No one takes the blame for health sector scandals

Health ministry and health directorate logos
Health ministry and health directorate logos

All sorts of scandals and scams have come to surface in the health sector during the coronavirus pandemic, but so far it has not been possible to pinpoint who is responsible. The health ministry and health directorate simply point fingers at each other in a continued blame game.

After the shocking revelation of forgery and fraudulence at JKG and Regent Hospital, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) on Sunday raided Shahabuddin Medical College Hospital in Gulshan of the capital city. RAB reported that the hospital was conducting antibody tests without permission.

According to sources in the Directorate General Health Services (DGHS), Shahabuddin Medical College Hospital was not prepared to test coronavirus samples. Even so, they were given permission for these tests, without any inspection of the hospital premises. The directorate later cancelled the permission.

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Permission before preparation

Other than Shahabuddin Medical, DGHS gave permission to four more private testing centres to conduct coronavirus sample tests. The directorate reportedly issued the permission for these establishments without inspecting the facilities. This allegation was proven to be true when the directorate on 12 July suspended the permission for the five establishments to conduct these tests. The five establishments were Care Medical College Hospital, Shahabuddin Medical College Hospital, Stemz Health Care, Thyrocare Diagnostic and, in Chattogram, Epic Health Care. In a letter to these five establishments, the DGHS additional director Nasima Sultana said that though these hospitals and clinics had been given permission to conduct the coronavirus tests, they had failed to begin the work. That is why the permission for them to conduct the RT-PCT rests had been suspended.

Former VC of BSMMU, Nazrul Islam, told Prothom Alo that corruption lies at the bottom of the blame game between the ministry and the directorate. It is difficult to determine who is lying and who is telling the truth. It will not be possible to make the sector people-friendly unless corruption is eliminated.

RAB’s executive magistrate Sarwar Alam, who was present during Sunday’s raid, said that though the permission to conduct coronavirus tests had been suspended, Shahabuddin Medical was unlawfully carrying out antibody testing. It was getting the tests done elsewhere and then issuing the reports. This was an unlawful procedure.

Due to all these irregularities and discrepancies, it has become compulsory for all Bangladeshi passengers travelling abroad to produce a COVID-19 clearance certificate. The Bangladesh Biman website has listed 16 establishments where the COVID-19 tests can be carried out. No private hospital or testing lab has been included on this list.

Presently coronavirus tests are being conducted in 80 labs of the country. Of these, 35 are in private hospitals and clinics. Experts say that the health directorate has not ascertained the standard and competence of many of these labs. It is because of this negligence that JKG and Regent got the chance to cheat the people.

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Public health expert and former director, disease control, DGHS, Be-Nazir Ahmed, told Prothom Alo that the mismanagement has prevailed for long in the health sector. It is becoming more noticeable during the coronavirus pandemic. The common people are having to suffer. When raids are conducted on hospitals and clinics, the matter grabs attention for some time, but no long term remedial measures are taken. Decision has to be taken at a national level to make the health sector people-friendly.

No one takes the blame

With quite a number of coronavirus patients being identified among passengers from Bangladesh’s flights from Dhaka to Japan, Korea and Italy have been halted. The media in various countries carried reports of these passengers testing positive in airports overseas. This has raised questions concerning the standard of Bangladesh’s coronavirus tests.

With DGHS permission, from 13 April JKG began collection of samples though booths. However, allegations arose that JKG was going to people’s homes and collecting samples in exchange of a fee and were also issuing reports without actually conducting the tests.

Tejgaon police on 23 June arrested 6 persons in this connection, including the CEO of JKG, Ariful Haque Chowdhury. On 12 July, the JKG chairman Sabrina Chowdhury was arrested. Both Ariful Haque Chowdhury and Sabrina Chowdhury said, during interrogations, that two directors of DGHS and two additional secretaries of the health ministry had helped them to get this work.

On 6 July RAB raided Regent Hospital, which had been given permission by the government for coronavirus treatment. There are all sorts of allegations against this hospital, including taking fees from the patients in violation of its agreement, issuing false reports and other misdeeds. The hospital’s chairman Md Shahed alias Shahed Karim has been arrested.

So far no one in the health department has been arrested in correction with the corruption and irregularities in the sector.

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However, speaking to Prothom Alo on Sunday night, the health ministry’s health services division secretary, Abdul Mannan, said that action will certainly be taken against any official if found to be involved in the irregularities. In the meantime, the Anti-Corruption Commission has began probing the allegations.

DGHS spokesperson and assistant director of the Health Emergency Operation Centre and Control Room, Ayesha Akhter, told Prothom Alo on Sunday that if anyone is found guilty, action will certainly be taken.

ACC team at DGHS

At two in the afternoon Sunday, a four-member investigation team of ACC turned up at the DGHS and spent about an hour and a half in the directorate general’s office. After that, head of the ACC team investigation the Regent scam, Abu Bakr, told Prothom Alo that they had visited the DGHS to collect certain papers related to Regent Hospital.

A reliable source in ACC said that they were preparing to interrogate persons whose signatures were on the MOU signed between the directorate and Regent Hospital. This had not been finalised, however.

Head of the ACC team, Abu Bakr, speaking to Prothom Alo, said that, “We still have not decided on interrogating anyone. We will scrutinise the papers, look into who is involved in the matter and who is to be accused. After than we will discuss with the authorities and decide.”

ACC questions three officials

ACC has questioned three officials of the health ministry’s Central Medical Store Depot (CMSD) in connection with procurement of low quality masks, PPE and other medical equipment. The three officials were summoned to the ACC office in Segunbagicha of the capital city on Sunday and interrogated.

ACC has said that the three officials who were questioned, included CMSD’s former assistant director (store and distribution) Md Shahjahan, now CMSD director (admin). The other two were CMSD former desk officer (additional duty- store) Shabbir Ahmed and CMSD officer Kabir Ahmed.

ACC is conducting investigations into various allegations against officials of the health ministry and the health directorate involving irregularities, corruption and abuse of power in the procurement of low quality masks, PPE and other medical equipment, supplying these to various hospitals in collusion with others to amass millions of taka, and other misdeeds.

Former vice chancellor of Bangbandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU), Nazrul Islam, told Prothom Alo that it is corruption that lies at the bottom of the blame game between the ministry and the directorate. It is difficult to determine who is lying and who is telling the truth. Faults lie with both sides. The corrupt elements in the health sector must be identified and removed. It will not be possible to make the sector people-friendly unless it is freed of corruption.

The report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir