Dhaka grapples with fake COVID-19 scandal

Special Dhaka grapples with fake COVID-19 scandal
Volunteers spray disinfectants on vehicles amid concerns about coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka (AFP)
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Updated 21 July 2020

Dhaka grapples with fake COVID-19 scandal

Dhaka grapples with fake COVID-19 scandal
  • Reports emerge of officials forging 20,000 medical certificates

DHAKA: Bangladesh on Monday began a massive drive against falsified coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test results and treatment irregularities a day after authorities arrested two officials and a doctor. 

The trio are accused of having sold thousands of fake medical certificates showing negative results for COVID-19 tests, a majority of which had never been conducted.

The country’s elite force, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), conducted a raid on the Shahabuddin Medical College (SMC) in Dhaka and arrested the three on Sunday.

“The hospital was cheating COVID-19 patients with fake reports and charging an unnecessarily expensive fee. Without conducting any lab test of the samples, the hospital issued COVID-19-positive certificates to the patients,” RAB Executive Magistrate Sarwar Alam told Arab News on Monday.

Alam added that, during the raid, the RAB found a case of a COVID-19-negative person who had been admitted to the hospital’s intensive care unit with four others who had tested positive for the disease.

“The hospital was also conducting COVID-19 tests using unauthorized kits and charging people $125 for each report,” he said.

This is despite the government fixing COVID-19 testing rates at $2.5 for public and $43 for private hospitals.

More than 20 people have been arrested for involvement in the scandal thus far, with law enforcement officials fearing that the health facilities had already issued more than 20,000 fake test reports. 

There is a massive market for such certificates among migrant workers from Bangladesh eager to return to work overseas. Employers in most countries require a medical clearance certificate for employees to be allowed to return to work.

The issue first came to light on June 24 when law enforcement officials arrested five people, including Ariful Chowdhury, chief executive of JKG Healthcare, a private facility approved by the government to collect COVID-19 samples from kiosks set up at various places in Dhaka and Narayanganj. 

Later, on July 12, the police also arrested JKG Chief Chairwoman Dr. Sabrina Arif Chowdhury, who was serving at a government hospital. 

Three days later, on July 15, the RAB made another high-profile arrest by detaining Shahed Karim, chairman of Regent Hospital — a private health facility designated by the government for COVID-19 testing — over allegations of issuing fake certificates and cheating people to get treated.

SMC officials deny the allegations, adding that they only conducted the COVID-19 tests for admitted patients with the support of two other government-authorized labs. 

“We have conducted tests on around 40 samples, and all of these patients were admitted here with COVID-19-positive reports,” Dr. Monsur Ali, director of SMC, told Arab News. 

SMC’s permits were subsequently revoked on July 12, with Ali saying that the hospital had applied for license renewal and that the “process was underway.” 

Meanwhile, the RAB said it would continue with its investigations into SMC and other health facilities to ascertain how many more fake certificates had been issued.

“Considering the troubles of the patients and the employment of more than a hundred doctors, nurses and medical staffers, we didn’t close the operations of the SMC hospital. They were given two weeks to rectify the irregularities and lapses,” Alam said.  

The RAB’s investigation comes in addition to three separate probes being conducted by the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) against health ministry officials who approved permissions for JKG and Regent to conduct COVID-19 tests and treatment.

“A team from the ACC visited the directorate-general of health services on Sunday to collect the relevant documents with the aim of determining their role in the COVID-19 treatment scandal. The director-general couldn’t provide all the documents instantly and promised to deliver them to us on Monday. Once we receive the documents, they will be scanned by our officials,” Dilwar Bakht, secretary of the ACC, told Arab News.  

“If needed, we will summon anyone irrespective of rank and profile. The investigation process may take a little time as we want to file a charge sheet with much evidence,” he added.

As of Monday, Bangladesh had recorded a total of 207,453 infections, while 2,668 had died from the disease.