Mockery of two emergency health projects

It is disconcerting to know that the government has only been able to use around 15% of the funds allocated to two Covid emergency response projects, and now faces an almost impossible race against time with the deadline of use of funds ending June 2023. Both projects—one titled “Covid-19 Emergency Response and Pandemic Preparedness Project” and another titled “Covid-19 Response Emergency Assistance”—were adopted in 2020 to contain the pandemic. Of the combined funds of Tk 8,150 crore allocated to them, about Tk 6,970 crore ($800 million) has been committed by the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to help Bangladesh test and treat Covid cases, purchase vaccines and build public health capacity to respond to emergencies.

Over the past two years, however, authorities have struggled to use the money even as the country has suffered wave after wave of the pandemic, with hospitals often unable to house patients or give them proper treatment. , resulting in significant loss of life. What could be the rationale? The use of the funds, experts say, has slowed due to allegations of corruption in the procurement of health equipment and the lack of capacity of health officials to implement projects. In the case of vaccines, the government was unable to use the funds due to the scarcity of injections and the conditions imposed by the financiers to procure only vaccines approved by the World Health Organization (WHO). Appropriate use of funds can further strengthen our healthcare system by supporting ongoing efforts, but these funds were primarily intended to meet the needs of a particular time of crisis, and our failure to do so has been very expensive.

If such is the fate of projects with “emergency” in their titles, one dreads to think of what happens to non-emergency projects in a climate of zero accountability. Public projects in Bangladesh unfortunately suffer from a culture of deliberate overruns and cost overruns, resulting in frequent revisions. Forget the extra cost this entails. Delays at every stage of a project’s implementation mean that promised benefits risk being compromised or nullified by the time a project is completed, ignoring its stated objectives. And we have rarely, if ever, seen project managers and other stakeholders involved in delayed ventures being held accountable.

It’s particularly troubling when it happens in the health sector. The authorities, because they are involved in public life, must answer for their inability to use these emergency funds correctly and in a timely manner. And they need to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again in the future.

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