Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal is set to announce an overhaul of the health sector overwhelmed by the COVID-19 epidemic, in the fiscal 2020-21 budget.
In addition to an increase in the budgetary allocation, the government is set to unveil a ‘mega plan’ for the sector, which includes a medium-term three-year plan and a 10-year long-term plan.
Minister Kamal is hopeful that these two proposals will bring about a massive transformation of the health sector.
In an exclusive interview with bdnews24.com on Tuesday, the minister acknowledged the troubles plaguing the health sector and the need for reforms, two days ahead of the announcement of the national budget for fiscal 2020-21.
“We cannot get away from the fact that the health sector is in dire condition. We don’t want this to continue any longer.”
“We are adopting the 10-year long-term mega plan to bring about large scale changes, similar to that of the power sector. The plan has been conceived under the direction of the honourable prime minister.”
“There was once a profound crisis in the power sector, but we are now self-sufficient. Hopefully, the success of the power sector will be replicated in the health sector.”
REVAMPING HEALTHCARE AMID VIRUS CHAOS
The epidemic has thrown the inadequacies of Bangladesh’s health sector into stark contrast. The lack of medical technologists led to disruptions in collecting patient samples, while the shortage of designated doctors and nurses profoundly affected patient care.
As a result, the government has rushed through appointments to positions in the sector.
Several hospitals have noted a lack of intensive care beds since the start of the epidemic. The deficiencies of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research have also been laid bare.
Officials from the finance ministry said the new ‘mega plan’ is aimed at addressing the severe shortcomings exposed by the crisis.
According to officials, the medium-term plan involves expanding the hiring of manpower to the sector to meet the need for doctors, nurses and other workers.
It also includes proposals to bring in training specialists from countries such as Vietnam, Singapore and Australia to increase and improve the skill set of doctors, nurses and technicians.
Through these programmes, the government plans to expand the skilled labour force in the sector and increase the amount of research done.
Investment in health infrastructure will also grow as new hospitals begin construction. Each district is set to receive its own research centre while new medical equipment will also be bought.
INCREASED BUDGETARY ALLOCATION
Finance ministry officials say Tk 330 billion has been allocated to the health sector in the 2020-21 budget, a Tk 73 billion increase over the previous fiscal year. The health sector budget for the current fiscal year is approximately Tk 257 billion.
An additional Tk 7.5 billion has been proposed in the new budget as financial compensation for doctors, nurses and other health workers who are afflicted while working during the coronavirus pandemic.
Another Tk 6 billion has been set aside to pay the wages of the 2,000 doctors, 5,000 nurses and 2,000 medical technologists who have been recently appointed to government positions.
The World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank have also come forward to provide support to the health sector during this epidemic.
A World Bank project with a budget of Tk 11 billion has been approved. A Tk 14 billion ADB project is awaiting approval. AIIB is also funding another proposal. South Korea is also providing support for another project. These funds will go towards the purchase of ventilators for various hospitals.
Loans provided by the World Bank, IDB and AIIB will be used to build ICUs, isolation centres and 43 scanner machines at land and airports, reports bdnews24.com.
A total of Tk 25 billion has been allocated for the IEDCR to expand its activities by increasing lab testing capacities, transportation facilities and the construction of local offices in district towns.
AIIB, a Chinese initiative, is providing $200 million in two stages, which amounts to Tk 17 billion.
“This is how we will overhaul the health system,” the finance minister said.
FOCUS ON CAPACITY BUILDING
Kamal did, however, stress the need for the health ministry to expand its capacity to be able to handle the increased budget.
“Many people are saying we should spend less on development budgets and more on the health sector. But the capacity of the Ministry of Health must be kept in mind. The ministry is allocated Tk 10 billion each year. A sudden budget increase to Tk 20 billion will do no good. This is why we need to expand their capacity to handle the budget first.”
Minister Kamal noted that his second budget would be announced amid an unprecedented crisis for the country.
“You can see that COVID-19 has thrown everything into chaos. Not only Bangladesh, but the whole world is also facing a profound crisis today. Overcoming this crisis will be a challenge. It is the main goal of the budget to overcome these challenges.”
As the global pandemic dampens exports, the finance minister stressed the importance of agriculture.
“Farmers are the lifeblood of our economy,” he said. “The honourable prime minister said ‘don’t allow a single inch of arable land to remain uncultivated’.”
The budget will also expand the industrialisation of the sector.
PRIORITISING FOOD SECURITY AND SOCIAL SAFETY
Finance ministry officials say that the COVID-19 epidemic has also had a marked impact on the agriculture sector. Many initiatives in the budget will aim to safeguard farmers and thus provide food to the nation.
For this reason, the budget for the sector has increased by Tk 29.6 billion to Tk 299.83 billion, or 3.6 percent of the budget, in the new fiscal year, according to finance ministry officials.
At the moment there is no telling when the coronavirus will end. But the government has promised that it will provide food for a vast number of the poor as long as the crisis lasts.
Asked how the government would do this, the finance minister said: “Throughout the year we have been providing stipends to widows and the elderly and conduction other programmes to support the poor. These will be increased in the upcoming budget to address this difficult time.”
The coronavirus epidemic has affected the livelihoods of 30 million people with lower incomes. The allocation for social security and welfare programmes has also been increased in the coming budget to provide support to vulnerable groups.
The new budget will propose a Tk 321 billion outlay in this sector.
“We must provide food to the poor during this crisis, no matter what,” Kamal said.