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Health crisis deepens: Why Rambukwella shoud resign

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  • Opposition to bring no-confidence motion to force him out

Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella stands in the dock today, on public trial for making a pig’s breakfast of the nation’s health service.

He is charged with reducing Lanka’s medical sector to a shamble, and leaving in its dust, the ashes of a people’s trust and confidence in government-run hospitals.

It does not matter whether he is personally to be blamed for the collapse of public confidence in the health service. Suffice to say that under the concept of ministerial responsibility a minister is held responsible for the conduct of his department. He takes the kudos for the Ministry’s triumphs. He takes the flak for his Ministry’s disasters. In a dictatorship it would have been the firing squad. In a democracy, it is resignation.

So after having plunged the nation’s health service into the cesspit, is Rambukwella ready to resign? To do the honourable thing? Admit his faults and hand the torch to someone else and leave? Raise the optimistic hopes of a people that the new broom – no matter who from the present pathetic SLPP lot – may still do a much better job than one who’s all conceit and blustering swagger?

So even with the death count rising does he plan to quit? Not on your life. He is the coolest swankiest cock of the walk and it’s not in the egoistic Rambukwella hubris to take a nose dive and to admit defeat.

He has drawn from the lofty steeps of arrogance, the narcissist belief that he is God’s gift to mankind. His arrogance makes him believe that no one else but he can make a better soufflé or whip up a chocolate mousse. Arrogance has thickened his hide and muffled his ears to grief-stricken cries of the kith and kin of those dead due to defective drugs; steeled his heart to their visible distress.

Take a look at the mounting pile of constructive evidence amassed outside the gates of the Health Ministry, a series of inexplicable deaths that’s given rise to great alarm.

Keheliya dismisses with scorn the fears of an ill people having to play Russian roulette while they receive medical treatment at state hospitals. He blames the media for its scaremongering.

SANDEEPANI: Death after injection sparks uproar

But is there no cause for alarm? Enough to stamp a Governmental health warning that receiving treatment at state hospitals can well be hazardous to health?

True, the privileged elite of Lanka’s political set and their fortunate families, whose private doctors channel at Mount Elizabeth Hospital in Singapore, have nothing to fear but the malady alone: Another perk from endless public coffers to ensure their wellbeing at all times.

Not so for their poor Lankan brethren. They must not only suffer the dread of the malady but must fear even more the remedy.

Three weeks ago questions were raised about the ‘mystery’ deaths of two women at the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital within two months. A pregnant mother of two had died while undergoing a caesarian operation on April 2. The other, a female principal, admitted for a hernia operation, had suffered the same sorry fate after being given the same anesthetist drug on June 15. The allegation was that deaths were due to a defective anaesthetic drug administered to the two patients.

The Minister’s response to this allegation was to callously tell TV reporters, ‘even when you bring down 100,000 of an FDA-approved drug, a few can turn out to be defective. That’s normal.’ This matter-of-fact cold dismissal of these women’s deaths due to defective drugs as an inevitable risk that must be taken at State hospitals, delivered a blow to the people’s confidence and stabbed deep into the unhealing raw wound of the two dead women’s families’ grief.

The National Medicinal Regulatory Authority Chairman Professor S.D. Jayaratne — the man statutorily responsible to ensure that only the highest quality of medicinal drugs are imported to the island  — held a press conference and sermonised in a fatalistic vein. He said, ‘It does not matter whether the drug company from which the drug has been bought, is registered or unregistered. It has nothing to do with the final result’. And then he asks: ‘Is there a deathless home?’

RAMBUKWELLA: Under fire from all guns but remorseless and defiant

Is this to be the fallback answer to excuse hence all ministerial lapses or negligence that lead to preventable deaths at governmental hospitals? That Fate had stamped on every newborn’s brow, the ordained time of its exit? And that no power on earth could deny the providential will? Or bring it forward or delay exit.

Rambukwella has since alleged these mystery deaths were not due to a defect in the drug used but had been due to an allergy suffered by the patients. But can the Minister rule out with any certainty that it is the defect in the drug that made the patients turn allergic to the drug and not the drug itself?

However, this has now become the stock excuse for the deaths that occurred this month.

Take the case of Himali Priyadarshani, the 41-year-old mother of two who met her untimely death on July 4 at the National Eye Hospital. She had undergone surgery two weeks before for a lens implant in her eye. When she returned on the 4th for a post-op check, she had been told the lens had shifted and that an immediate operation to rectify the first op’s mistakes was needed. While undergoing surgery for the second time she had suffered heart failure after being given an anaesthetic.

Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa charged in Parliament on July 7 that the mother had died after being administered Propanol, which is said to have failed the quality test, one of the three drugs which had failed the quality test. He said that when he had raised the issue in Parliament, Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella had claimed there were no inferior quality medicines being used.

Or take the case of 21-year-old Chamodhi Sandeepani who had been admitted to the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital for a stomach ailment on July 11. She died the same day after being administered a drug, Ceftriaxone.

Health Ministry Additional Secretary Dr. Saman Ratnayake told Daily Mirror that the postmortem has determined that the death of the girl had been caused due to anaphylactic shock, which is a rare but severe allergic reaction. But the magistrate has issued an open verdict. Her death is being probed.

In an interview with Hiru TV last week, Rambukwella was asked about the sudden mysterious death of Chamodhi Sandeepani. ‘These things happen in hospitals. We are probing it now. In fact, I know this family very closely. At the last election, this family, with this girl playing a major role, even held a political meeting at their home for me’. He was asked whether he went for the funeral to sympathise with the family whom he knew so well and who were so faithful to him. Rambukwella flared in anger and shot back. ‘No I did not.’ It’s not your business to ask whether I go for funerals or so’.

On second thought, perhaps, it was best that the Minister had stayed discreetly away from the funeral.

Sandeepani’s distraught mother told the Daily Mirror: ‘My child died because of these injections. I lost my only daughter, my gem. The Peradeniya Hospital is entirely responsible for my child’s death,”

GMOA’s Media Secretary Dr. Chamil Wijesinghe told the media: ‘The quality of medicines purchased under emergency purchases is a matter of concern. The damage will be greater if the Health Ministry continues to maintain its deafening silence. The Health Minister and the Ministry should be held responsible for this crisis.’

This Thursday, the Health Ministry’s Addition Secretary Dr. Saman Ratnayake told a news conference that ’63 drugs have failed quality tests in 2023’. Out of these 63 drugs, 53 had been manufactured in India, while the rest had been made in Pakistan, Bangladesh and in Lanka.

And that’s not all. Take other similar cases of people mysteriously dying after being given certain drugs.

Take

n The 23-year-old girl who died on July 1 after being given an antibiotic at the Ragama Teaching Hospital.

n The mother carrying triplets at the Ragama hospital dying on July 3 allegedly due to medical negligence.

n A four-month-old infant that died after the alleged administration of the pentavalent vaccine. The baby was vaccinated on July 15 and died the following day.

n The 57-year-old man who died at the Kegalle General Hospital on July 19 after he experienced an allergic reaction after he was administered antibiotics.

The Health Minister and his officials have no clear answer to this sudden spate of mysterious deaths: but to simply say the dead were allergic to the drug. Hence the question posed earlier must be posed again: is it the defect in the drug that made the patients turn allergic to the drug and not the drug itself had it not been defective?

The only answers that come are the sort of asininely obvious remarks as uttered by Minister Rambukwella who told Parliament this week that, ‘if hundred thousand enter hospital not all hundred thousand will come back’ and adding with a chuckle and with a touch of black humour, ‘that’s why undertakers set up shop next to hospitals.’

Or like the NMRA Chief Professor S.D. Jayaratne holding up the invisible mustard seed, the Buddha asked Kisa Gotami to bring from a deathless home to revive her dead son, and asking reporters at a press conference, ‘Do you know of a deathless home?’

With people of such questionable mettle in charge of drug procurement babbling such insipid excuses, no wonder standards have dropped to the sewers of a people’s contempt. It is not only the deaths of the innocents that horrify the masses but the extremely callous way in which the loss of human lives is dismissed as of no consequence that astounds the nation.

Evidently, there is something rotten in the core of Lanka’s health service, once the envy of all South Asian countries. And it’s not just defective drugs but the entire system itself.

Opposition leader Premadasa charged last Thursday that the Health Ministry is riddled with ‘financial waste, corruption, fraud, importation of substandard medicinal drugs and equipment along with suppression, state terrorism, concealing information from the people and launching witch-hunts against health professionals revealing information about the health service crisis.’

Its state is so deplorable that it has made the President himself intervene and express concern. At a meeting with the Health Minister, Health and Finance Ministry officials last Friday, the President emphasised the importance of promoting transparency. He also instructed the Health Ministry to expedite the approval process for drugs endorsed by the FDA, the UK and other countries. It also emerged that the NMRA had been newly constituted under Rambukwella.

On Wednesday, Rambukwella sought refuge in the first resort of beleaguered ministers to somehow or other avert the final day of judgment.

He announced the appointment of a committee comprising eminent medical experts both here and abroad to probe the recent mystery drug deaths. He told Parliament he had personally phoned them — some as late as 11 in the night — and spoken to them and they had all agreed, in one unanimous voice, to serve in his committee.

But if with this impressive and, no doubt, enormously expensive handpicked team of medical experts, Rambukwella seeks to assuage the anxieties of a nation, he cannot be more mistaken. His personal appointments to his own committee to probe his own ministry’s conduct have all the similarities with a man charged with murder calling up at the midnight hour and appointing his own jury to probe his guilt, with himself on the one-judge bench, authorising the payments for their professional services.

The SJB which had announced earlier that it intended to bring a no-confidence motion against Rambukwella, presented the motion signed by some 50 MPs to the Speaker on Friday. The chances of it succeeding are remote for Keheliya’s ‘anything goes’ SLPP has already said, ‘changing ministers now will not solve anything’ in the same way they say that ‘changing governments will not change Lanka’s bankrupt state’.

But yet, it will reveal if the confidence they repose in Rambukwella now is the same confidence they once reposed in their former leader Gotabaya during his disastrous term of office. The final vote will also show if they march in step with the public they profess to represent or whether to the beat of an alien drum of private interest.

How fares Rambukwella? For all we know he may be loving every moment of being the cynosure of all eyes.

Despite facing a High Court ordeal on Friday to answer charges filed by the Bribery Commission for allegedly using funds from the State Printing Corporation to pay off his one month’s private phone bill of Rs 230,000 when he was Minister of Mass Media in 2012, Rambukwella, though still on bail, was upbeat about facing the no-confidence motion brought against him. ‘Let them bring. I have so much to reveal,’ he said.

In the same manner as his former leader President Gotabaya whose arrogance led him to state he controlled Covid best in the world; and to believe he was blest with infallibility to decide, against expert opinion, that going headlong to organic farming will herald the nation’s agricultural revolution, Keheliya Rambukwella can be seen ignorantly proceeding full speed, on an inexorable course to meet his ordained fate, with nothing to show but the hubris that provokes the wrath of the gods.

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