Kailash Jagutpal cannot be considered as a light-headed Minister as he had been entrusted to supervise one of the most important spending government departments, that of Health and Quality of Life. He had the enormous responsibility with his technical advisors to steer the country through the largely unknown and shifting knowledge about the Covid-19 virus causing the worldwide pandemic, namely through the operation of strict quarantine facilities, the purchase of vaccines as available when many larger countries were on the same quest, the acquisition, mostly under emergency procurement conditions, of a variety of medical supplies (such as pharmaceutical products and protective masks and gear) and equipment (such as ventilators and medical oxygen).
The Covid-19 response in Mauritius, which is viewed as a success story, especially by international organisations including the WHO, is no doubt attributable to the public health measures (quarantine, contact tracing, case investigation and isolation of contacts, mass testing) implemented and followed through in the two-year fight against the pandemic. But as has happened in several other places according to international institutions, pandemic procurement procedures provided the opportunity of considerable derailment and corruption to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions and Big Pharma has been reported to have made mega profits on all fronts as suppliers. Were it not for India’s gallant effort (Vaccine Maitri program) at providing millions of vaccines to many countries at cost or free of charge when it was under intense pressures for its own population, the toll may have been far higher for many of them.
But throughout the unknowns and stresses of the health sector during the pandemic, all had not been above board in the conduct of national health policies and many controversies surrounded key aspects despite the overall supervision of a High-Level Covid-19 Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister. The interventions of the Ministry of Commerce and the State Trading Corporation only compounded an already bad situation. If we understand that the operation of a national quarantine or the sourcing of pharmaceuticals and vaccines cannot have been easy, there have been clear misfirings that are not simply attributable to the pandemic. Ministers, high officials, key high-level advisors and high echelon administrative staff have been mentioned in the spree of free-wheeling hobnobbing between the decision-making levels and favoured suppliers for huge contracts.
Opacity has reigned as no enquiry either by CCID/MCIT or the ICAC has been completed on any of these aspects. Procurement officials have been reported to operate under heavy pressures so much so that a few have been suspected to have committed suicide, and not much is known about the status of police inquiries thereon. The New Souillachospital again was turned into a scary dialysis centre where patients were terrified to turn to and several passed away, leading former Deputy Prime Minister Collendavellooto damn the Health Minister’s initial reaction to categorically rule out any inquiry, before backing down. Lack of public transparency has marked the treatment of the Report on these tragic events.
The presentation of a Central Medical Procurement Authority Bill is hopefully a belated sign from the government that at least the procurement aspect of the Ministry of Health may benefit from a more resilient, robust and transparent structure and processes in the future for billions of Rupees of public funds. In his presentation of the Bill to the National Assembly, Minister Jagutpal boldly stated that « the importance of integrity is a fundamental principle when it concerns the management of public funds. Those responsible with public sector governance need to exercise leadership with the highest standard of professionalism. For the purpose of good governance, there is need for accountability and transparency. »
Reality they say can be stranger than fiction but let us hope this is not mere lip-service when examples of mismanagement of public funds have been the norm rather than the exception.
Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 23 June 2023
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