Life-saving medical equipment lying idle

Such an example of negligence, inefficiency and inactivity has been set by the health ministry and various departments and institutions under it. They have failed to take any effective initiatives for the implementation of the projects in the past one year

Cumilla resident Abdul Latif was suffering from typhoid. He developed breathing problem and was provided with oxygen at the premises of Dhaka Medical College on 12 April, 2021
Ashraful Alam

Equipment for oxygen supply has been stuck at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport for the last 10 months. There are 300 ventilators in the Central Medical Stores Depot (CMSD). But the coronavirus patients are not getting oxygen in the hospitals. The casualties due to coronavirus are increasing every day.

This information on life-saving medical equipment was found in the progress review of two separate projects funded by the World Bank (WB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Such an example of negligence, inefficiency and inactivity has been set by the health ministry and various departments and institutions under it. They have failed to take any effective initiatives for the implementation of the projects in the past one year.

On 11 April, a virtual meeting was held at the initiative of the Ministry of Health on the progress of two projects funded by the WB and ADB. The meeting, chaired by Health Services Division’s secretary Lokman Hossain Miah, was attended by senior officials from several other ministries as well as two directors of the two projects, and several officials from the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS).

An official who had been present at the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity, said some work was supposed to have been done on an emergency basis under these two projects. The work began, but was stalled after allegations of irregularities and corruption surfaced. There have been changes in several important posts of DGHS and the health ministry, but work on the projects has not progressed.

A total of Tk 67.85 billion (Tk6,785 crore) has been allocated for the project named “Covid-19 Emergency Response and Pandemic Preparedness” funded by the World Bank. And Tk 13.64 billion has been allocated for the project "Covid-19 Response Emergency Assistance” funded by ADB. The duration of both the projects is three years. These two projects started in April 2020 and are scheduled to be ended by June 2023.

Efforts were made to contact health minister Zahid Maleque regarding the medical supplies, but he was unavailable for comment. Lokman Hossain Miah, secretary of the Department of Health Services, said he does not want to make any remark as he took the charge only a few days ago.

Life-saving equipment stuck at the airport

According to the documents handed over to the officials in the meeting held on 11 April, medical equipment procured through UNICEF under the World Bank project, has been stuck at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport for long.

There have been complications as to who will sign and release these medical supplies. Storage charges have also sky-rocketed as the medical equipment has been lying at the airport for so long. There are also complications regarding who will pay the charges.

UNICEF procured this medical equipment on an emergency basis from different companies all over the world in July last year after the project started. Seeking anonymity, an official of an influential donor agency told Prothom Alo on Monday that UNICEF had purchased medical equipment worth $ 12 million (Tk 102 crore). This include 1,200 oxygen concentrators, which isolate oxygen from air and make it usable. Apart from that, there are also a huge number of high flow nasal cannulas, masks, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and so on. All these have been stuck at the airport for the last ten months. A lot of the equipment has been damaged.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, project director Azizur Rahman Siddiqui said on Monday, “I have taken charge only four and a half months ago. There were two more directors before me. The problem lies in the past. However, it will be resolved soon.”

According to the documents, UNICEF made the CMSD authority the co-signatory to release the equipment from the airport. This created a complexity regarding tariff duties. The officials have not been able to resolve the issue even after 10 months.

UNICEF collected these medical supplies at a time when the prevalence of coronavirus was much higher around the world. There was a crisis of these items at the time. Now these medical supplies are stuck at the airport, and the hospitals are not being able to use these.

Hafizuddin Khan, advisor of the former caretaker government, told Prothom Alo, “It is an ultimate example of negligence of duty. In this circumstances, the first duty is to release these materials from the airport and deliver them to hospitals. The second duty is to identify the responsible persons for the unnecessary delay and punish them.”

300 Ventilators have been stuck for corruption

Ventilators play an important role in saving the lives of the critical coronavirus patients. Many of the patients are still alive due to ventilators. A total of 300 ventilators were procured under the World Bank project. According to the documents of the DGHS, there were discrepancies in the procurement of these ventilators. Some 100 ventilators were purchased at inflated prices.

Project director Azizur Rahman Siddiqui said these irregularities incurred during the tenure of the previous director. However, they will be used once the audit objections regarding the ventilators are sorted.

Money unused

A total of 170 modern ICU (intensive care unit) beds, 170 ventilators and 107 RT-PCR machines were supposed to be procured under the project funded by ADB. However, only 25 RT-PCR machines have been purchased. A total of Tk 6.78 billion (678 crore) has been allocated for this project in the current fiscal. Till now, even Tk 7.8 million (78 crore) has not been spent under this project.

The director of this project, Prof Md Nazmul Islam told Prothom Alo, “There were three project directors before me. I took the charge of this project in November last year. Before that, nothing had been done under this project.” Some of the tender processes are at the final stage, he added.

This project includes setting up 10 extra ICU beds each in 17 government medical colleges, 50-bed isolation centres in each of the 17 government medical colleges and medical centres with health check-up facilities in 26 land ports in the country. The project also includes setting up transmission control units in 492 upazila health complexes. However, none of this work has started.

Not only discrepancies

There is a propensity to make changes in important posts of DGHS or any other institution under it once news of discrepancies emerge. It has been the same during the pandemic. The secretary of the Health Services Division of the DGHS was changed twice last year. There was even a change in the post of the director general of the DGHS.

The director of the project under ADB has been changed thrice and the director of the World Bank project has been changed twice. Even officials have been removed from their posts on the allegations of irregularities.

But these changes could not expedite the project. Former director of the Disease Control Division of the DGHS, Be-Nazir Ahmed told Prothom Alo, “There is mismanagement, inefficiency and negligence along with the irregularities and corruption. This is deep rooted and that is why despite the changes, the situation does not improve and life-saving equipment lies idle at the airport.”

*This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu