Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has observed deficiencies in every indicator of good governance in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic in the country.
A report of the anti-graft watchdog, titled "Governance challenges in tackling coronavirus," finds the tendency to cover up irregularities, corruption and mismanagement through restrictions on disclosure of information and bringing whistleblowers to accountability in a way that encourages corruption in various ways.
"Lack of planning and coordination in various activities adopted by the government is clearly noticeable. The weak capacity of the health sector as a result of long-term lack of planning, lack of good governance and lack of capacity has become wide open during the crisis," noted the report published at a virtual press conference on Monday.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of TIB, appreciated the prime minister's stance against corruption and also the positive initiatives taken to fight Covid-19.
"The prime minister has emphasised her position of 'zero tolerance' in cases of corruption in the distribution of relief. Likewise, the government has taken action against the culprits in cases of irregularities and corruption as published," he said.
"Various types of incentives were declared, among which there were incentives worth Tk103,117 crore to face a possible economic crisis, financial incentives and health insurance for health workers and other government officials, and cash assistance for five million extremely poor families. The government also set a target for procurement of paddy in excess of 200,000 tonnes than the previous year. Commodity prices were also kept relatively stable during the crisis," Iftekharuzzaman said.
But the TIB official added that there had also been allegations of corruption.
"We found corruption allegations regarding purchases of N95 masks. The probe report did not see the light of day. Some people are involved in corruption in purchasing medical equipment and distribution of aid during this pandemic," he said.
Responding to a question on how corruption was going on despite the premier's strong stance, Iftekharuzzaman said, "Evidently, one needs to raise a question as to whether there are beneficiaries who are more powerful than the prime minister."
The TIB research was conducted to identify governance challenges over different initiatives taken by the government in tackling the coronavirus pandemic before and after its spread. It was done through using mixed methodological (qualitative and quantitative) research techniques.
So far, 67 cases have been filed against 37 journalists for disseminating news of theft and embezzlement in relief distribution in different parts of the country.
The TIB report found negligence in providing services to coronavirus patients, which includes not providing treatment, unwillingness of physicians and nurses to see patients, leaving food packets outside the doors of coronavirus wards, not cleaning patients' rooms, not providing oxygen supply in time, and keeping both male and female patients in the same isolation room. Such negligence was found in 23.1 percent of hospitals, according to the report.
Besides, risks to the health of health workers themselves and a crisis in medical management have increased due to irresponsibility and corruption in the supply of protection materials, the report said.
It also found corruption in the purchase of medical equipment supplies and lack of transparency in the procurement process. Protection materials were supplied at much higher costs due to excessive control over all kinds of procurement by a syndicate in the name of different firms.
The government has failed to take adequate preparations even after getting three months in hand, the report said.
It said due to the lack of widespread social participation and proper dissemination of information, the government has also failed to create public awareness, and this has made the lockdown ineffective.
The anti-graft body found the business-friendly and loan-based incentives and financial support for the extremely poor insufficient. On the other hand, there were opportunities for loan defaulters to come by incentives.
This has made it least likely that the incentives will reach the common people, the report said.
In response to a question, Iftekharuzzaman said, "The government provided stimulus to the readymade garments sector to pay the salaries of workers. But factory owners are very much concerned about their business interests."
He criticized the opening of apparel factories without thinking on a broader level. "In this case, profit motives or business interests were prioritised. There was a lack of balance between security of economy and security of life."
TIB termed the stimulus package business-friendly, which followed the policy of increasing loan support and decreasing interest. But there was no guarantee of reaching out to people of all classes and professions.
The report also said there was no plan for allocations for 50 million unemployed day labourers and workers in the informal sector. The allocation to ensure food security was also insufficient – only 10 percent of the boro paddy was declared to have been procured.
There was no incentive for small farmers and sharecroppers, and no declaration of a waiver of agricultural loans. There is an opportunity for middlemen to take out more loans and incentives for defaulters. Moreover, loan defaulters have been given the opportunity to take a share from these incentives.
There were also allegations of biased political considerations in preparing the list of beneficiaries for relief in 82 percent of the areas included in the survey.