- Pandemic exposes years of rampant irregularities
- Web of corruption from health ministry to DGHS
- ACC received 200 complaints in last 2 years
- Powerful syndicate controlling all purchases
- Senior officials behind a festival of corruption
- Small fries get caught, ringleaders remain untouchable
- Health minister cannot avoid responsibility, experts say
A hospital based in Dhaka featured an intensive care unit (ICU) but no oxygen supply and no equipment to conduct blood tests or X-rays, but the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) still authorised it to treat Covid-19 patients as a dedicated facility.
As Covid-19 rampaged across the globe and also in Bangladesh with unmatched ferocity, the DGHS signed the agreement with this particular hospital in late March last year, at a ceremony attended by Health Minister Zahid Maleque and other senior officials.
That facility was Regent Hospital – a name that will live forever in infamy for issuing fake Covid-19 certificates and engaging in other scams. But this disappointing tale did not end there. One after another, the deep-rooted corruption in the health sector started coming to light.
The sector soon became entangled with multiple scandals even amid the crisis, especially regarding the purchase of personal protective equipment, issuance of Covid-19 certificates without tests, and the N95 mask scam.
Such corruption has been persistent for years, aided by the involvement of some senior officials in the health sector, media reports have revealed on multiple occasions.
200 ACC complaints in 2 years
The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) had launched an investigation against the health sector after taking cognisance of 200 complaints filed since 2019. 50 cases have been filed so far on the basis of this investigation.
Commission sources said investigation into the rest of the complaints is progressing, but they are yet to file cases due to the delays caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
ACC's Commissioner (investigation) Jahurul Haque told The Business Standard, "The investigations launched over corruption in the health sector are still ongoing, but the pandemic is preventing us from making more headway.
"We will probe these allegations on a priority basis, and take legal action against the perpetrators."
An ACC report released in 2019 revealed that corruption is relatively high in 11 areas of this sector, including purchase, appointment, transfer, medical services, treatment equipment, and medicine supply.
Through that report, the commission handed over a 25-point recommendation to Health Minister Zahid Maleque in a bid to halt corruption in these particular areas.
These recommendations include making it mandatory for all government hospitals to display a citizen's charter at publicly visible areas, displaying which medicines are currently in stock, and the inclusion of experts in purchase committees to curb irregularities when buying medicines and medical equipment.
Moreover, the ACC recommended that hospitals do not buy equipment if they lack manpower to operate them, call for tenders through the e-GP system when buying medicine and equipment, and firmly follow the Public Procurement Related Rules.
It has been two years since the ACC made those recommendations to the health ministry, but the ministry is yet to implement most of those.
'A festival of corruption'
The health sector is witnessing a festival of corruption amid the onslaught of the Covid-19 crisis, the Transparency International Bangladesh pointed out in a report last year, adding that the irregularities have skyrocketed.
TIB Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman recently told the media, "When government officials get involved in corruption and irregularities, most of the time, they are shielded by senior state officials or political personalities. In such cases, we rarely see any action against the perpetrators.
"In the best-case scenario, the person involved [in corruption] gets transferred. The ACC also does not take any effective measures regarding the irregularities. Most of the time, they take action against the small fries and minor officials – people who have no political connection. But we do not see [them taking] any steps against the ringleaders."
This is why the intensity of corruption is increasing, and this pandemic has been turned into a festival of irregularities, Dr Iftekharuzzaman added.
Swadhinata Chikitshak Parishad President M Iqbal Arslan said, "The health minister cannot avoid responsibility for corruption in the health sector, because he is the chief executive of the health ministry.
"Irregularities plaguing this sector cannot be curbed by bringing a handful of perpetrators to book. The entire management must be reformed."
Only small fries get caught
After a number of irregularities came to light amid the pandemic last year, the law enforcers arrested some people in connection with corruption in the health sector, most notably Regent Hospital's Chairman Md Shahed, Jobeda Khatun General (JKG) Healthcare's CEO Ariful Chowdhury and Chairman Dr Sabrina Arif.
The then DGHS director general Abul Kalam resigned from his position the same year, but many other officials never faced any trouble for their involvement in the scandal.
Corruption has made some employees, such as DGHS vehicle driver Md Malek and accountant Afzal Hossain, rich beyond their wildest imagination. They are now in jail after their arrest, but the health sector mafias remain out of reach and in the shadow to this day.
Back in the 2015-16 fiscal year, Motazzerul Islam alias Mithu contractor – who is widely known as a health sector mafia – embezzled around Tk200 crore in the name of buying medical equipment such as MRI machines for Dhaka Dental College and a number of hospitals across the country.
But no cases have been filed against those involved in the scam.
Amid the pandemic last year, Central Medical Stores Depot (CMSD) witnessed an irregularity centring purchases worth Tk900 crore. The name of DGHS Director (Planning) Prof Dr Iqbal Kabir became entangled with this.
A probe committee removed Kabir from his position after unearthing evidence of his involvement in the irregularity. The former DGHS director is currently an officer on special duty (OSD), but he did not face any legal action for corruption.
In another incident, the CMSD purchased medical equipment and personal protective products worth Tk350 crore last year. But many suppliers did not sign an agreement with the CMSD, and the officials did not verify the quality of the delivered products during this process.
At least 51 contracting firms had supplied the medical and protective equipment to the CMSD. The then CMSD director Brig Gen Shahidullah – mentioning the severe irregularities that had taken place during the purchase process – sent a letter to the Health Services Division Secretary on 9 February this year.
The health sector has witnessed multiple instances of severe corruption in the last 10 years, but aside from a handful of transfers and OSDs, the perpetrators have never faced any exemplary and tough punishment.
Grip of a powerful syndicate
A powerful syndicate – headed by Motazzerul Islam alias Mithu – has been controlling the healthcare sector's purchases for years. The gang has embezzled more than Tk100 crore by disregarding the government regulations for purchase, and through corruption.
Mithu left Bangladesh for the USA under investor quota a couple of years ago, shortly before the ACC launched an investigation into his operations. His name also came up in the much talked about Panama Papers scandal released in 2016.
The ringleader presently lives in an extravagant home worth $2 million (Tk16 crore) in Bronxville of New York. Mithu is also a partner of the luxurious Motel Six in Atlanta. He frequently visits Australia for business purposes.
He also owns a number of companies in Dhaka, including Lexicon Merchandise.
Media reports also mention the name of the health minister's former APS Ariful Haque Sheikh in connection with irregularities and corruption in the sector. After the ACC took cognisance of allegations against Ariful and launched an investigation, the minister removed him from his post.
No case has been filed against Ariful as yet.
Sources told The Business Standard that there are two groups in the health ministry and the DGHS, and they get the final word on which company will be selected as a supplier of goods and equipment. The syndicate is close with a number of senior health ministry officials, they added.
How corruption came to light
The N95 mask scandal had initially shed light on corruption centring purchases in the health sector. The CMSD was found supplying regular masks instead of the N95 ones to Khulna Medical College Hospital (KMCH) and Mugda Medical College Hospital.
After submitting complaints, the authorities transferred the KMCH director to Pabna Mental Hospital and made the Mugda hospital's director OSD. CMSD officials also claimed that they did not give any working order to JMI Hospital Requisite Manufacturing Ltd.
However, CMSD's delivery list clearly mentioned JMI's N95 masks. Later, a number of other irregularities including those related to purchases came to light.
Cases moving at snail's pace
Though corruption in the health sector is nothing new, the police and Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) made some arrests after the post-Covid-19 scandals came to light.
JKG's CEO Ariful Chowdhury and Chairman Dr Sabrina Arif were arrested last year for their involvement in the Covid-19 test scam, but a case filed over the matter is yet to make much headway.
The Tejgaon Division of Dhaka Metropolitan Detective Police is probing the case. An official in charge of investigating the matter said they have almost completed the probe, but they are yet to submit a charge-sheet to the court.
Around the same time the Regent Hospital test scam took place, but the detective police are yet to submit the charge-sheet against its Chairman Md Shahed. However, a court has sentenced Shahed to seven years of imprisonment for possessing illegal weapons, and he is currently in jail.