QUESTIONS have arisen about Dr Maryam Abdool-Richards’s recent appointment to the board of Angostura Holdings Ltd while also holding the position of Principal Medical Officer – Institutions in the Ministry of Health.
On Sunday, Couva South MP Rudranath Indarsingh noted Angostura is involved in the alcohol trade and questioned whether Dr Abdool-Richards’s new position compromises her.
On Monday, Minister of Health Terrence Deyalsingh said he had been advised there was nothing in the public service regulations which barred the appointment.
Dr Abdool-Richards, for her part, was quoted in the press as saying she did not see her new role as inappropriate. Nor did she believe any of her employment terms barred her from it. In fact, she already sits on the board of the National Insurance Property Development Co Ltd (a state enterprise) and the Eastern Regional Health Authority (a statutory body).
It is something of a coup for Angostura to get someone of Dr Abdool-Richards’s qualifications and profile on its board. She is a household name, being one of the “faces” of the Ministry of Health when it comes to the covid19 pandemic – frequently urging the population to do the right thing to safeguard their health.
It is the latter role, not Dr Abdool-Richards’s admirable dedication to public service, that is the source of difficulty here.
Mr Indarsingh asks about rum. But some of Angostura’s other products, such as its famous bitters, are believed by many Trinidadians to have medicinal value. A medical official on the board raises the status of its brand in subtle, uncomfortable ways.
Mr Deyalsingh’s overly-narrow response on Monday (he was repeatedly asked for his views by reporters) is symptomatic not so much of a failure to grasp the nuances of the situation, but rather our collective propensity to bury our heads in the sand when it comes to the convoluted and outdated structures that govern the management of healthcare.
The UNC would like us to focus on Dr Abdool-Richards, but in truth the focus should be on a manifestly unsound regional health authority (RHA) system which results in awkward situations and dangerous conflicts on a daily basis. This RHA system has long allowed medical officials to work at public institutions while also moonlighting at private clinics.
Meanwhile, efforts to hold doctors accountable tend to be lawyered to death, as we have seen in recent cases of misconduct involving ample evidence; or else face hurdles if complainants manage to afford expensive litigation.
We expect public health officials to be independent and, when necessary, stand up to the Government even when they must work together. Clearly, in some instances, wearing many hats can create the wrong impression.
But this is simply the byproduct of a system in which the horse has long bolted.