A picture of infighting within the health ministry has been emerging after the government removed health service division secretary Md Asadul Islam on Thursday, amidst widespread criticism of the health sector's failure to play a robust role in tackling the coronavirus outbreak.
He was transferred to the Planning Division while Md Abdul Mannan, who was the Land Reform Board chairman, has replaced him.
Although the government has not publicly said anything about the transfer, it is understood that the move has been aimed at fleecing out friction and lack of coordination in the health ministry among Health Minster Zahid Maleque, Md Asadul Islam and organs of the ministry like the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) and the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR).
Besides, ever since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country in March, the health ministry has been blamed for some missteps and its failure to provide necessary PPE to healthcare professionals in the early stages of the outbreak. The ministry has also been seen as culpable for not resorting to aggressive testing and tracing from the very beginning, ultimately contributing to community transmission and the present situation of deaths and infections rising every other day.
Although it was a collective failure, insiders and experts said the "internal feud" among Zahid Maleque and officials of the ministry played a major role for Asadul's removal.
Before joining the health ministry as the secretary, Asadul was the director general at Government Employee Welfare Board. Coming from the secretariat cadre (now defunct), Asadul worked in the health sector for most of his career. He was well-known and praised for his honesty, a DGHS official who worked closely with him told The Daily Star seeking anonymity.
The feud that created friction in the ministry came to light after allegations of supplying sub-standard personal protective equipment (PPE), in particular the N-95 masks to the government hospitals during April.
After that, the Central Medicine Store Department (CMSD) came under the scanner.
On April 20, the health ministry formed a three-member committee led by the ministry's Additional Secretary (Development) Saidur Rahman. The committee submitted its report within three days.
The ministry, however, is yet to publish the report or announce what action it had taken as per the report.
"We have submitted the report within the deadline. I do not know what measures were taken [based on the report]," Saidur Rahman told The Daily Star.
On May 22, the public administration ministry announced the appointment of Additional Secretary Abu Hena Morshed Zaman as CMSD director.
He replaced Brig Gen Md Shahidullah, who has been assigned to the Armed Forces Division and said after his removal that he was a victim of the machinations of a syndicate.
"When I joined here [CMSD], people said many syndicates are active here. There were requests from different high-ups to buy their products; [but] I did not consider those. When they saw there was no chance to serve their stakes, at that time [they removed] me. I am guessing [this is what happened]," Brig Shahidullah told a private TV channel after his removal.
Insiders said the ministry failed to take organised steps to contain the Covid-19 outbreak from the very beginning, although it had gotten enough time to take proper preparation.
As the top executive officer of the ministry, the health secretary was blamed for this along with the minister. However, they said the government probably did not remove Health Minister Zahid Maleque in the fear of possible backlash.
On April 6, less than a month after the first cases of coronavirus was reported in the country, the health minister aired his frustrations about the wider handling of the situation.
"I have been made the chairman of the national committee as the health minister. However, the decisions are taken on behalf of the committee without our [health ministry] knowledge," he had told a discussion of healthcare professionals on April 6. "Nothing other than health issues is discussed with us. Even decisions like the closure of factories, prayers at mosques and suspension of transportation are not discussed with us. I cannot reply to journalists' questions… I am blamed for not knowing anything despite being the head of the national committee."
Prof Nazrul Islam, former Vice-chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University told The Daily Star, "It is a decision from the top of the government, so we do not know what happened. But such move during this crisis may create a bit of problem, I think."
About the failure of the health ministry to fight the coronavirus crisis, he said, "Actually it is a failure of the government where health ministry is a part of it. Our health system has not developed much since our Independence."