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As part of this, on 2 February 2019, the ACC commissioner (investigations) Mozammel Haque Khan handed over a report on the health ministry to health minister Zahid Maleque. The report highlighted 11 sources of corruption in the health sector, which included procurement, recruitment, promotions, transfers, postings, medical care, equipment, drug supply and more. That news appeared in the media, but there has been no news as to whether that corruption mentioned in the report has been halted or whether any measures have been taken against the concerned persons.

The coronavirus outbreak first appeared on 8 March 2020 in Bangladesh and the main responsibility to tackle the pandemic lies with the health ministry. They are particularly responsible for the preliminary measures to prevent the transmission of the virus and this includes supply of healthcare items, coronavirus tests and medical treatment of corona patients in hospital.

Have those tasks been carried out properly? Did they monitor the private hospitals and clinics properly? Why are there such scams such as the Shahed Karim- Sabrina-PPE scams and so on? In this context, ACC issued another letter in June 2020 to the health ministry, in the name of inquiry, asking for detailed information of projects pertaining to the procurement of masks, PPE, sanitisers, ICU equipment, ventilators, PCR machines and test kits.

In the beginning the health ministry would have regular online briefings on the latest figures and information about the coronavirus transmission. Newspersons would ask questions and the responsible officials would reply. Sometimes the health minister himself would turn up and answer the journalists' questions. Then suddenly one day it was announced that there would be no more briefings. The updates would be given by means of press releases.

The media went ahead with coverage of the state of hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic, but then in January 2020 the health ministry issued a directive that anyone carrying out research or collecting news or information would first have to inform the hospital authorities. If the hospital authorities verified the information or news, only then could this be considered for publication. No photographs or videos could be taken inside the hospitals of any patient or medical activities. The approval of the authorities regarding the veracity of any news would be required before it could be published.

Health minister Zahid Maleque rejected the allegations of corruption and irregularities made against his ministry.... He even made an explosive remark that billions of taka was being pilfered and sent overseas from other sectors

Despite the Digital Security Act already in existence in the country, the health ministry imposed a second digital security act. This was done so that the journalists could not inform the public about the real state of the hospitals. This is the transparency and accountability of the 'efficient and dignified' health ministry.

TIB on 8 June published its report on 'Tackling the coronavirus crisis: The challenge of good governance in vaccination management.' This was the third report on the health ministry during the coronavirus times. The report was based on the interview of 1,387 respondents in 43 districts of 8 divisions of the country. It reflected the difficulties faced by those going for the vaccinations.

Alongside revealing the corruption and irregularities of the health ministry, TIB has praised its positive accomplishments. For example, the report mentioned expanded facilities for rapid antigen genexpert and RT-PCR sample testing and a 1000-bed (with over 200 ICU beds) DNCC dedicated Covid hospital being established in Dhaka. The honourable minister did not see that. He only saw the discrepancies mentioned by TIB, the mismanagement of vaccine procurement and distribution. The health minister said TIB's report was false and inaccurate.

How does he know? Has the health ministry carried out any survey on those getting vaccinated? TIB drew up its report after talking to 1,387 persons. If the ministry is to prove the report false, it must talk to the vaccinated persons and come up with new information. The minister claims that there have been no irregularities or lack of transparency in the vaccine contract signed with India's Serum Institute. But can he deny the uncertainty faced by 1.3 million to 1.4 million (13 lakh to 14 lakh) people who have had the first dose of the vaccine, in getting their second jab?

Foreign minister AK Abdul Momen, about the vaccine, said that the government could not look anywhere else for vaccines because of Beximco's business interests. He also blamed the health minister for the delay in getting vaccines from China and Russia. So before protesting against the TIB report, the health minister should have look into the statement of the foreign minister.

At a virtual event on 12 June, health minister Zahid Maleque rejected the allegations of corruption and irregularities made against his ministry. On the contrary, he asked to point out any corruption in the health sector. He even made an explosive remark that billions of taka was being pilfered and sent overseas from other sectors. He did not specify those sectors by name (12 June 2020, Jugantor online edition).

In countering the TIB report, health minister Zahid Maleque spoke about the corruption and laundering of billions of taka by other sectors. Recently while speaking to the press after a meeting of the cabinet committee on economic affairs, finance minister AHM Mustafa Kamal said 40 oxygen generators would be purchased for Covid patients. These would be purchased directly with no open tender. When asked whether this would give scope for corruption, he replied, "I agree, but the health sector is of extreme importance. It was the health ministry's responsibility to take timely action about these matters. But the health ministry did not do so. It would have been more economical if it had done so. The finance ministry has already directed it to be more frugal." He warned that if the same errors were made repeatedly, these would be dropped from the cabinet committee for economic affairs.

Is Zahid Maleque's statement a reaction to this? In covering up the failures and corruption of his own ministry, has he scored a suicidal 'same-side' goal? After all, the 'other sectors' to which the health minister referred are also sectors of the government.

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]

* This column, appearing in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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