abdulai Bayraytay. “They were identified by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC). They are being charged and prosecuted.”

Bayraytay said that more than 95 percent of the thousands of declared government Ebola workers had now been verified, a factor expected to make payments easier.

He did not say how many “ghostworkers” had been weeded out of the system but a senior Sierra Leonean official told Reuters late last year there could be as many as 6,000, split between fraudsters and administrative errors.

A second source familiar with the matter said the ACC planned to bring charges against two people for fraud this week, and suggested the problem was not that widespread.

“There were isolated cases of people playing smart and getting double pay,” said the source, who requested anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to the media.

He said some rice stockpiles intended to feed people in quarantine had also gone missing, although denied there was a systematic attempt to exploit Ebola funds in the country.

Donors have so far paid or committed more than $530 million to Sierra Leone’s Ebola response, although only a fraction of that has been allocated directly to the government.

Editing by Mark Heinrich