Graft in the healthcare sector had been reported many times before the Covid-19 pandemic struck Bangladesh in March last year. But when the virus began to spread, people wished that they would not hear any more stories of corruption in such a crucial sector.
After all, healthcare was the lifeline to people's sense of helplessness amid soaring infections and deaths.
Yet, several scams, including those related to corruption, hit this sector when the pandemic was at its peak in mid-2020. Fake Covid-19 test certificates were issued. Fake N95 masks were sold. There was corruption involving large sums in purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical equipment.
The health sector thus continued to be at the centre of public discussion and criticism throughout the pandemic.
The first coronavirus infection was reported in the country on 8 March. Since then, corruption and irregularities in government and non-government organisations had repeatedly hit the headlines.
The tale of fake N95 masks
From the very beginning of the pandemic, frontline workers had repeatedly asked for efficient safety gear, including N95 masks, PPE, and goggles. After allegations surfaced that doctors and healthcare workers had been treating patients without safety gears, the Directorate General of Health Service (DGHS) finally distributed masks among them across the country in late April.
But the most desired safety gear for frontline workers, N95 masks, supplied by JMI Group was found substandard in an investigation by the health ministry. Hundreds of health workers took to social media to decry the distribution of fake N95 masks.
The health ministry probe report said the supply of substandard masks in the name of N95 masks was a planned fraud and a punishable offence. The ministry asked the authorities concerned to take legal action against the supplier and those involved in the acquisition and distribution of the products or the process in any other way.
The Anti-Corruption Commission arrested JMI Chairman Abdur Razzak in September last year. He later secured bail from the trial court and the high court too.
Fake Covid-19 test reports: Mockery with fearful citizens
When the pandemic was at its peak, people were scared and they rushed to hospitals for testing. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 dedicated government hospitals were struggling to tackle the rush.
The DGHS then allowed a number of government hospitals as well as non-government organisations to conduct tests. One such organisation was JKG Healthcare, which was producing test results and certificates without testing samples. When the matter came to light, police arrested six people, including the company's Chief Executive Officer Ariful Haque Chowdhury, on 23 June.
But the chairman, Sabrina Arif Chowdhury, was still free. This was widely criticised in the media and on social media. Sabrina was later arrested on 12 July.
Both Ariful and Sabrina are facing several lawsuits on several charges, including defrauding people in the name of Covid-19 tests.
Regent Hospital scandal
One of the hospitals designated by the government for Covid-19 treatment was Regent Hospital, including its Uttara and Mirpur branches. It was later found that the hospital's licence had not been renewed. Yet, it was issuing fake reports in the name of the RT-PCR tests.
Although they were supposed to give free treatment, large sums were taken from patients. During Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) operations in July, various irregularities of the hospital were revealed in Uttara and Mirpur branches. A case was filed against the hospital owner, Shahed Karim, as the main accused and 16 others with Uttara West Police Station.
Following the drives, Shahed went into hiding. On 15 July, RAB arrested him from the Debhata border in Satkhira.
After the misdeeds of the hospital were exposed, the question of how it had been given sensitive responsibilities like Covid-19 testing and treatment arose. According to the DGHS, a memorandum of understanding was signed with the hospital on the instructions of the higher authorities of the health ministry.
But the ministry was not happy with the DGHS explanation. Abul Kalam Azad, the then director general of the DGHS, resigned in the wake of the incident. Bangladesh was also criticised in the foreign media for issuing fake Covid-19 certificates.
The meteoric rise of a driver
DGHS car driver Abdul Malek alias Badal became the talk of the town during the pandemic. Although he was just a driver by profession, he had accumulated huge wealth. When investigating the allegations against him, law enforcers found that he owned two seven-storey buildings, a ten-storey building which was under construction, land property, and a cattle farm in Dhaka.
A preliminary investigation by the ACC found seven plots owned by Malek and his wife Nargis Begum in a mouza of Dhaka. On 20 September, RAB arrested Malek from a seven-storey building in Bamnartek area of Turag.
Malek managed jobs for seven members of his family in the health department. He also played a vital role in illegally recruiting more than 100 health assistants in 2009-10.
Mithu called the shots in health sector
Before his death, former Central Medical Stores Depot (CMSD) director Brigadier General Md Shahidullah informed the government on 30 May in a written letter that someone named Mithu had been behind all the corruption related to procurement in the health sector. Several agencies, including the state intelligence agency and the ACC, then moved to take initiatives, but the ringleader of Mithu gang, Motajjerul Islam alias Mithu, left the country secretly.
Shahidullah died of Covid-19 on 25 July. Earlier, in a letter to the public administration secretary on 30 May, he said Mithu had colluded with different government officials to set the budgets of various procurements in the health sector. They would make the lists of equipment and CMSD would buy those from anonymous organisations owned by Mithu. These organisations took part in the tender process repeatedly.
Shahidullah further said CMSD had issued a notification to purchase some equipment for Shaheed Suhrawardy Medical College and Hospital in Dhaka. After finishing the work and taking away Tk4.5 crore, it was discovered that the equipment had not reached the medical college. Also, Mithu was the owner of all the companies that took part in the tender, including this one.
No one can say for sure how much money Mithu took from health sector purchases in the last 10 years. Because there has never been any investigation in this regard.
Every year, the cost of purchasing equipment in the health sector stands at Tk700-800 crore. Apart from that, project-based purchases are also made. After AFM Ruhul Haque became the health minister, Mithu got the job of supplying equipment to 17 medical colleges at that time.
Where is he now? According to investigations, Mithu, who was named in the Panama Papers scandal in 2016, is now living in the US under an investor quota.