It was a familiar scene, repeated many times.
Poorly protected frontline workers in the current pandemic fighting to save many Covid-19 patients dying from acute breathing difficulties allegedly owing to lack of ICU, and ventilators in the hospitals around the country.
Unbeknownst to them, medical equipment worth around Tk135 crore were lying unused in the warehouse of the health directorate that could have been used to save a few more lives, of both doctors and patients.
Although these expensive medical equipment are about to go out of service life lying unused in the warehouse, the Central Medical Store Depot (CMSD) has purchased the same items afresh without utilising the existing stock, a move that contradicts the government's promise of cutting costs during the crisis.
According to the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), these items include Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds, ventilators, 3-function/5-function beds, Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), N-95 masks, gloves and 70,000 Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) kits etc. They had been purchased under the ongoing World Bank-funded "Covid-19 Emergency Response and Pandemic Preparedness" project.
Meanwhile, the government is also relaxing the prevention activities it took to stem the highly contagious Covid-19 in the wake of the pandemic in the country.
Although some amounts of PPE, masks and gloves have been distributed from the stock, ICU beds, ventilators and 3-function/5-function beds still remain stored in the depot located in Mohakhali Market building under Dhaka North City Corporation.
The DGHS itself has expressed concern that these essential medical items would become unusable if they were not put into use in the shortest possible time.
A recent high-level meeting of the government, chaired by Prime Minister's Principal Secretary Dr Ahmad Kaikaus, discussed all these issues. The meeting was organised at the Prime Minister's Office to review two ongoing projects funded by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
Abul Bashar Mohammad Khurshid Alam, director general of the DGHS, told the meeting that medical equipment, including ICU beds, could become inoperative if they were not allocated quickly for regular use.
Abu Hena Morshed Zaman, director of the CMSD, said they would not have bought the same medical equipment had they known about the already existing stock.
When asked, Health Secretary Md Abdul Mannan told The Business Standard that nothing was supposed to be bought without a requisition.
"However, the DGHS can better explain why and how those medical items have been bought and why they have been left unutilised because they are involved in the procurement. But we have directed the CMSD not to buy anything without a definite requisition."
Dr Nasima Sultana, additional director general (admin) of the DGHS, said, "The CMSD can say whether there was a requisition against the procurement of these protective and medical equipment, because usually they buy all these things."
She refused any further comment on the issue.
Health ministry officials said these items were purchased by DGHS and CMSD officials in April following the official announcement of Covid-19 infection in March. On allegations of corruption in purchasing the equipment, the government transferred some senior officials of the two organisations. Later, the replacement appointees bought the same items again.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister's Office has asked the DGHS for a list of hospitals where these medical equipment will be distributed.
In addition, the Prime Minister's Office has directed the DGHS director general to ensure coordination in the procurement of protective and medical equipment by the director, the line director and the project director of the CMSD to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
Secretary to the Prime Minister's Office Tofazzel Hossain Miah said many equipment and furniture lay in the CMSD warehouse for a long time due to the inefficiency of the supply chain in the DGHS' procurement process.
"It is possible to avoid such a situation if a list of destinations for the products can be attached at the time of preparing the requisition," he opined.
Professor Mujaherul Haque, a former consultant to the World Health Organisation's South Asia region, told The Business Standard that healthcare procurement was rife with corruption.
Moreover, after buying equipment through corruption, buying the same type of items again by letting the existing ones become inoperative has already been in practice for a long time, which has manifested again during the pandemic, he said.
"It is important to ensure strict monitoring and to take disciplinary actions against those involved in the irregularities so that the people can benefit from these state assets as well as corruption and waste of these assets can be checked," he suggested.
Govt relaxes Covid-19 prevention activities
Although the pandemic has not improved in Bangladesh yet, the government is relaxing the initiatives taken to prevent Covid-19 contagion and ensure medical care for the infected, thanks to lower virus tests, decreased Covid patients in hospitals and a ray of hope for vaccine availability early next year.
The high-level meeting reviewed the initiatives taken under the two projects and decided to buy a reduced number of PCR machines as well as not to set up field hospitals, medical centres at 26 land ports and the Mohakhali Covid-19 hospital for frontline health workers.
Professor Mujaherul Haque said Covid-19 had not yet come under control in Bangladesh. "Moreover, the countries that have already controlled the virus keep implementing various other initiatives to prevent its further transmission. Against this backdrop, the decision to slowdown the prevention programme by Bangladesh will not be prudent."
He also said the invention of vaccines was at the final stage, but its availability was not certain yet.
"Moreover, different countries are spending money on vaccine research, holding trials in their own countries and making payments in advance. Bangladesh is not doing anything like these. So the decision to sit idly in the hope of getting vaccines is not rational thinking too."