An order signed by the Dhaka district civil surgeon on Thursday banned government hospitals from providing information on patients and healthcare to the media during the Covid-19 pandemic. Expressing deep concern over this, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has demanded immediate cancellation of this directive.
The agency also called for taking strict action against those in whose interests such restrictions were imposed, as opposed to making all-out efforts to control the pandemic collectively through the free flow of information.
“The Covid-19 pandemic is now rampant in the country and the numbers of infections and deaths are breaking previous records almost daily. At such a time, imposing restrictions on the disclosure of any information related to health and patient care at government hospitals in Dhaka district to the media is a complete violation of the constitutional right of free media and free flow of information and the Right to Information Act,” said Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of the TIB in a statement on Saturday.
“At the same time, it conflicts with the promise of independent and objective journalism. It is also tantamount to deliberately creating obstructions in collecting and spreading information through the media,” he said.
Attempts to impose such restrictions nationally at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country had to be scrapped in the face of widespread protests, he said.
He said, “The lockdown imposed to control the pandemic has already reduced access to information for the general public, while not giving information to the media will deprive people of up-to-date healthcare information, and it will be difficult to get a true picture of capacity and limitations of the hospitals, which cannot be desired.”
“The question here is who are the higher authorities that the civil surgeon referred to as the source of the order? And for what purpose do they want to control the flow of information locally? What are the benefits of this order for controlling the pandemic? These question needs to be cleared up on an urgent basis and steps must be taken now to stop the cycle of repeated attempts to impose such restrictions,” said Dr Iftekharuzzaman.
Expressing suspicions that the order was a part of the intention to hide information about the ongoing irregularities, corruption and arbitrariness in the health sector, the TIB executive director said the day after the directive was issued, the Directorate General of Health Services published an advertisement in more than ten national dailies at the expense of the state, that means the people, saying “there is no corruption in the health sector.”
“However, innumerable irregularities, corruption and mismanagement in various fields including recruitment, procurement, construction of infrastructure and services in the health sector in the last one year can be found in the newspapers,” said Dr Iftekharuzzaman.
This has also been reflected in the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
“Recent research by the TIB has also highlighted the lack of good governance in the sector, which has been widely discussed in various quarters. Therefore, it would not be unreasonable to think that publishing this advertisement and the ban on providing the information is an attempt to cover up corruption, irregularities and mismanagement in the health sector,” said the TIB executive director.
“While most of the corruption in the health sector in recent years has been uncovered by the media, restrictions on journalists locally collecting information will create a wide range of opportunities to hide information on irregularities, corruption and mismanagement. These will also ruin all the good initiatives to control the pandemic. Therefore, it is necessary to immediately withdraw such arbitrary orders and take appropriate steps to effectively control the pandemic through the free flow of information,” he continued.
Referring to the TIB’s latest study on Covid-19, Dr Iftekharuzzaman said, “An average Covid-19 patient is being forced to seek treatment in private hospitals at an average cost of Tk5 lakh, due to the ICU crisis in government hospitals resulting from the lack of the government’s initiative to expand the medical system even a year and four months after the onset of the pandemic. The High Court has noticed the death of a Covid-19 patient due to a lack of high-flow nasal cannula. In addition to the laxity in taking action against irregularities and corruption in the past, the investigation and trial of irregularities and corruption have also been slowed down.”
“In this situation, it can be said that obstructing the collection of information through restrictions will give special benefits to the corrupt people by keeping the information of irregularities, corruption and mismanagement in the health services secret or by continuing the ‘culture of denial.’ Therefore, it is expected that effective initiatives will be taken to control irregularities, corruption and mismanagement without trying to control information,” he added.