Health: So much controversy in so little time!

 By TP Saran

 If we look at the balance sheet of the Ministry of Health and Quality of Life (MOH), both literally and figuratively, after the general elections held less than a year ago, we can sum it up by saying that ‘never have so many controversies been generated in so little time.’

Where, with the promise of the new, we would have expected some groundbreaking developments, what we have been exposed to are controversies that have been succeeding each other, especially since the beginning of the year. The major one, what the Opposition MMM leader has been dubbing as ‘the scandal of the century,’ is the sale of the Medpoint Hospital, which is enveloped in a thick fog, so thick that even a PNQ in the National Assembly this week was not able to pierce through it. In this matter, the balance sheet seems to have been taken in its literal sense at a certain level of the MOH.

It is true that, under the circumstances, the Prime Minister had no other option but to adopt the best strategy of damage control in replying to the PNQ: namely, skirting the direct issues raised and giving an adroit but oblique answer, also taking upon himself to cover Parliamentary Questions B/52 and B/53. If the Minister of Health had been left to answer her PQ, there is no doubt that the hot temper of the Opposition would have been matched and perhaps even exceeded… With this in mind, who knows that the Prime Minister may have so acted in order to pre-empt ugly scenes that he anticipated if the Minister of Health had been allowed to intervene.

It is bad enough that the PM has had to do damage control; surely the last thing that was required was tarnishing further the augustness of the National Assembly by the unwarranted pugnacity of a Minister raring to go.

Nevertheless, the population is awaiting the conclusion of the ICAC enquiry with great expectation, and is hoping that it will not be disappointed. Already, the rumour mill is spinning with pointers that quite likely and yet again, for the sake of satisfying political thirstying for blood, a public servant will be made to bear the brunt and be the scapegoat. Heard in Rodrigues, early this year, during an official dinner: ‘You know, N…, we ministers have got nothing to do with procedures, it is the fonctionnaires who are concerned and they will have to answer for whatever…’!

The questions fielded by the Opposition must not distract from the core one in this saga: what was the source of the instruction to re-evaluate the first estimate of Rs 75 million? It is clear that an instruction must have been given – for no civil servant can initiate such a move without an instruction coming from ‘higher up.’

The MOH has too often, in that less than one year, been in the limelight for the wrong reasons. There was that autocratic, abrupt and aggressive attitude decried by the Nurses Union when they were confronted with a change in their conditions of service regarding earlier hours at the Heath Centres.

Not to forget that we have a new Colombo on the block, hounding staff at the Victoria Hospital in particular, especially very respected and very senior officers at the Central Laboratory and Virology Departments. Unmindful of the fact that they have been serving the country so admirably both locally and abroad, as they are widely recognized in international forums, bringing great credit to the country and literally placing it on the international health and medical scientific scene.

It is not too long ago that the first Colombo went chasing health professionals with the blessing of a Rambo minister. Where are they today? Everybody knows that they are glorious non-entities, shunned by their peers. As for the colleagues who were persecuted, to this day they can walk with their heads held high. And yet, some people refuse to learn the lessons of even recent history!

What they fail to understand is that it is one thing to send a strong signal periodically, but quite another to lead a continuous campaign of repression, denigration and humiliation. This only serves to demotivate staff already struggling to cope with the onslaught of eight million attendances per year in our overworked health facilities, and demotivated staff are not likely to be the best performers under the additional and totally unnecessary strain. Another Colombo-Rambo pair – with perhaps a third larron ostentatiously leading from the front – have to but await their turn to lapse into perdition.

This has been a most unhealthy, and embarrassing start, for the resumption of the National Assembly, and paradoxically it is health that has led on the scandal and controversy front. It is not, alas, an image any government would rather wish to project. For how long more will the Prime Minister have to keep doing damage control?

What is urgently needed but gravely lacking at the apex of the MOH is a spirit of compromise and a modicum of wisdom. Irrespective of the outcome of the ICAC enquiry, the public is looking forward to such a transformation. The sooner the Prime Minister is able to bring this about, the better will this augur for his image, that of the government he is heading and the country he is leading.

* Published in print edition on 25 March 2011

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