We're Live Bangla Tuesday, June 06, 2023

No vaccine for corruption


The only way out of the coronavirus nightmare seems to be a vaccine. Hope glimmers East and West. China is said to have developed a vaccine against coronavirus and tests will even be conducted in Bangladesh. In the West, the research team at Oxford University in the UK has also reportedly developed this life-saving vaccine. Other countries and companies are also coming up with these vials of hope.

Ultimately, we are confident, coronavirus will be conquered. Many lives have been lost, many have suffered, the collateral damage has been unprecedented and the economic fallout almost unfathomable, but as Alexander Pope famously said, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

But there is another virus in Bangladesh (undoubtedly in other parts of the world too) with which the country has been grappling in vain. This virus has become more and more dangerous over the years and in recent time it seems to have overtaken the Covid pandemic. What is this dangerous disease that has insidiously entered every pore, every vein of our society, that has been gnawing at the very existence of our nation? What is this malady that seems to have no cure in sight?

Corruption. Corruption is the name of this deadly disease which has gripped us in its fatal clutches. It is nothing new, but when the entire globe is caught up in the coronavirus crisis, when people are searching for vaccines, cures, protective measures and more, we find so many among us hell-bent on cashing in on situation, determined to make a few extra bucks (in billions), at the cost of lives, livelihood, humanity and human conscience. This outbreak of rampant corruption during the pandemic is not just damaging, it is humiliating too. As for the damages, these are much more far reaching than we can imagine. The implications are staggering. The ripples created by each drop of corruption are building up to a tidal surge that will swallow us up before we know it.

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The unhealthy health sector

In this pandemic, it is the health sector that is obviously the most important sector in any country. But whatever proclamations the government has been making in the past about developments in the sector, whatever rhetoric the ministers and ruling party leaders have been using to impress the people, all of this has been stripped bare by coronavirus, revealing the fragile state of the sector.

The sensational scam that hit the headlines is about Regent Hospital, owned by the con-man Md Shahed or Shahed Karim (whichever name he is parading under at the moment). Shahed Karim has been cheating and conning people for a long time now, at one time claiming to be on the ruling party’s international affairs committee, at another time claiming to be a BNP man. He has pictures with all top-level leaders, was a vocal TV talk show participant and had the gift of the gab. But he also had a long list of default loans, criminal allegations and his disrepute was no secret. And yet the government sent ahead to sign an agreement with him for his hospital to carry out coronavirus tests and also treat coronavirus patients. He portrayed himself as a magnanimous person, sacrificing the business of his hospital to provide free services in this time of calamity.

The Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) signed an MoU with Regent Hospital for this purpose, without even checking the premises and facilities of the hospital. Ironically, the government had rejected the offer of the same services by icddr,b, one of the most reputed health research institutions in the international arena. Later they gave icddr,b the nod, albeit reluctantly and with all sorts of limitations and restrictions.

The Regent Hospital deal proved to be a scam where patients were charged exorbitant fees and fake reports were given for the coronavirus sample tests. Samples were collected, but were no examined. Patients were randomly given positive and negative reports, creating a serious health hazard. Coronavirus patients were moving around freely while healthy persons were isolating themselves. This hit the international media. No wonder several international destinations have been sealed off again to Bangladeshis. Only after much pressure was the hospital sealed and were arrests made. Even Shahed was arrested, though he told the Rapid Action Battalion, “You won’t be able to detain me for more than six months!” What is the source of his bravado?

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The answer is simply, impunity.

It is this continued impunity granted to corrupt persons and criminals that similarly gave Arif Chowdhury, managing director of JKG and Sabrina Arif Chowdhury, chairman of JKG, to also run a fake Covid-19 test scam at their hospital. They may be behind bars for the time being, but the damage already done is immeasurable. How did this hospital even get permission for such sensitive tests?

There is Shahabuddin Hospital in the capital city and several others inside Dhaka and also in other districts that are now being caught out in their underhand ‘corona business’. The Director General of DGHS has resigned in face of the scandals, but the minister remains happily entrenched in his chair. This is the same minister, who at the onset of the virus, dismissed it airily, claiming that they were well prepared. But he has donned that magical cape of impunity.

An Awami League leader Sharmin Jahan has been caught supplying sub-standard masks to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University. The masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) procured under a project funded by the World Bank and ADB, also proved to be substandard, though the expenditure was super standard.

All this is just the tip of the iceberg where corruption in concerned in the health sector. It is nothing new, but the pandemic has brought it all to the surface. And the culture of impunity continues.

Even relief for the poor not spared

The government has announced huge stimulus packages for the business community. The banks are happy to be a vehicle to provide these loans with a cut kept for themselves. The business community is happy to pad their padded pockets. What about the poor?

The poor are being given relief in the form of rice, dal, oil, cash and such. Even those who had managed to emerge from the vicious cycle of poverty, have been pitched back into ultra poverty by the Covid pandemic. They have lost their means of income. Now government handouts (along with assistance from NGOs, the private sector and individual assistance) are their only means of sustenance. But even this is being snatched from them.

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Local people’s representatives of the ruling party in several districts and upazilas were caught red-handed, hoarding relief goods in their homes instead of distributing them among the people. Some have been caught, some have not. They continue in their nefarious schemes, hoarding relief goods to sell in the black market.

Another instance of manipulation with the relief goods and cash assistance is in the listing of the beneficiaries. Many of the ultra poor  have not received a grain of rice or a single taka under the government’s safety net programmes, while media reports point out people living in the air-conditioned comfort of multistoried buildings, have been receiving hefty relief parcels. When asked, they say, “Oh, we don’t know how our names are on the list!” It is not ironical. It is downright cruel. It is wrong, immoral, unethical, but it is also all too real.

Coronavirus may go away, but will this endemic corruption?

Our heroes are the frontline fighters, the doctors, nurses, health workers, journalists, cleaners, people-on-the-street who keep the wheels of the economy turning, the volunteers who risk their lives to help the needy and so many more who do good in silence. Yes, there are good people out there. It is these people who have kept the nation afloat. If it weren’t for them, the country would have long sunk under the flood of crime and corruption.

But how long can the nation bear this burden? If these criminals actually exploit the sick and the needy in a time of such global calamity, that really can be a hard blow to hope for the future. But hope we must. We must survive. No mercy can be shown to these evil quarters. The government speaks about zero-tolerance for crime and corruption. Now is the time to prove the veracity of this commitment.