That callous comment of a health ministry official

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Immediately after leaving university at Peradeniya in 1962, I joined the Observer newspaper published by Lake House, the premier publishing house of the day. It was at the invitation of the then editor of the Observer Denzil Peiris who had been on a head-hunting visit to the Peradeniya campus.

The Observer, the oldest English language newspaper in the country founded in 1834, had, at the time I joined it, two daily editions-one on the streets around 9.30 in the morning and a “late edition” which was out around noon or later when the mercantile workers, public servants and others working in the Fort could pick it up at the lunch break.

The Sunday Observer, the most widely read newspaper then, was as good as any international paper though having far fewer pages, had on its staff highly skilled and experienced journalists and several satirical columnists and political commentators who found everybody grist to their word mill, especially politicians who crossed the line in ethical conduct or ministerial responsibilities even by a few feet.

Those scintillating journalistic craftsmen would have enjoyed taking today’s politicians apart. So would the public, long disgusted by the political antics of the more recent
unsavoury lot.

Today the Daily Observer, as it was later called, is history—closed down, I think in 1982. Its quality and professionalism had begun to disappear nearly a decade earlier as Lake House fell into government hands and like most state institutions was turned into an employment agency for politicians to plant their lackeys.

What makes me throw my mind back to those glory days of Ceylon journalism was a speech by Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella in Parliament the other day defending the health sector which even medical professionals of various specialities have come to describe as crumbling and failing and the people see as corrupt, increasingly inefficient and in the hands of incompetents surviving through near-servility to political masters to protect their positions.

In the course of his rather abrasive speech, Minister Rambukwella made the thoughtless and mordant remark that people do die in hospitals and the presence of florist shops close to hospitals speaks for it.

It apparently did not strike the minister that florists did not survive by only waiting to serve the dying and the dead. If that were so the florists would have died too—out of boredom and starvation. Fortunately, he did not mention funeral parlours.

This asinine comment threw my mind back to a story I heard in my novice days in the Observer when having “put the paper to bed” as the old journalistic saying goes, I listened, sometimes in awe, to some of the best-known names in journalism swap tales of their experiences and encounters with politicians, bureaucrats and police as they sat down to a quick breakfast between the two editions.

So if Minister Rambukwella’s regrettable remark about deaths in hospitals evokes a sense of deja vu, it is because this is not the first time I have heard of such callous and emotionless remarks emanating from the Health Ministry.

It brings to mind a similar incident I heard of during those early days in journalism. I cannot now recall the details but it had to do with some deaths at, I think, what was then called the General Hospital in Colombo.

One of our senior reporters had contacted the Permanent Secretary to the Health Ministry to follow up on the story of deaths in the hospital that had aroused public concern.

“People die, it cannot be helped,” was the curt reply he got. Such bureaucratic insouciance and lack of concern for human lives possibly as a result of administrative or medical negligence, from the head of the ministry drew a stinging retort from the Daily News in an editorial which, if I remember correctly, carried as its headline the same words of unconcern as uttered by the permanent secretary.

If Rambukwella’s words followed a couple of days later by the dismissive tone of today’s Health Ministry Secretary Janaka Sri Chandraguptha in rejecting widespread professional medical opinion critical of the recent shenanigans in the health sector, reminds one of what happened 60 years or so ago, it is understandable except that current concerns are much more widespread and raises important issues of the blatant violations of due quality checking procedures of imported pharmaceuticals, substandard drugs from unregistered and unrecognised manufacturers and darkening shades of corruption and ethical rectitude.

Characterising the criticisms made by health professionals as “very disappointing” the ministry secretary is quoted in a local newspaper as saying “I don’t know if everything will go right if everything is done as
they say”.

Well, Mr. Secretary, I doubt whether you are a medical professional. Even some of your top administrators don’t appear to be adhering to the strict rules and regulations that guide the registration of pharmaceutical companies and the recognition of quality testing standards that should govern the release of drugs and vaccines for use by the public.

The vital question is whether they are inept—even if they have medical qualifications because they have turned administrators—or they are succumbing to political ‘diktats’ that throw those rules and regulations that should be strictly observed because they concern the lives and safety of people, to the four winds for personal satisfaction and gain?

Let us pose some questions to Health Minister Rambukwella and his ministry secretary as they have joined battle—though poorly armed—in defence of recent attempts to circumvent established and necessary procedures to admit some dubious Indian firms as suppliers of drugs and possibly vaccines that should pass our own rigorous scientific tests.

Months before these recent deaths of patients in Colombo and other parts of the country caused an uproar in recognised health sector circles and especially among highly qualified medical specialists whether these tragedies might have been caused by substandard drugs and vaccines imported from Indian suppliers of questionable repute, this newspaper had already raised the alarm.

Last December a damning investigative report by Namini Wijedasa in the Sunday Times exposed the shenanigans of Minister Rambukwella and his trip to Chennai in search of medicines to import and calling on the cabinet to waive vital procedures to allow imports from certain
drug firms.

This column took up the issue a week later under the headline “Health Minister and officials raise a big stink” since the minister’s response to media reports left unanswered questions. Some related to who paid for the three-night hotel stay for the minister and an official at a star-class Chennai hotel.

The minister’s three-night stay cost Sri Lanka Rupees 433,300. Neither the minister nor the ministry has said who paid the bill especially since the minister had claimed that “the venture” did not cost the government and the official is said to have been “independently funded” whatever that means.

Besides this, other reports in the media and statements by responsible professional organisations and medical personnel have flayed both the minister and the ministry and related bodies like the NMRA, the regulatory authority, for the current mess, bypassing strict procedures and controls and playing with people’s lives.

Earlier the Supreme Court had suspended the import of drugs from a particular Indian firm over doubts about the quality and efficacy of some drugs.

Limited space does not allow me to go into detail but enough has already appeared in the media to have driven the minister and his fellow travellers into some form of perdition.

But then politicians are known to have thicker hides than a rhinoceros—at least in our Resplendent Isle.

(Neville de Silva is a veteran
Sri Lankan journalist who was Assistant Editor of the Hong Kong Standard and worked for Gemini News Service in London. Later he was Deputy Chief-of-Mission in Bangkok and Deputy High Commissioner in London.)