Four months into the pandemic, a major coronavirus testing facility is still functioning with volunteer technologists who have begun to go on strike demanding payment.
And the result of running a lab with unpaid volunteers is starting to show.
On Sunday night, former shipping minister Shahjahan Khan’s daughter was stopped at Shahjalal International Airport because the report that she tested negative for coronavirus, did not match the immigration’s records.
Yesterday, the director of National Institute of Laboratory Medicine and Referral Center (NILMRC), which did the test, said there was a mistake on its part.
Former minister Shahjahan then wrote to the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) demanding legal action against whoever gave the wrong report.
Its director Professor Dr Abul Khair Mohammad Shamsuzzaman told reporters that almost all the medical technologists, who are volunteers, had been on strike for three days, demanding pay.
“As you know, 55 of our medical technologists were on hunger strike because right now they are all providing voluntary labour. They want to be recruited. As a result, we were under a lot of pressure. On Saturday around 6:30pm, we emailed test results to the people. At 8:30pm, when we were entering the results to the server, we found a few records did not match. All the tests were rechecked, and a corrected email was sent later that night,” said Shamsuzzaman. “It was a data entry mistake.”
The lab tested 530 samples that day, according to DGHS data.
The medical technologists had abstained from work on Friday, Saturday and half-way through Sunday, informed Motiar Rahman, one of the technologists volunteering at the institute.
“There are 55 of us and we only get food and accomodation. The institute has six or seven salaried technologists, but they are not regularly involved with Covid-19 tests,” claimed Rahman.
“All of us are graduates from the vocational and technical education board. We first joined the center as apprentices in February and this is a part of our curriculum,” said Rahman, “Our apprenticeship was suspended when the pandemic started. Then towards the end of March, we were called back because the center began testing samples for coronavirus.”
Four months on, the volunteers are wondering how much longer they would have to give their unremunerated labour.
“On June 29, 1,200 government posts for technologists, and 1,800 posts for technicians were created. So far, only 183 volunteers have been recruited and none of them was from the NILMRC,” said Sabuj Madbar, a medical technologist and joint coordinator of Bangladesh Awami Medical Technologist Parishad.
“They stopped their strike when the new director general of DGHS…. told them that they will be taken care of in the future,” said Shamsuzzaman.
Of the 11 lakh coronavirus tests done in the country since the outbreak began, the NILMRC did 1.4 lakh. The 55 volunteers played a key role in the testing, officials said.
Recruitment of medical technologists remained stalled for 11 years over a legal tussle between the health ministry’s medical education department and the technical education board.
In 2013, the ministry’s Medical Education and Family Welfare department issued a circular stating that only its graduates could be recruited by the government as medical technologists. The Board of Technical Education then filed a writ petition, because the decision deprived its graduates of jobs.
The High Court in 2016 stated that graduates from all the institutes could apply and that the curriculum must be streamlined. But there was an appeal against the verdict.
Noted virologist Prof Nazrul Islam, who is also a member of the government’s national technical advisory committee on Covid-19, told The Daily Star yesteday that it was surprising that the system had been dependent on voluntary labour.