‘Unholy alliance ruling the roost in health sector, fleecing people’ By Rathindra Kuruwita

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A nexus between senior Health Ministry officials and powerful businessmen is the main reason for many issues plaguing the health sector, President of the College of Medical Laboratory Science (CMLS), Ravi Kumudesh, says in an interview with The Island. These sinister elements are fleecing the public by preventing the state sector labs from carrying out COVID -19 testing, and was behind the deletion of the NMRA database, he says.

Q: The elimination of data from the National Medicines Regulatory Authority (NMRA) website has been in the news for several weeks. Recently, a committee was appointed to add data back into the database. However, given that this committee is acting in great secrecy, can you be satisfied?

A: A so-called expert committee has been appointed. However, this committee was appointed by the Secretary of the State Ministry of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals. The Secretary is an experienced official. However, the State Ministry is one of the parties accused of entertaining the drug mafia. The drug mafia is behind the deletion of data. As you can understand it is hard to trust that this committee wants to do the right thing because of the obvious conflict of interest. The Committee should have been appointed by an independent body, at least by the President or the Minister of Health. That would have indicated that the government wants to get to the bottom of this.

Given that one of the accused parties has appointed this committee to oversee the insertion of data back into the database; we feel that they might do what the drug mafia wants done.

You may remember that the State Ministry of Production, Supply and Regulation of Pharmaceuticals initially insisted that nothing fraudulent has happened. However, the CID found that something malicious has taken place and that someone has deleted the data over a period of five hours. As the CID was taking the investigation forward, the State Ministry announced that they have recovered the data and that they are appointing a committee of experts to feed the data back into the database. This is suspicious and we don’t even know who is on the committee.

So, we insist that a committee must be appointed by a party that is not involved in the case and we must also know who is on this committee of experts. There can be representatives of the (Information and Communication Technology Agency) ICTA, Epic Lanka Technologies, or even associates of other guilty parties. Therefore, it is highly likely that this is a committee appointed to cover up the data theft.

Another problematic development is that the data is being restored by Epic Lanka Technologies. It is obvious that this is a distraction tactic of State Ministry officials. It is not serious about getting to the bottom of the problem or ensuring that something of this nature does not repeat.

Q: Isn’t it also possible that only the data that the State Ministry wants will be restored in the database? How will we know whether all the lost data will be restored?

A: Yes, they can feed the data they want. They can also decide to enter the data at times that are convenient to them, they can also remove data and insert new data. Only the Expert Committee knows what data has been recovered and they also decide what data will be entered. They can easily input the data of companies that they are partial to and erase the data of companies that they do not like. This will give the drug mafia a chance to accomplish its goals legally.

Q: Has this happened before?

A: We have never seen something like this. However, we all know that there are many irregularities at the Ministry of Health. Digitisation was introduced to minimise these irregularities and there has been a lot of resistance to digitisation in the Health Ministry. The digitisation of the database commenced in 2018, however it was only in 2020 that the project was completed. Since the system came online, a lot of officials, as well as the drug mafia, have been greatly inconvenienced and the deletion of data was their way of getting back.

They are using this instance to prevent further digitisation. This is another dangerous development. We don’t think that this is a digitisation issue, but a last ditch attempt of people who have been inconvenienced by it.

Q: There are some people who say that a database can be manipulated and that despite many drawbacks, one should ideally have access to a physical file. Your comment?

A: A robust digital system is hard to tamper with. And when someone does try to tamper with the system, it’s easy to detect. In institutions like NMRA, a lot of irregularities take place by inserting various documents into the files. Digitisation leads to less corruption, evidence from the rest of the world proves this. But Sri Lanka seems bent on trying to show the world that corruption can continue unabated, despite digitisation.

Q: What can we do to ensure that such things do not happen in the future?

A: I think that government agencies must develop internal capacity to digitise. We now depend on various private entities. If the ICTA was in control of the process, this would not have happened. Right now, ICTA takes responsibility, but the actual work is done by a private entity. The role played by these third parties is problematic. If the ICTA digitised the NMRA database, it would have been much easier to find the person responsible, what exactly happened and punish the guilty parties. Consequently, in our opinion this sub-contracting has to stop, the ICTA must develop its capacities.

This happens in Lankan Government Cloud and ICTA controls it, but by bringing in third parties into the Cloud, the ICTA jeopardises its operation.

Q: This is just like private labs conducting COVID-19 tests. Are these companies solicited because powerful officials get a cut?

A: Undoubtedly, these contracts are awarded to companies that are connected to senior officials. There are a number of such companies, and they end up getting most of the tenders. This is a big problem in the health sector. When we investigate companies that win tenders, we find that they have affiliations with decision-makers. Some of these tenders are tailor made for these companies. Such contracting must not happen.

Q: Although it has been around 18 months since COVID-19 was first detected here, we still have many issues with regard to testing. What is the reason for this?

A: Again this is a problem of conflict of interest. Several officials who have a say in how testing is done, work part time at private labs. Consequently, they benefit if private labs are allowed more testing. We have been telling the government throughout this year that we can easily increase PCR testing by 300 percent overnight, around 75,000 a day. We insisted that there was no immediate requirement for more PCR machines, and the ones already available could be used to conduct more tests if the Health Ministry so desired. However, Health Ministry officials insisted that state-run labs do not have the capacity.

This is a blatant lie, none of the state-run medical labs are operating at full capacity. The facilities can operate 24 hours a day and there are facilities and personnel to carry out the task. All our members are willing to work longer hours given the pandemic situation and paying people extra would not have cost that much.

Q: There was another issue with rapid PCR testing?

A: This is another example for the nexus between Health Ministry officials, private labs and quarantine hotels. Initially, when the pandemic broke out, PCR testing was time-consuming and it was lab-based. However, things have changed a lot in the last 18 months and rapid PCR technology has become popular given that international travel is picking up again. The major difference between the standard lab-based RT-PCR test and the Rapid RT-PCR test is the turnaround time. If you get the Rapid RT-PCR test done, you’ll be able to get the results on-site within 30 minutes, whereas it’ll take up to 72 hours to get the results of a standard RT-PCR test.

Moreover, rapid PCR tests don’t require setting up of costly facilities. Sixteen Sri Lankan hospitals already conduct rapid PCRs. All 16 machines were donations and Health Ministry officials had continuously undermined President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who had instructed the Ministry to buy 30 rapid PCR machines. The President issued the order after we wrote to him on eight separate occasions.

However, Health Ministry officials reduced this number by half and although tenders were called in June, nothing came of it. We wrote to philanthropists and they responded. For example, the rapid PCR machine at the Embilipitiya Hospital was donated by Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thera, the machine at Lady Ridgeway Hospital was donated by Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardane.

Moreover, Tata has offered us five mobile PCR units. These units could be taken anywhere. However, the Health Ministry refused to use them over some bogus claims. We could have used these units during the lockdown to better understand the spread of the pandemic.

Q: Why are health officials delaying the tender process?

A: Apparently a businessman affiliated with the government wants to bid on this tender. However, the rapid PCR machine that the President wants imported isn’t registered with NMRA yet. So the officials are stalling until the businessman gets things sorted out at his end. Our inquiries have also revealed that the businessman is lying about the costs. The big wigs at the Health Ministry are aware that the businessman is lying but are covering up for him.

Their behaviour is an embarrassment to senior government officials. A few months ago, the Chinese Embassy in Colombo claimed that several Sri Lankas who were issued negative PCR and antibody test reports by the Nawaloka Hospital had been diagnosed with COVID-19 after their arrival in China. The Embassy said that China will not accept PCR and IgM antibody test reports issued by the hospital from July 13, 2021 in order to ensure the health and safety of all passengers to China.

This is a great embarrassment to the country. We usually accuse other countries of issuing false test reports, but here we have one of the most powerful nations in the world and a key ally of Sri Lanka officially claiming that some of our test reports are false.

The government should have immediately suspended the state officials in charge of laboratory services and regulating private laboratories following China’s decision. But nothing happened. The officials are shameless and the government does nothing to punish people who mess up. So, why change your behaviour, if you are a corrupt official?

Q: On the subject of the PCR lab at the BIA, you have been agitating for the establishment of a state-of-the-art PCR lab at the airport since April or May 2020. However, 18 months later the private sector still tests inbound passengers and some hospitals still mint money by quarantining them. A newly established lab, at the cost of hundreds of millions of rupees, is left idle after operating only for two days. What’s going on?

A: From the beginning, some senior Health Ministry officials prevented the government laboratory service from testing inbound passengers. This group of Health Ministry specialists make considerable money from private laboratories and quarantine centres. These officials have publicly stated that the health sector was not equipped to test all those who arrived from overseas. These are false claims.

In mid-2020, we established a PCR lab at the BIA. At this time, even the most advanced nations had just started establishing such facilities at airports.

There was a lot of resistance from certain officials of the Health Ministry and doctors who worked at private labs and received money from quarantine centres. Private labs were entrusted with the task of conducting PCR tests on all tourists arriving in Sri Lanka. The state-run lab did not receive a single sample. This is unfortunate because we can test 4,500 people a day and issue reports within 90 minutes. Each test costs about USD 30 to 40, and the government could have minted money which it could have used on anti-COVID-19 activities.

However, due to the resistance from the Health Ministry, this lab was hardly used to test passengers. After a year of us agitating, the Airport and Aviation Authority established a state-of-the-art lab at the BIA premises in collaboration with the airport and a private company. We fully supported this move. Initially, the Health Ministry did not authorise the lab to commence operations. Then in late September they were compelled to do so but after two days the lab ceased operations and now this state-of-the-art establishment lies idle. Private labs continue to conduct tests and quarantine hotels keep making money. Such is the power of the nexus between government officials and the private sector.

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Disclaimer: ‘Unholy alliance ruling the roost in health sector, fleecing people’ By Rathindra Kuruwita - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view

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