When corruption kills



Friday 14th July, 2023

Time was when even critically ill patients who were rushed to the state-run hospitals, in wheelchairs and on stretchers, were confident that they would be able to walk back home. Today, even the patients who walk into government hospitals, seeking treatment for minor ailments, run the risk of being wheeled into the mortuary. This unfortunate situation has come about not due to lapses on the part of the much-maligned health workers but owing to corrupt practices among politicians and their bureaucratic lackeys who make a killing at the expense of the hapless patients dependent on free healthcare. The recent death of a girl, who went to the Peradeniya Hospital, complaining of a stomach ache, is a case in point. She is believed to have been a victim of substandard drugs purchased by the Health Ministry. Her family members have complained that a drug administered to her, in hospital, caused her untimely death.

How many more lives will have to be lost for the government to take action to ensure that the pharmaceuticals it procures are safe?

The term, ‘dangerous drugs’, has taken on a whole new meaning in this country, as we argued in a previous comment. It looks as if the substandard pharmaceuticals the Health Ministry procures by way of emergency purchases had to be bracketed with ‘dangerous drugs’, for they, too, destroy lives. One may argue that they are even more dangerous than narcotics in that they snuff out lives instantaneously, and there is hardly anything that doctors can do about it.

All health sector trade unions representing doctors, nurses, members of the professions supplementary to medicine, and others, have accused the health panjandrums of creating and aggravating drug shortages to import low quality pharmaceuticals without inviting tenders and line their pockets. The general consensus is that the Health Ministry is geared to serve the interests of the pharmaceutical industry and not those of the public. The procurement of vital drugs is delayed purposely even when funds are available so that the Health Ministry crooks will stand to gain, trade unionists allege.

It may not be fair to blame President Ranil Wickremesinghe for the sorry state of affairs in the Health Ministry; he is snowed under with many onerous tasks on the economic front, and the members of the current Cabinet are handled by the Rajapaksa family. But the blame for the failures of ministers and high-ranking officials is invariably laid at the President’s door. That is the way the cookie crumbles. Hence the need for the President to order a probe into the allegations of bribery and corruption against the health bigwigs, who are said to be behind pharmaceutical rackets.

Both the government and the Opposition are crowing about the new anti-corruption laws on the anvil, and make them out to be the proverbial silver bullet. They, however, will have a hard time, trying to convince the discerning public that they are genuinely desirous of battling bribery and corruption.

The government and the Opposition talked the talk when the proposed anti-corruption laws were discussed in Parliament, and they can now walk the walk; they should have a special parliamentary debate on corruption in the Health Ministry, especially the procurement rackets that not only cause staggering losses to the state coffers but also destroy innocent lives, and order a thorough probe into the damning allegations that trade unions and the media have levelled against the Health Minister and the high-ranking officials. Let them be asked to fish or cut bait.


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