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.
Health Minister Jahid Malik and his inability to lead a team during COVID-19 pandemic have become a drawback to effective government at a time when Bangladeshi people need it more than ever. As a citizen of a democratic nation, my understanding is that the Minister has no alternative but either to resign voluntarily with honour or to be removed at once by the Prime Minister.
The ground for my argument rests on three factors: the convention of ministerial responsibility in the Westminster system cabinet government, the current pandemic caused by the spread of COVID-19 and the minister’s lack of public confidence, and recently imposed Draconian measures to restrict health professionals from speaking out in the public interest.
First, 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.
In addition, 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 good government. 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 the POTUS Donald Trump serves as a recent example.
Members of the public health services – serving on the ground, 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.
Minister Jahid Malik and the ministry under his watch failed to meet these fundamental expectations of democracy and the good government 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.
There is something even more alarming.
We are a nation with a severe shortage of healthcare professionals per capita facing an unprecedented “COVID -19” health crisis.
A good crisis management policy, expectedly, would have included the safety of the frontline defenders as a top priority.
But unfortunately, our frontline defenders, after a crucial delay, were provided with substandard protective equipment, and evidently, because of this serious irresponsibility, a good deal 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 in their stomachs in deplorable conditions, 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 in the media.
The way the minister and the ministry of health acted in the last few weeks would be unacceptable even in normal time; during a pandemic, it is profoundly displeasing. People are so dissatisfied and outraged that even dedicated Awami League supporters, in social media and elsewhere, are questioning the government’s integrity as it has now become clear that the most important minister of the time has no capacity to lead competently, and yet to be replaced.
These are, too, substantial grounds for the head of the cabinet to lose trust in her health minister and to instruct the minister to resign, honourably.
Time is a scarcity now. The Prime Minister must, therefore, act promptly and assign a minister competent of assuring the citizens with good government in the healthcare sector during this prodigious health emergency.