Health ministry can't just rebuff calls to curb corruption
Few would contest the claim that the health sector has become a hotbed of corruption over the last few years. This became quite evident during the Covid-19 pandemic when multiple reports were published exposing the extent of corruption and collusion among health officials and politically connected businessmen. A new report now puts them on the spot again, as it reveals audit objections raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General claiming that financial irregularities worth Tk 193 crore were committed in the early stage of the pandemic. This was done through various purchases by the health directorate, including that of emergency protective equipment.
Clearly, the rot didn't stop there – it has spread far and wide, and nothing short of an across-the-board reform drive will be enough to rein in this massive level of mismanagement in largely unaccountable public institutions.
Reportedly, the directorate, with funds from World Bank, took up a three-year project of Tk 1,112 crore to deal with the pandemic in FY 2019-20. But, as per the audit report, it failed to give satisfactory answers to 12 of the objections raised in the first year of the project. Take the case where the directorate signed a contract with a firm to purchase 150,000 KN95 face masks, of which 24,000 were delivered in a soaked state and 2,000 were not delivered at all. Or the case where the directorate said it had bought 200,000 PPEs (personal protective equipment), 310,000 masks and 1,550 thermometers, although no receipt was found for the majority of them. There were also allegations of purchasing equipment from "incompetent" and "inexperienced" firms, purchasing at different or higher-than-agreed rates, unrealised fines for late delivery, etc.
These objections corroborate previous findings on corruption as revealed by the media and independent studies. These also show how embedded corruption is not just in the health sector but in all public sectors as well. It was only the other day that a survey by the Transparency International Bangladesh found that almost 71 percent of the households endured corruption while trying to get services last year. The survey covered at least 22 service sectors "riddled with petty corruption", including bribery, extortion, embezzlement, deception, negligence of duty, nepotism, etc.
Incidentally, the latest audit objections against the health directorate follow two of our own reports on objections raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General about public expenditure in different sectors. In one instance, the parliamentary standing committee on public undertakings even expressed "shock" at the huge extent of financial irregularities at the Bangladesh Petroleum Corporation.
Clearly, the rot didn't stop there – it has spread far and wide, and nothing short of an across-the-board reform drive will be enough to rein in this massive level of mismanagement in largely unaccountable public institutions. As for the allegations against the health directorate, we urge the higher authorities to immediately investigate whether unusable and insufficient masks were purchased and deals with incompetent firms were signed.