Even when the nation was facing a grave situation amid the Covid-19 outbreak, systemic corruption raged in the health ministry.
Instead of putting up all-out efforts to tackle the outbreak and improve crippled public health services, a section of ministry officials has been embroiled in scams since the pandemic hit the country in March last year.
The custodian of the health sector hogged the headlines time and again for all the wrong reasons -- anomalies in purchasing N95 masks, issuing of fake Covid test certificates, mismanagement in hospitals, amassing huge illegal wealth by a DGHS driver, or scams in recruitment of medical technologists.
Yet many of those involved in the graft scandals are still untouched. Government steps have so far been limited to filing a few cases and some reshuffling in the ministry.
"It is unprecedented," said Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of TIB.
"A section of people has converted the pandemic into a festival of corruption. It has been possible through collusion of a section of business people with the senior ministry officials," he told The Daily Star yesterday.
"It flourished as no action has been taken from the beginning of the pandemic in spite of the stories of corruption coming out. Rather, there has been an effort to protect and promote corruption."
Graft in the health sector centring on Covid-19 started surfacing when fake masks and poor quality PPEs were found in Mugda General Hospital in April last year.
Then, in July, the Rapid Action Battalion uncovered the business of issuing fake Covid certificates by the Regent Hospital and JKG Health Care.
The Regent scam also brought to light how a number of private medical hospitals were running without any government licences.
The Directorate General of Health Services signed an agreement with Regent Hospital while being fully aware that the hospital's licence had expired in 2014. A photo of Health Minister Zahid Maleque present at the signing ceremony went viral on social media.
The news of fake Covid-19 test certificates not only posed a risk to public health but also put Bangladeshi expatriates in trouble. It led many countries to close their borders to Bangladeshis.
Other health sector scams that surfaced since the beginning of the pandemic include the supply of fake N95 masks to healthcare staffers in public hospitals in and corruption in an emergency Covid-19 project funded by the World Bank and ADB last year.
Fake masks were found even in the country's premier medical college university -- BSMMU -- in July.
Besides, allegations of misuse of funds meant for the quarantine and food for frontline healthcare professionals in public hospitals led the government to put such facilities on hold.
Last month, the allegation of financial corruption involving the much-awaited appointment of 2,500 medical technologists in public hospitals surfaced in the ill-equipped health sector.
In response to the fake test certificate scam, the health ministry only removed several top DGHS officials, including the then director general.
But ministry officials, who were also allegedly involved in the irregularities, remained untouched while the then health secretary Asadul Islam was promoted as a senior secretary to another ministry.
Last September, a DGHS driver named Abdul Malek drew huge media attention with investigators revealing that he has wealth valued at no less than Tk 1,000 crore. He landed in jail but no progress has been seen in the case since.
Experts said the corruption in the health sector is a result of a long-running syndicate involving officials of the health ministry, from top to bottom.
"There is a systemic problem in the health sector for which a well-organised syndicate is taking the chance each time," Prof Dr Nasrin Sultana, director of the Institute of Health Economics at Dhaka University, told The Daily Star yesterday.
"The syndicate is rooted even inside the policymakers."
Amid controversies over the purchase of substandard PPE and N95 masks, Brig Gen Md Shahidullah, director of Central Medical Stores Depot (CMSD), was taken back to army headquarters on May 23 last year.
Before leaving charge as director, Shahidullah wrote to the public administration ministry on May 30 last year alleging that a syndicate with administrative and political clout control purchases in the health sector.
He died of Covid in July last year.
Against this much-talked-about backdrop, the Anti-Corruption Commission initiated a probe into these graft allegations related to Covid-19 on June 18 last year.
Three days later, the watchdog issued a letter to the ministry, seeking detailed information about the projects undertaken to procure masks, PPE, sanitisers, ICU equipment, ventilators, PCR machines and test kits.
It also sought information from the ministry about doctors who have been transferred from their workplaces on various grounds since late March as a part of the enquiry.
Earlier, in January 2019, the ACC sent a report to the health ministry, identifying the sources of graft in the health sector, setting off alarm bells.
The report said corruption takes place during the purchase of medicine, surgical equipment and machines in absence of proper monitoring by the government.
An alleged nexus of contractors and officials from different organisations under the ministry buys many "inessential machines and equipment to misappropriate money," it mentioned.
In the report, the ACC also came up with 25 recommendations on preventing graft and other corrupt practices in the sector.
Most of these recommendations, however, appear to have fallen on deaf ears. In June 2020, the health ministry only blacklisted 14 medical equipment supplying companies.
In a latest development, the ACC last month wrote to the Cabinet Division to look after whether their recommendations are implemented, a source said.
Contacted, ACC secretary Md Anwar Hossain Howlader told The Daily Star yesterday, "We have sent the letter to the Cabinet Division as we have no jurisdiction to supervise any ministry. We have not got any update on it yet."
No officials from the health ministry could be reached yesterday despite several attempts.