A day after Covid-19 cases double, Health Ministry goes after frontline doctor for critical commentsThe ministry has summoned Dr Sher Bahadur Pun, a virologist at the Sukraraj Hospital, for a clarification over his public statements on the Covid-19 pandemic.
With Nepal in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic and 14 new cases reported on Friday alone, the Health Ministry has sought clarification from a doctor serving on the front lines of the fight against the coronavirus allegedly over his public statements and articles on the Covid-19 pandemic.
Officials familiar with the decision said that Health Ministry officials, along with senior officials at the Sukraraj Hospital and the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, had been unhappy with virologist Dr Sher Bahadur Pun for some of his critical statements regarding the lackadaisical approach of the the authorities towards Covid-19.
“Yes, the Health Ministry has sought clarification from Pun,” Dr Sagar Rajbhandari, director of the Sukraraj hospital, told the Post. “We do not have any issue against Pun’s work performance, but officials at the ministry might be dissatisfied with him for talking to the media.”
Pun confirmed to the Post that he had been asked by Rajbhandari to go to the Health Ministry.
“The director had been telling me for the last several days that I was wanted at the Health Ministry to furnish clarification over views I have expressed in the media,” said Pun. “Now they have summoned me by sending a letter.”
Pun speaks openly and is accessible to the media, which is why many reporters seek him out for comment. His background as a virologist also makes him a relevant expert at a time when the world is held in thrall by a coronavirus. But Pun is not one to mince words. He has long been critical of the authorities and had been calling for mass testing using rapid diagnostic kits, cautioning the authorities against complacency.
Pun, however, had also warned the authorities not to rely solely on the rapid diagnostic tests, saying they could give misleading results. This came true on Friday.
Twelve persons, who had earlier tested negative on the rapid diagnostic tests, tested positive when tests were conducted via the polymerase chain reaction method in Birgunj. PCR testing carried out at the National Public Health Laboratory in Kathmandu also showed positive results. The new cases, along with two more cases from Chitwan, took Nepal’s Covid-19 tally to 30.
However, Dr Bikash Devkota, spokesperson at the Health Ministry, said that he was unaware of the ministry seeking clarification from Pun.
“Why don’t you ask Raghuram Bista, joint secretary at the ministry,” Devkota said.
Repeated attempts by the Post to reach Bista went unanswered but an official at the Health Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Health Minister Bhanu Bhakta, his secretariat members, senior doctors at the Sukraraj Hospital and some at the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division were all unhappy with Pun’s growing visibility in the media.
In earlier conversations with the Post, Pun had repeatedly mentioned that many officials were unhappy with his comments and had warned him that he could be fired if he didn’t stop speaking to the media.
Pun’s summoning comes just days after Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli asked all his Cabinet ministers and Secretariat members to “maintain distance” from the media.
However, Pun said that he was hired on contract by the Sukraraj Hospital over 10 years ago, so he cannot be penalised by the Health Ministry. Pun defended himself, saying he had not spoken out against the government’s policy regarding the containment of Covid-19.
“I have just been speaking and writing about the disease pattern, risks involved and ways to handle the disease, which is my expertise,” said Pun.
The Health Ministry official told the Post that a number of senior officials at Sukraraj and the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division were upset with Pun’s appearance on the media, rather than the substance of his criticism.
Public health experts see this development as yet another misguided decision by the government.
Dr Baburam Marasini, former director of the Epidemiology and Disease Control Division, said that the incumbent government has been taking one wrong decision after another, which could end up costing the country dearly.
“First, they transferred experienced manpower, then they showed a sluggish approach in the fight against pandemic, and now they have been taking personal vengeance against Pun,” said Marasini. “This is not the time for retaliation. Expertise should be used by anyone, whether they are in state-run health institutions or in private centres.”
Marasini said that Dr Pun has been making the public aware of the technicalities of Covid-19’s spread and its testing, which is the government's responsibility.
But Health Ministry officials continued to refuse to acknowledge that a clarification had been sought from Pun.
Dr Khem Karki, Health Minister Bhanu Bhakta Dhakal’s advisor, also said that the Health Minister’s Secretariat was unaware of any clarification sought from Pun.
“He [Pun] may be very good at explaining issues and writing articles, but there are concerns about him when it comes to case management,” said Karki. “The government has been very successful in handling the coronavirus, which could be leading people to come up with new stunts to criticise the government.”