NEW DELHI (NYTIMES) – Bangladeshi authorities have arrested the owner of a hospital who they said had sold migrant workers thousands of certificates showing a negative result on coronavirus tests, when in fact many tests were never performed.
Authorities said they caught the hospital owner on Wednesday (July 15) trying to sneak across the border into India disguised as a woman. Police officers said that when they arrested the owner – a man they identified as Mohammad Shahed, with a long criminal record – he was wearing a black burqa that covered him head to toe.
Over the past week and a half, Bangladeshi investigators pieced together what happened: Shahed’s hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, had been selling fake coronavirus certificates – thousands of them, at US$59 (S$82) apiece – indicating that a patient had tested negative, Bangladeshi authorities said.
There is a huge market for these certificates among migrant workers from Bangladesh hungry to get back to work in Europe, doing jobs like stocking grocery stores, bussing tables in restaurants or selling bottled water on the streets.
Many Bangladeshi workers have recently flown to Italy, where they said that employers required such certificates before allowing them to go back to work.
As Bangladeshi police officers began to close in on Shahed, he vanished, authorities said. But after a nine-day search, they caught him at the border.
The widespread use of fake Covid-19 certificates has been “a huge blow to the image of our country”, said Obaidul Quader, a minister in Bangladesh’s government.
Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in Asia. Millions of Bangladeshis work overseas, sending billions of dollars back home, keeping the economy afloat. During this pandemic, many workers who had come back to Bangladesh for a short break found themselves cut off from their jobs overseas and were eager to get back to work.
Quader, the minister, has said that different criminal syndicates were operating across Bangladesh, luring migrant workers with virus-free certificates and, in turn, endangering many lives. Bangladeshi authorities said that the Regent Hospital, run by Shahed, had issued more than 10,000 certificates and that most of them were fake, backed by no actual coronavirus test.
Two other doctors have been arrested and accused of selling thousands of fake virus certificates from their laboratory in Dhaka. Bangladeshi authorities said that special law enforcement agents were on the hunt for others like them.
Bangladesh’s coronavirus situation is especially murky. The country, home to more than 160 million people, has reported around 200,000 cases. But with the virus sweeping through South Asia, and with testing relatively low in Bangladesh, health experts believe the country has a much higher infection rate than the official numbers indicate.
Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza, has ordered the suspension of all flights coming in from Bangladesh after at least 37 Bangladeshi passengers arrived in Rome and tested positive for Covid-19, according to Agence France-Presse.
Last week, Italy sent back 168 Bangladeshis who had arrived at airports in Rome and Milan, Italy’s health ministry confirmed.
Even before the testing scam was exposed, Bangladeshi law enforcement officials said that Shahed had been investigated in more than 30 other criminal cases connected to corruption, embezzlement and running fraudulent companies. He has served two years in prison, authorities said.
“He is a known criminal,” said Faizul Islam, a member of Bangladesh’s elite police unit, the Rapid Action Battalion. And, Islam added, “we are acting against others.”
Bangladesh’s foreign ministry released a statement on Thursday saying that “around 1,600 Bangladeshis who went to Italy recently did not carry fake Covid-19 negative certificates.”
But the statement added, “some Bangladeshis who travelled to Italy in the recent days did not follow the mandatory quarantine rule, and probably a few of them might have spread the virus in the community.”
Fiorenza Aini, a spokeswoman in the press office of Italy’s justice ministry, said that she was not aware of any current joint investigation between Italy and Bangladesh.
Giuseppe Mazzara, a spokesman from the Lazio region, which includes Rome, said that more than 6,000 coronavirus swab tests had been carried out on people who travelled to Italy from Bangladesh in the month of June, as well as people they came into contact with. So far, 191 had tested positive, he said.
Taheer Hussain, a Bangladeshi migrant labourer who works in the kitchen of a restaurant in Milan, said that Italian newspapers have been continuously reporting on a surge of Covid-19 cases in the Bangladeshi community, making ordinary workers suspect.
“People are looking at us with suspicious eyes,” Hussain said on phone from Milan, “as if we all are infected by virus.”
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