No let-up in health sector corruption

Organised corruption goes on in absence of supervision: experts

Manzur H Maswood | Published: 00:30, Jul 13,2020 | Updated: 01:05, Jul 13,2020


The health ministry as well as the Directorate General of Health Services has always been nonchalant after several corruption allegations surfaced in the health sector amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The DGHS defended itself whenever any irregularities and corruption were identified by doctors or unearthed by the Rapid Action Battalion, police and Anti-Corruption Commission but never initiated any investigation into the allegations.

Doctors primarily raised the alarm over the supplies of fake N95 masks and unusually high prices of food for physicians and health service providers at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, but the DGHS not only defended themselves but punished the doctors who raised the alarm.

The DGHS issued notices and published advertisements in newspapers saying that their officials were ‘not corrupt’ and there were no irregularities in the incidents.

After the Regent Hospital and JKG scams tainted the image of the country’s health authority, it said that it was ‘cheated’ by the Regent and JKG.

‘It seems that the DGHS is compromising on the irregularities…because its officials, in collusion with some corrupt businesspeople, are cashing in on the COVID-19 crisis,’ said public health rights campaigner Rashid-e-Mahbub.

Corruption allegations in the country’s health sector is not a new phenomenon, but the recent high-profile incidents of irregularities with the authorities remaining silent in taking actions against the wrongdoers have raised concerns, he said.

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina in parliament ordered investigation into the corruption allegations, but it has remained unknown what moves have been taken till date, he added.

‘It’s a big question as to why the DGHS is so slack in taking actions against the wrongdoers,’ said Rashid, chairman of Bangladesh Health Rights Movement.

The supply of fake N95 masks to hospitals was the first in the long list of irregularities in the current Covid-19 crisis.

The directors of Khulna Medical College Hospital and Mugda Medical College Hospital were transferred as they raised questions about the quality of the medical supplies for the frontline healthcare providers — which many believed as a punishment to them.

The ACC has initiated an investigation into the matter but the DGHS has refrained from investigating how the fake N95 masks were supplied in sealed packs.

The health ministry formed an investigation committee over the N95 mask scam but no report has come to light.

In the case of high food cost at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, prime minister Sheikh Hasina in parliament said, ‘Tk 20 crore for one month’s food cost seems unusual.’

‘I want an investigation into it,’ she added.

But the DGHS has not acted. Moreover, the health minister has said that the cost was justifiable.

The recent RAB raids at the Regent Hospital have exposed the scam of forged COVID-19 certificates in the capital.

The hospital had all the blessings from the health ministry and the DGHS in signing the agreement with the government for treating COVID-19 patients although its licence expired in 2014.

Regent Hospital chairman Md Shahed has been on social media with his pictures with top government officials and ruling Awami League leaders.

He got away with his wrongdoings, including running the hospital without licence, taking huge money from patients in the name of COVID-19 treatment although the hospital was not meant for taking money from patients as per the agreement with the government.

He also ran an operation of faking COVID-19 certificates, although his facility was not permitted to test COVID-19 samples.

But the DGHS in a statement on Saturday said that it felt ‘cheated’ by Regent Hospital and that the DGHS officials did not know Shahed and there was no official involved in the irregularities.

It said that the agreement was signed with Regent Hospital at the directive from the health ministry high-ups. 

Another COVID-19 testing business with the government by a doctor under the government payroll and her other irregularities, including the sale of fake COVID-19 test certificates, were unearthed by the police last month.

But the DGHS until the other day remained silent over JKG Healthcare chairman Sabrina Arif Chowdhury, a cardiac surgeon of the National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases.

Police on Sunday arrested Sabrina but no statement came from the DGHS. Later on the day the health ministry issued a notice suspending her temporarily with maintaining the service benefits to her.

For the irregularities by JKG too, the DGHS said in the Saturday’s statement that they felt ‘cheated’ by the JKG.

DGHS officials, including its director general Abdul Kalam Azad, additional director general Nasima Sultana and director for hospital Aminul Hasan, did not respond to the calls and text messages from New Age over the issues.

The DGHS chief was served a show-cause notice on Sunday by the health ministry to reply in three days over what scrutinies were made before the agreement with Regent Hospital was signed, whether further monitoring was done after the agreement and what the DGHS statement ‘the agreement was signed as per the directives from the ministry high-ups’ meant.

The Transparency International Bangladesh executive director said that the coronavirus crisis was being used by a quarter as an opportunity to make money.

He said that the corruption incidents in the cases of JKG Health Care and Regent Hospital were possible only because of underhand dealings with the DGHS officials.

TIB in a study last month said that an abnormally high expenditure for purchasing medical supplies was found in a fast-track COVID-19 project.

It found that the price for each pair of safety goggles was proposed at Tk 5,000 but the market price of the item was less than Tk 1,000, for each set of personal protective equipment at Tk 4,700 against the market price of less than Tk 2,000, for a pair of boots at Tk 1,500 against the highest market price of Tk 500.

Besides, Tk 55 crore was quoted for five pieces of computer software whereas the average unit price was Tk 28 lakh, Tk 10.5 crore was quoted as four websites development cost against the highest market price of Tk 2 lakh for developing each website, the price for 30 audio clips was proposed at Tk 11.5 crore whereas a movie cost Tk 1 to 2 crore.

TIB in its study findings said that corruption in purchases of medical supplies and lack of transparency in procurement processes were going on amid the COVID-19 crisis.

‘There is excessive control by syndicates over all kinds of procurement in the names of different firms and there are allegations of involvement of some officials of the ministry of health,’ it said.

It said that the lack of transparency in procurement processes was evident as no people other than a few senior officials know anything about the procurements.

Costs were not mentioned even in the written work orders. As a result, [personal] protection materials [for medical use] were supplied with a much higher cost, it found.

TIB also uncovered that old-model PCR machines were procured while existing PCR machines were not used for COVID-19 tests.

Rashid-e-Mahbub said that there might be opportunists who might have wanted to cash in on the pandemic, but the lack of minimal transparency by the government agencies were worrisome.

‘These corrupt officials and rogue businesspeople should be identified and given exemplary punishment,’ he said.

Asked, health secretary Abdul Mannan said that they were looking into the matters and the offenders would be punished.

‘We’ve started working on the allegations…I’m doing a series of meetings with the DG of the DGHS to find out the anomalies,’ he said.

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