Nur E Emroz Alam Tonoy;
Leading a team during the time of emergency require skills to overcome the challenges. And a health emergency is something else that needs precisely more specialized capacity to deal with. Bangladesh as well as other nations are fighting a non-visible enemy, the Covid-19, a disease caused by the novel coronavirus that first surfaced in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December and wreaked havoc in other parts of the world by now.
Ever since the emergence of the virus and the subsequent WHO announcement of global pandemic, Bangladeshi authorities have been claiming a better preparedness to protect the lives of its people. The health officials have still been claiming that their actions slowed the spread of the bug despite the fact that the number of reported infections are feared far less than that of the original thanks to a less testing arrangement and inability to conduct the examinations. The death was also reported less as well with less number of infections reported in the initial period, and now we are claiming to have community-level infections with on an average 10 deaths a day. Still our situation is “good” compared to the nations in the West having better health protection in place, democratic practices, accountability and free flow of information.
The credit goes to the Health Minister, Zahid Maleque, a master’s degree in English literature and language from Dhaka University, who is now in charge of saving millions of lives from the deadly bug. With a background of insurance, real estate and food business among many others, Mr. Maleque comes frequently online news briefing to let the people know about what he has achieved to fight the virus. The people are so happy with his repeated call to the television owners to broadcast “entertaining” contents to force the people to stay at home to help prevent the community infections. Alas! What the information minister was doing at the critical juncture of time!!
But the ministry, under his leadership, has apparently fooled the nation by rhetorical overstatements about the state’s preparedness against the virus. The “best” preparedness has proved hyperbole we see many health officials needs treat the Covid-19 patients without protective gear, fake masks are being supplied to hospitals, ICU and ventilation facilities are at less than minimum, reports of deaths from non-treatment surged the media among many others. And at one stage imposing ban on health workers from talking to the media has made the situation more suspicious.
Under the existing constitutional framework, a cabinet minister is responsible for the formation of substantive policy and effective government in his or her portfolio. The minister is accountable for all departmental actions and decisions whether or not he directly dictates it.
The common rules of business of the healthy functioning of a democratic government stipulate that a cabinet minister should under no circumstances undermine the capacity of the department to deliver governance. When a cabinet department fails to deliver, the minister is accountable and is at fault.
Second, in the time of crisis, for a public office holder, essential qualities such as professionalism, accountability and capacity to deliver are more relevant than normal time.
It implies that the Minister of Health, as the lead minister for Bangladesh’s response to COVID-19, is under an obligation to present himself in a manner that can convince both the public and all the organs of the health ministry of his capacity to lead with dexterity in this crisis.
Third, in the modern theory of democracy, whistleblowing has been hailed as an instrumental tool for good government. Accordingly, in functional democracies these days, whistleblowers are legally protected. The impeachment trial of Donald Trump serves as a recent example.
Members of the public health services – the ground workers who are making a difference between life and death – have a moral obligation to expose and confront substandard policies. For the greater good of society, those descents need to be dealt with a welcoming tone and resilience.
Further, it is expected that elected officials, precisely those are trusted with cabinet responsibilities, in order to gain public support for the government, must accommodate an amenable approach for public scrutiny – they have to be open and perceptive to critical questions, especially when it comes to significant policy issues.
This approach is essential in the functioning of a welfare state. Given the situation minister Maleque and the ministry under his watch failed to meet these fundamental expectations of democracy and the governance promised by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Instead, and contrary to democratic norms, healthcare professionals were told not to speak out or cooperate with the media, doctors were threatened frequently and even punished unfairly as scapegoats understandably to avoid public scrutiny.
More alarming are; we a nation with a severe shortage of healthcare professionals per capita facing an unprecedented “COVID -19” crisis. A good crisis management policy, expectedly, would have included the safety of the frontline defenders as a top priority.
But unfortunately, the frontline defenders, after a crucial delay, were provided with substandard protective equipment, and evidently, because of this serious irresponsibility, a good number of healthcare personnel have already contracted the virus.
Not to mention the psychosocial and emotional burden they have to endure, going to work with fear, living this pandemic with a perception of uncertainty, and having to face an invisible killer without protection.
None of these are baseless accusations. They’re well documented and better known by the minister himself.
The way the minister and the ministry of health acted in the last few weeks would be unacceptable even in normal time; let alone during a pandemic.
The health ministry actions and inactions are not only displeasing the general public, but many dedicated Awami League supporters, as many of them vented frustration on the social media.
They are questioning the government’s integrity as it has now become clear that the most important minister of the time lacks competence, and yet to be replaced.
These are, too, substantial grounds for the head of the cabinet, the Prime Minister, to lose trust in her health minister and show him the door immediately, in case he fails to understand that he needs to pave way for other to get in to save lives of millions of people.
My dear Mr. Minister, would you mind to do that? I request you for the sake of national interest. You have many other areas but the health to serve with the nation at this difficult time.