The Financial Express

Summit highlights fault lines in healthcare sector

| Updated: September 24, 2020 17:38:03

Participants during the policy debate arranged by Economics Study Center (ESC) of Dhaka University Participants during the policy debate arranged by Economics Study Center (ESC) of Dhaka University

The third edition of the Bangladesh Economics Summit organised by the Economics Study Center (ESC) of Dhaka University came to an end on September 19, 2020 following a number of panel discussions, policy debate, launching of BSDED Volume 3 and a study report titled, "Assessing the Fault Lines of Bangladesh's Healthcare Sector: Implications for Future Policy Response." Due to the pandemic situation, all the events were being held on Zoom, a virtual meeting platform, which were also broadcasted live on Facebook.

A panel discussion on "The Absence of Labor Rights and the Plight of Bangladeshi Workers during COVID-19" was held on September 16, 2020. The session was chaired by Dr Sayema Haque Bidisha, professor of Economics, University of Dhaka. The esteemed panel included Dr Rushidan Islam Rahman, executive chairperson, Centre for Development and Employment Research (CDER); SK Jenefa K Jabbar, director, Human Rights and Legal Aid Services and Social Compliance, BRAC; and Dr. Rizwanul Islam, senior visiting fellow, Centre for Development and Employment Research (CDER).

Dr Sayema Haque Bidisha started the discussion stating that the labour market was heavily damaged by the pandemic, and since 85 percent of workers are in the informal economy, their labour rights are often ignored. "The benefits of incentive packages are not available to them because of being a part of the informal economy," she said.

Dr Rushidan Islam Rahman said that according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), real wages started to decline in early 2020 despite there being no pandemic. It has evidently caused a reverse migration as people are going back to the villages from cities. "Students who will graduate in the post-pandemic years will have a tough time in the labour market as there will be more competition. There's no alternative but to better equip oneself with modern technology to survive in such competition," opined Dr Rushidan.

SK Jenefa K Jabbar pointed out that the pandemic has shed light on the skill gap in the labour market. "While automation is on the rise, no one is trying to develop the skill sets required to adapt with the advanced technology," she said. She also mentioned that due to the lack of a tracking mechanism, workers who are laid off, often do not get the benefit of safety net packages.

Dr Rizwanul Islam mentioned that the economy has suffered from a major supply shock followed by a demand shock. Despite moves to turn the economy around, the situation is far over being normal. "Trade unions are seldom taken seriously, and the responsible authorities do not seem to care about the workers unless any major accident occurs," said Dr Islam.

On the following day, a policy debate was held on the motion "This house would sign an international treaty to provide universal health coverage for preventing infectious diseases". Although it was not a competitive debate, the opposition team won the audience poll on Facebook.

On September 18, 2020, the launching ceremony of the third volume of Bangladesh Students' Digest on Economics and Development (BSDED) was held. Dr Atonu Rabbani, professor of Economics at the University of Dhaka, chaired the ceremony, and Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, chairperson, BRAC, was present as the special guest.

BSDED is a students' journal authored and reviewed by young scholars which has been a key publication of the ESC since 2018. This year BSDED has received an overwhelming response from all over South Asia, and consists of research papers on healthcare, environment and climate, education and other extensive topics.

On the same day, the final round of the quiz competition took place. Six teams qualified to the final round following a previously held preliminary round.

The summit came to a conclusion following the launching ceremony of a study report authored by the ESC titled, "Assessing the Fault Lines of Bangladesh's Healthcare Sector: Implications for Future Policy Response." The ceremony was chaired by Dr Rumana Huque, professor of Economics, University of Dhaka, and MA Mannan, MP, minister of planning, was present as the chief guest. A subsequent panel discussion was held to discuss the findings of the report which was attended by Dr Taufique Joarder, research director, Public Health Foundation Bangladesh; Dr. Muhammad Shahadat Hossain Siddiquee, professor of Economics, University of Dhaka; and Dr Syed Abdul Hamid, professor, Institute of Health Economics, University of Dhaka.

The study reviews the existing healthcare system in Bangladesh, and in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, focuses on how the country's healthcare system can deal with the fundamental challenges better. The study has identified some key issues in the healthcare system, such as inequality in the healthcare sector and the effect of poverty on healthcare services, lack of mental healthcare facilities, exorbitant costs, absence of health insurance, ineffective administration, shortage of staff and equipment, lack of oversight in the pharmaceutical industry, corruption and information gap.

Dr Rumana Huque initiated the session by mentioning the many successes of the Bangladeshi healthcare system throughout history such as in the areas of mass-immunisation, the widespread establishment of community clinics, reduction in child mortality, and how it all stood in contrast to the how the healthcare sector had struggled to handle to pandemic exposing its many flaws.

Sheikh Rafi Ahmed, secretary of Public Relations, ESC, then proceeded to present the findings highlighting how the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the fault lines of the healthcare system of Bangladesh and brought many other issues to light that plagued the public health sector.

The Minister of Planning, MA Mannan, responded to the report by acknowledging the importance of addressing the issues plaguing the healthcare sector and stressed on everyone's doing their part to revamp the healthcare sector including himself. "Despite the strides made by the sector in the past, there are still many irregularities and deep-rooted problems related to corruption, embezzlement, misappropriation of limited resources, and the disparity between doctors and administrative officers that continue to hold the healthcare sector back," said the minister.

Dr Taufique Joarder emphasised the need for defined career tracks for public health officials so that the healthcare sector is better at taking preventive measures to future virus outbreaks and diseases. He elaborated that those who are in charge of public health tend to lack the administrative and planning skills necessary to handle such a massive crisis effectively as they often come from clinical backgrounds.

Dr Muhammad Shahadat Hossain Siddiquee discussed the healthcare sector's inefficient utilisation of funds due to corruption and mismanagement highlighting the lack of proper governance and accountability of the public healthcare system.  He also emphasised the need to fix regional inequalities in the quality of healthcare.

Dr Syed Abdul Hamid focused on the need for proper short and long term planning concerning the healthcare sector so that ad hoc solutions do not have to be devised when it is caught unprepared. He proposed to establish a national healthcare commission which would oversee the long term development of the healthcare sector.

Dr Rumana Huque concluded the session saying that the pandemic reminded us of our limitations in the healthcare sector resulting in a renewed interest in ensuring accountability to prevent embezzlement and corruption, establishing separate career tracks for public health, and decentralise power and responsibility on a regional level to promote healthcare equality.

The Financial Express was the media partner of the Summit and EMK Center the outreach partner.

The writer is currently a third year undergraduate student at the Department of Economics of the University of Dhaka.
He can be reached at ehasib15@gmail.com

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