We knew that our system was plagued with moral and systemic corruption, but we couldn't imagine that it was this bad, and were it not for Covid-19, much of the muck that has surfaced in the last four months might have remained under the surface. The pandemic has bared us at all levels, individual and collective; and at the administrative level, the veneer of rectitude and scruples has been all but removed.
But corruption is not a recent phenomenon. It's enough to mention Bangabandhu's memorable comment about corruption without quoting it, to jog our memory. Unfortunately, corruption had never left us. Every regime since his, of whatever shade, has practiced it with due diligence and unwavering single-mindedness. And every succeeding administration has not only replicated it, but practiced also with vengeance and gusto. If there is any list that we have had the misfortune to top or be thereabouts with regularity, it is the corruption index, which every regime has vehemently disagreed and trashed out of hand, not unpredictably. The conspiracy theorist going on overdrive to discover heinous motives behind the machinations of the watchdogs, the media singled out for concocting stories and overlooking the truth.
The last four months of the pandemic has been for many an existence like Alice in the Wonderland. But things are not only getting "curiouser" and "curiouser", it is exposing the faults in the system ever more. But what is the most frightening is the truck between some people in the administration and the corrupt in the public sphere. The revelations have been startling, though not shocking. We have gone past the stage of being stunned long ago. The malaise has infected all strata of our society and all areas of our activity, polity not excepted. The environment that Covid-19 has created has become a mirror that reflects our society. Getting up every morning to see the mirror is not gratifying at all.
The panic created by the virus has eroded the human in us. Ailing parents have been discarded, left to die by their children. Burial of dead parents was done by a few humanitarian organisations and some UNOs. Some doctors and health workers, our font line fighters, were not allowed to enter their own homes, forced out by neighbours for fear of being infected. Even land grabbers are exploiting the situation to illegally occupy property. And of course there are the PPE suppliers and some private hospitals that have made capital out of the crisis. Some have been caught, others not yet.
One wonders whether we would have ever come to know about the inimitable craftiness of Md Shahed had the pandemic not intervened. If the media had revealed any one of his "deeds" at any other time, charges of defamation and slander of a very "honourable man" of the society who was conducting his business "honestly" would have been brought against those revealing the blatant misdeeds.
How would one describe a legal system that allows a convicted felon to go about not only freely in public, but also enter into deals with banks, set up hospitals, get enrolled in an important sub-committee of the ruling party, have bank managers root for him for loans discarding the normal scrutiny and verification process, pass off as a member of the PM's staff, commandeer the services of UNOs for personal business, fleece thousands from people through sham MLM companies, and endanger the security of the country by providing thousands of fake certificates from his hospitals whose license had long expired. All this happened because for 10 years, yes, for 10 years, the police were sitting on two arrest warrants including a conviction warrant, against Md Shahed, served by a Dhaka court. The police violated its obligation which requires it to report to the court if the convicted person was untraceable, by not doing so. Does it not say a lot about the depredation of our system?
The DG Health has resigned four days ago, but not after doing irreparable damage to the health sector. His resignation was the only way that one could see the back of him, because he had boasted not long ago that there was nobody who could remove him. His deputy has followed suit. The DGHS and his directorate must shoulder much of the blame for the pathetic condition the health sector is in and for all the illegal and corrupt practices conducted by some of the hospitals. The former DG manifests in himself the decay and the pitiful state of the health sector—a sector that by far outruns all the others in corruption. Should we not shudder when we hear a minister admitting that signing documents without ever reading it is the norm rather than the exception? Will he be held to account for the damage his action and inaction have done to the country? Will the DGHS retirement be the end of the story as far as he is concerned?
Can one have faith in a system which allows two big businessmen to evade arrest on allegations of attempted murder, by flying out of the country ostensibly as corona patients? Their private air ambulance was used for the purpose, and that too during the strictest period of lockdown when there were no international flights operating to and from the country! Will one be remiss in suggesting that everything is not well with the state machineries when an act of absconding is allegedly facilitated by state officials?
The present state is the consequence of the absence of accountability. Public servants and elected officials no longer feel obligated towards the public, since it's not public support they need any more for their political validity. The People's House has become, largely, a place for exchanging plaudits and dispensing platitudinous banalities instead of a forum for holding the administration and the lawmakers answerable on behalf of the people they are supposed to represent, and whose interest they are supposed to uphold. Absence of accountability creates people who subvert the nation's interest and security, which may become hard to reclaim. Surely there is something wrong in our state, and it will take not only the Heaven's direction but also drastic actions by the people at the helm to cure it.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.