Thursday, September 15, 2016

On calling a spade a spade

I hadn’t met him when I wrote on what he did. Hadn’t talked to him, hadn’t shared a conversation or for that matter even texted to him. I wrote on him because someone I know told me to, and also because having comprehended what he had done, I felt he deserved an article. So at a time when rapists, criminals, and pilferers parading as politicians got free airtime whenever they wrecked havoc, I read on what he did, understood the rationale behind it, and wrote.

Since then I’ve talked with the man. I’ve met him, kept myself updated on what he’s doing, and prayed that there’ll be an end to all his efforts. And not for nothing. For M. S. H. Mohomed, whom I wrote on to Colombo Telegraph a few months back, remains a hero we can call our own: a citizen of the world and of this country. He did what others could only have dreamt of a year back. He raised money for a much needed machine at the Maharagama Cancer Hospital: a PET Scanner. And he raised the amount that was needed within three months.

Three months, ladies and gentlemen. Lesser things have been committed within that period. Things you and I wouldn’t normally talk about but would, for the sake of propriety, sweep under the proverbial carpet. And as for the amount raised, it’s not a matter of a million or even 10: we’re talking about 300 million rupees, collected to give a chance to the poor of this country, a chance to speed up the detection and diagnosis of cancer. I suppose it takes the kind of push Mohomed was able to bring about to collect that amount of money, because after all we’re not merely talking about a couple of generous donors but the entire country, including people from all walks of life, ethnicities, and faiths, giving their share with no strings attached.

Going by this, one can be forgiven for thinking that all that’s done and dusted. One can be forgiven for believing (like me) that the PET Scanner is finally in Maharagama, that the poor of this country will get the opportunity they deserve, and that the machine won’t be open to the privileged only.

As things have turned out however, the Scanner hasn’t come here. Not by a long shot.

But before all that, here are some facts. Some hard, inscrutable facts. Ordering a PET Scanner isn’t as easy as ordering a car. There’s work to be done and time to spend. You can’t go in your private capacity as a citizen either: you must order it through the Ministry of Health. And to order it through the Ministry, you need to go through their inevitable (yet deplorable) “procedure” (doublespeak for “red tape”). Mohomed was kind enough to furnish me with the details, so here they are.

First and foremost, a Tender Committee needs to be appointed for the tender process. Once the tender is called, you have to wait 42 days (a statutory requirement) before you close it. Then the tender has to be approved by the Tender Board, which can take anywhere between two weeks and two months. The Minister’s final approval takes another two to four months, after which the Scanner finally gets ordered.

But that’s not all. Ordering a Scanner isn’t as easy as it sounds. You first need to open a Letter of Credit. You then need to tell the manufacturer who scraped through the tender process to assemble if as per the requirements of our hospital. That takes about two months. Shipping it takes another two to three weeks, fixing it in the hospital takes another six, while radiologists at the Cancer Hospital need to be trained to handle it. In the meantime, you need to import fluorodeoxyglucose (FDG), a chemical used in the machine, from India.

And then there’s the hospital itself. You can’t move the machine into it as you would another machine. You need to move it into another building and what’s more, you need approval from the Atomic Energy Board, after which you can finally get the machine down. And that after more than 50 weeks, 12 months, or one year.

It took three months for Mohomed to raise 300 million rupees. It’s been three months since he did. So what’s been achieved by the Ministry until now? I believe Mohomed should be quoted here: “Only the appointment of a Tender Committee.”

Yes, ladies and gentlemen. Only the appointment of a Tender Committee. A Committee with a bunch of people who only have to oversee the tender process. A bunch of people who could have been easily appointed based on their merit.

Let me put that into perspective for you: it takes about a year to complete the installation of the PET Scanner, and three months of that period have been spent appointing a blessed Committee.

The Miracle of Asia, ladies and gentlemen. The Miracle of Asia.

And that’s not all. Consider this: Sri Lanka has about 100,000 cancer patients. Every year about 20,000 more are diagnosed. Half of them die. At any given point, there are 300 hundred doctors tending to them, laid down on more than 1,100 beds. Couple that with other stark realities, like the fact that most of the machines at the Cancer Hospital are malfunctioning, or the fact that it lacks major and vital diagnostic equipment, and you get the whole picture.

Yes, you do. And all this time, our officials, those who pride themselves as the “rajya sevakayo” and “deshi hithayishi” mandarins, are busy making mountains out of molehills and appointing officials. They are more concerned about who gets appointed to the Committee than the 20,000 people who are diagnosed and the 10,000 people who die.

I suppose it’s unbecoming of me to say this, but say it I will: the Ministry of Health has blood splattered on its hands and on the hands of its officials for every minute they delay the process to get in the PET Scanner. They are insulting the intelligence of the common man. They are also insulting that of those who gave their time and money to a cause. Was it worthwhile? Of course, but if the Ministry doesn’t take stock of that, who will?

And who to blame? Certainly not the Minister, who’ll clean his hands of the matter and say, “Not my responsibility!” Not the Ministry, which will probably amble along at its own measured pace and give the proverbial finger to those who are dying and are unable to get themselves treated. And not the officials of those little, little Committees, who should (I strongly believe) be made to undergo the same punishment those they condemn to death by omission and delay are, through no fault of their own, going through.

No, this isn’t an attempt at Zola’s “J’Accuse!” I accuse no one. Know why? Because I don’t care. I’ve cared and so have my countrymen. Enough is enough. We should call a spade a spade and get this country going. And if that means lambasting officials who are less concerned about people than about Committees, count me in. I’ll be more than happy to join the cause. And do the needful.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com