Government deal to procure medical equipment via three private companies raises questions over Army’s roleOfficials at the Department of Health Services say they were unable to wait any longer for the Nepal Army to procure urgently required equipment.
Two weeks since the Nepal Army was mandated to procure medical equipment needed to fight Covid-19 through a government-to-government deal, the national defence force has yet to make any progress. Private companies meanwhile are preparing to bring in medical equipment within a week’s time, according to the Department of Health Services.
After an earlier decision to award a contract to procure medical equipment to a private company ran into controversy, with two Cabinet ministers accused of corruption, the government had asked the Nepal Army to do the job.
But two weeks later, the Army has yet to bring in the first consignment. And the government has now signed agreements with three private firms to import emergency medical supplies, including personal protective equipment, N95 masks and gloves, raising questions as to why the government assigned the Army in the first place.
Officials at the Department of Health Services said that since several government hospitals are either running out or facing an acute shortage of medical equipment, the Health Ministry was under pressure, as the country has started seeing a rise in the number of Covid-19 cases.
A senior official at the department told the Post that the deals with the private firms were signed on short notice, after the Army failed to import the medical equipment even after weeks.
The department on Thursday signed three separate agreements with Om Surgical, Hamro Medi Concern and Lumbini Health Care to import the medical goods.
“We are aware of the past controversy so we met all requirements while handing over the responsibility for importing the medical goods to private firms,” said Mahendra Bahadur Shrestha, director-general of the Department of Health Services. “All of these firms are experienced in importing medical goods.”
These three firms will provide personal protective equipment and N95 masks, among other medical equipment, within two weeks, said Shrestha.
The government plans to import medical equipment worth Rs300 million through these three firms from China.
According to officials, the first consignment will arrive in a week’s time, by Wednesday.
The department had issued a short notice earlier this week asking for suppliers to import medical equipment within 15 days. Five firms had applied and three were selected, according to officials.
“We were not sure when we were getting medical equipment under the government-to-government arrangement. But we are fast running out,” said Bhogendra Dotel, director of the Department of Health Services, who signed the agreements with the three firms. “We had no option than to invite the private firms.”
The Nepal Army said it will require at least another week to bring in any medical equipment.
“We will be able to import 120 types of medical equipment from China and India within a week once the money is dispatched to the respective suppliers,” Brigadier-General Bigyan Dev Pandey, the Nepal Army spokesperson, told the Post. “We are expecting the Finance Ministry to release the budget latest by tomorrow [Saturday].”
Pandey said that state-owned Chinese companies will be supplying 67 types of testing reagents and protective gear while India-based manufactures will supply 53 types of medicines.
The Army last week had written to five countries—China, India, Israel, Singapore and South Korea—asking if they could supply the medical equipment. The Chinese and Indian governments had responded that they were ready to supply the required items under a government-to-government deal while the South Korean government said that Nepal could get the required equipment through private companies. Israel and Singapore did not respond.
Since the Army was handed the task of importing medical equipment under a government-to-government deal, Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali has held two rounds of telephonic conversation with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, asking China to provide the necessary equipment.
At least two government officials who did not wish to be identified said they were not aware of the reasons behind the delay in procuring the equipment under a government-to-government deal, which is expected to be a faster process, compared to competitive bidding.
“We waited two weeks for the supplies to arrive, to no avail,” an official at the Health Ministry told the Post requesting anonymity because he feared retribution. “We then decided to go for private firms to address the crisis.”
The decision to bring in the Army ran into controversy the moment it was made, with many asking if the KP Sharma Oli administration was allowing the national defence force to turn into a business firm. There were also questions regarding transparency, given that the previous tender with Omni Business Corporate International was annulled after allegations of corruption.
The decision was made public in such a way that it appeared to have been made after the deal with the Omni was scrapped. But later, it came to light that the Cabinet had decided to get the Army for the job days before the deal with the Omni was scrapped. The Post’s sister paper Kantipur, however, reported on March 29 that that the agenda was not discussed at the Cabinet meeting and that even ministers were unaware of the plan, with the decision taken solely at the behest of the prime minister.
Oli, however, in his address to the nation on April 7 tried to make light of the controversy saying that the government had taken right decisions to fight the disease.
Pandey, the Army spokesperson, attributed the delay in procurement to procedural issues.
“It takes time when the due process is followed. The government has approved every decision regarding procurement,” Pandey told the Post. “The Army’s procurement unit, which is led by a major general with the participation of officials from the Health and the Defence ministries, is looking after the procurement process.”
Officials with experience in government-to-government deals say it should not have taken more than a week for the first consignment to arrive, at least from China, as the Chinese market, despite being under pressure, has Nepal’s requirements ready.
According to officials familiar with developments, it took the Army two weeks to prepare the paperwork for the government-to-government deal, hence the delay.
“That’s too late,” said Shanta Raj Subedi, a former finance secretary. “Government-to-government deals are meant to hasten the process.”
According to Subedi, since governments are involved in such deals, there should not be an issue of trust or payment.
“We have our embassy in Beijing so it can follow up on the procurement process. Since this is not a normal time, we should expedite the process,” Subedi told the Post. “Spending two weeks on paperwork means we do not recognise the urgency.”
Frequently asked questions about the coronavirus outbreak
UPDATED as of June 2, 2020
What is Covid-19?
Covid-19, short for coronavirus disease, is an illness caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, short for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2. Common symptoms of the disease include fever, dry cough, fatigue, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. In severe cases, the infection can cause pneumonia, severe acute respiratory syndrome, kidney failure and even death.
How contagious is Covid-19?
Covid-19 can spread easily from person to person, especially in enclosed spaces. The virus can travel through the air in respiratory droplets produced when a sick person breathes, talks, coughs or sneezes. As the virus can also survive on plastic and steel surfaces for up to 72 hours and on cardboard for up to 24 hours, any contact with such surfaces can also spread the virus. Symptoms take between two to 14 days to appear, during which time the carrier is believed to be contagious.
Where did the virus come from?
The virus was first identified in Wuhan, China in late December. The coronavirus is a large family of viruses that is responsible for everything from the common cold to Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). After an initial outbreak in Wuhan that spread across Hubei province, eventually infecting over 80,000 and killing more than 3,000, new infection rates in mainland China have dropped. However, the disease has since spread across the world at an alarming rate.
What is the current status of Covid-19?
The World Health Organisation has called the ongoing outbreak a “pandemic” and urged countries across the world to take precautionary measures. Covid-19 had spread to 213 countries and infected more than 6,321,836 people with 375,657 deaths. In South Asia, India has reported the highest number of infections at 198,140 with 5,608 deaths. While Pakistan has reported 72,460 confirmed cases with 1,543 deaths. Nepal has so far reported 1,811 cases with eight deaths.
How dangerous is the disease?
The mortality rate for Covid-19 is estimated to be 3.6 percent, but new studies have put the rate slightly higher at 5.7 percent. Although Covid-19 is not too dangerous to young healthy people, older individuals and those with immune-compromised systems are at greater risk of death. People with chronic medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes and lung disease, or those who’ve recently undergone serious medical procedures, are also at risk.
How do I keep myself safe?
The WHO advises that the most important thing you can do is wash your hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use hand sanitizers with at least 60 percent alcohol content. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unclean hands. Clean and disinfect frequently used surfaces like your computers and phones. Avoid large crowds of people. Seek medical attention if symptoms persist for longer than a few days.
Is it time to panic?
No. The government has imposed a lockdown to limit the spread of the virus. There is no need to begin stockpiling food, cooking gas or hand sanitizers. However, it is always prudent to take sensible precautions like the ones identified above.