April 19, 2022
DHAKA – Over the last two years, the government has been able to utilise only around 15 percent of Tk 8,150 crore allocated for two Covid-19 emergency response projects.
The World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2020 committed $800 million (Tk 6,970 crore approximately) to support Bangladesh in testing and treating Covid-19 cases, purchasing vaccine and strengthening its ill-equipped systems for public health emergencies.
The remainder of the cost is borne by the government.
The funds have to be utilised by the end of June 2023, according to the government’s annual development plan.
The funds were committed at a time when the country’s health sector was in urgent need of medical equipment to contain the pandemic that hit the country in March 2020.
Health experts said the utilisation of funds slowed down amid allegations of corruption in purchasing health equipment and a lack of capacity of health officials in implementing projects.
Besides, the government could not use the funds allocated for purchasing vaccines due to the scarcity of jabs and conditions from financers for procuring vaccines approved by the World Health Organisation, they added.
The government took up the Covid-19 Emergency Response and Pandemic Preparedness Project worth Tk 6,786 crore to procure, preserve and distribute vaccines and buy necessary health equipment.
The WB committed $600 million, including $500 million for procuring vaccines, while the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank financed $100 million in this project.
However, as of March this year, the government could spend only Tk 830 crore or around 12 percent of the total fund, according to health ministry data.
The government also undertook a similar project titled “Covid-19 Response Emergency Assistance” in April 2020 worth Tk 1,364 crore with $100 million (Tk 871 crore approx) coming from the ADB.
As of March this year, the government utilised only Tk 408 crore, or less than a third of the amount. The combined utilisation of funds of the two projects is around 15 percent.
The country faced crises in health services when Covid positivity rates spiked, first in August-September 2020 and then during the spread of the Delta variant in June-July last year, when there was a shortage of ICU beds and medical oxygen.
“If these [projects] were implemented timely, the country would get more benefits … these projects are important because it will strengthen the country’s health system. It is better late than never,” Prof Ridwanur Rahman, a medicine and infectious disease specialist at Universal Medical College Hospital, told The Daily Star yesterday.
EMERGENCY RESPONSE AND PANDEMIC PREPAREDNESS
The project was first taken in April 2020. Initially, a total of Tk 2,550 crore was allocated for procuring necessary medical equipment, including testing kits, masks, and ICU beds.
But the health directorate was thrown into turmoil after the Covid certificate scam involving Regent Hospitaland the supply of substandard Covid-19 equipment to different hospitals were revealed in 2020. Against this backdrop, the then director general of the DGHS Prof Abul Kalam Azad was removed from his position.
Besides, project directors were removed from their position several times since the project was launched.
“Due to the unstable situation, project directors did not show interest. So, the project implementation was delayed,” an official at the DGHS told The Daily Star.
In January 2021, the government revised the project, adding another $500 million or Tk 4,236 crore from the World Bank. The additional World Bank fund was meant for purchasing vaccines.
But the fund remained largely unutilised as the conditions set by the WB did not allow purchase of a particular vaccine.
Recently however, the World Bank has agreed to let the government spend the remaining amount as retrospective financing. The funds were used for purchasing vaccines from Sinopharm and the Serum Institute of India (SII), finance ministry officials said.
“The main reason behind the delay was that the World Bank initially did not agree to allocate funds to purchase a certain vaccine. Now we have agreed to spend the fund as retrospective financing,” Dr Shah Golam Nabi, the project director, told The Daily Star.
He said the government has already utilised $60 million, or Tk 510 crore, from the World Bank fund as retrospective financing for purchasing the 1.5 crore shots of Astrazeneca vaccine from SII last year.
A total of $345 million will be spent as retrospective financing for purchasing Sinopharm vaccines shortly, he informed.
Besides, the process of setting up “one or two large liquid oxygen production plants” is underway, according to Nabi.
“If things go well, we hope around 43 percent of the total fund will be utilised by the end of the current fiscal [June],” Nabi said.
According to health ministry officials, the tasks already done under the project are: installation of liquid medical oxygen reservoir tanks at 30 public hospitals; 220 beds for intensive care unit (ICU) at the Dhaka North City Corporation COVID-19 Dedicated Hospital; 300 ventilators installed at public hospitals dealing with COVID-19 cases in the country; and 40 ventilators, 20 oxygen concentrators and 20 pulse oximeters being used at the Bongomata Field Hospital at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University Dhaka.
Besides, some 110 million syringes, large quantities of PPE, masks, body bags, gloves, goggles, coveralls, and aprons supplied for protection of frontline workers, and COVID-19 testing machines and kits for different laboratories were procured for administering the vaccines, the officials said.
In addition, the National Vaccine Testing Laboratory is being set up at the Directorate General of Drug Administration.
The other components under implementation are: modern microbiology laboratories with PCR at 30 public hospitals, 20-bed isolation unit and 10-bed ICU with gas pipeline at 30 public hospitals and 5-bed ICU at Infectious Diseases Hospital Dhaka.
COVID-19 RESPONSE EMERGENCY ASSISTANCE
Under the Tk 1,364 crore project, a total of 17 medical college hospitals would get intensive care units.7 Of those, a few have been completed while the majority others are underway, said health officials.
Besides, there would be medical centres in each of 26 land ports. Of those, the construction work in three ports, including Banapole and Bhomra, has been completed while it is yet to start in other ports, they added.
Under the project, installation of RT-PCR labs in two out of 10 public healthcare institutions is underway while the rest have not started yet.