Cold comfort | Inquirer Opinion

What really happened to the scuttled deal to purchase 200 intensive care unit (ICU) beds from an Austrian company last year?

The purchase, of course, would have made all the difference when COVID-19 cases began surging in March, which again overwhelmed the health system and overran hospitals. But neither Malacañang nor the Department of Health (DOH) has been forthcoming with a detailed explanation on how the original talks with the supply company proceeded. As reported in this paper, the Philippines is now renegotiating the purchase after the opportunity to acquire the ICU beds in October 2020 fell through.

Stories of people desperately hospital-hopping in Metro Manila and nearby provinces to find a room for their COVID-19-struck loved ones, or patients dying outside the emergency rooms or in their cars, demonstrated how the government’s pandemic response had been sorely wanting even a year into the health crisis. Hospitals not only ran out of critical or ICU beds, they were also short of health personnel as many frontliners came down with the virus.

So when it turned out that the offer months ago to provide the country with ICU beds on a “deliver-now-pay-later’’ scheme had somehow ended up dashed, a number of medical doctors were aghast. According to the Inquirer report, the botched deal caused a “shouting session” during a Cabinet meeting where Health Secretary Francisco Duque III was rebuked for the oversight.

Who dropped the ball again this time? Duque denied being reprimanded in the Cabinet meeting or failing to act promptly on the offer for ICU beds. It would be a “grave sin” to do that, he said.

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said there was no shouting match, and that the Philippines did not accept the offer because it covered only 15 ICU beds out of 200 hospital beds when what the country needed was more ICU beds. Hence, negotiations are still ongoing: “Ang talagang kinakailangan ng Pilipinas ngayon ay ICU beds, at patuloy po ang pag-uusap sa pamumuno po ni Secretary Duque para dito sa additional 200 ICU beds, and the same proponent po na Austrian company is involved.” The Austrian firm will be submitting a proposal this week since authorities “have identified where the ICU beds are needed,” Roque added.

The startling implication, however, is that it has taken half a year to reach this point, with the Austrian firm just about to submit a new proposal, when in March, with cases kicking up again, many hospitals had frantically sent out an SOS that they had reached full capacity. On April 12, National Task Force Against COVID-19 chief implementer and vaccine czar Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. declared that with the surge in cases, government experts had projected the need for an additional 600 ICU beds in Metro Manila.

Could the renegotiations have been done with greater urgency, such that the country would have had the 200 extra ICU beds by this time or even earlier? What exactly transpired six months back, and what happened in the interim, that got the talks between the parties so stretched out that the country had to endure the nightmare of scores of citizens dying in tents or driveways outside hospitals because of a lack of hospital beds? The assurance that Duque is carrying on negotiations for the additional beds at this time is cold comfort. The health chief is entertaining a proposal for such equipment only now, when the crying need for those beds had become all too acute weeks ago?

Without the Palace and the DOH providing more detail and clarity to their argument that this wasn’t in any way a grossly missed opportunity in a time of great need, it would be seen as but the latest confirmation of Duque’s ineptness at his job. (Recall how Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. fingered him as the official who “dropped the ball” in failed negotiations to bring in Pfizer vaccines as early as January this year.)

Also last week, the Confederation of Wearable Exporters of the Philippines revealed that the local garment industry lost more than 25,000 jobs, including 3,500 from just three factories that were shuttered, because of the DOH’s preference for purchasing personal protective equipment (PPE) from other countries, notably China. Industry leaders told the Senate that the priority for imported PPE elbowed out local manufacturers whose factories the government had even asked to be repurposed to produce PPE—leaving the sector battered and adding to the record joblessness.

These issues go directly to Duque’s accountability for the repeated mishandling of urgent interventions needed to address the health crisis. Senators who called for his resignation last year cited “his failure of leadership, negligence, lack of foresight, and inefficiency in the performance of his mandate.” The “grave sin” is that, notwithstanding all that, and to the galled bafflement of the country, Duque remains a darling to his boss.

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For more information on COVID-19, call the DOH Hotline: (02) 86517800 local 1149/1150.

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