Health watchdog in deep slumber

As the country is confronted with an unprecedented health emergency caused by the pandemic and multiple scams hitting the sector, the parliamentary watchdog concerned seems to be in a deep slumber.

The parliamentary standing committee on the health ministry did not hold a single meeting in the last five months when the novel coronavirus gradually gained its footing in the country, leaving the public healthcare services overstretched.

More than 4,300 people have died and over three lakh got infected since the first Covid-19 cases were reported on March 8. The infection curve is getting higher every day with no sign of relief in sight.

In these trying times, the role of the Jatiya Sangsad body, which has plenary powers to review works relating to the ministry, and inquire into any activity or irregularity, is all but depressing, say experts.

According to the rules of JS procedure, each standing committee shall meet at least once a month, but the committee in question did not hold any meeting since March 24.

In fact, the JS body met only six times in the last 19 months after it was constituted in January last year, its officials told The Daily Star.

The case with the other 49 parliamentary standing committees of the current JS is similar.

No meeting of any of the committees took place in April and May; only one meeting was held in June and four in July, shows the parliament website.

Sources said there was no effort in arranging any meeting or discussion online when virtual meetings have now become a norm amid the pandemic.

The number of the meeting slightly increased only last month when life in the capital and other major cities started to return to normalcy. As many as 11 meetings took place in August.

Announcements on holding at least eight meetings in September was available on the website on Tuesday, but officials of the standing committee on health could not say when they would meet again.

Speaking about the matter, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said, “In Bangladesh, it is regrettably no news any more that standing committees are in general inactive and ineffective.

“But that the committee on the health ministry can be so indifferent at a time of a national crisis centring the health sector and when allegations of corruption have been galloping by leaps and bounds is truly and exceptionally embarrassing.”

“This shows that they are least bothered about accountability of those involved in abuses and irregularities. But more so, it begs the question whether the lack of any initiatives is due to their conflict of interest, and indeed if they have vested interests in facilitating protection of the corrupt and prevalence of impunity,” he told The Daily Star on Tuesday.

Right from the beginning, the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak has been plagued by inappropriate decisions, delayed actions and muddled thinking.

In the first phase, it was very difficult for Covid-19 patients to get beds, especially at ICUs, in hospitals, as a handful of those provide treatment to such patients.

Many with Covid-19 symptoms died without treatment.

More and more frontline healthcare workers got infected with Covid-19 due to a lack of proper safety gear, making the battle against the viral disease more difficult. Reports of misappropriation of money in the name of procuring medical equipment were also rampant.

Fraudulent activities by Regent Hospital and JKG Health Care over Covid-19 testing coupled with reports of irregularities and mishandling of the pandemic by the Directorate General of Health Services added fuel to the fire.

This was followed by the resignation of embattled director general of DGHS, Prof Abul Kalam Azad, with the government making some changes in the top tier of the directorate and even at the health ministry.

But all these incidents apparently could not draw the attention of the health watchdog.

Contacted, former health minister AFM Ruhal Haque, also a member of the standing committee, said it would have been better had a meeting of the JS body taken place as it could monitor the ministry’s activities and play its watchdog role.

Wishing anonymity, another member of the committee said he personally requested Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim, chief of the JS body, to call a meeting. “But he didn’t show any interest in doing so,” he said.

“I told him [the chief] that as members of a watchdog it is our responsibility towards the nation to hold discussions on various irregularities and corruption taking place during Covid-19 period and give directives to the relevant ministry to take measures to stop those,” the ruling Awami League MP said.

The Daily Star could not reach Sheikh Fazlul Karim Selim for comments despite repeated attempts.

According to the rules of procedure of parliament, the functions of a committee shall be to examine any bill or other matter referred to it by parliament, to review the works relating to a ministry which falls within its jurisdiction, to inquire into any activity or irregularity and serious complaint in respect of the ministry and to examine, if it deems fit, any such other matter as may fall within its jurisdiction and to make recommendations.

One of these correspondents called Speaker Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury over the phone for her comments, but she did not pick up the call.

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