Jakarta – We champion the Indonesian Ombudsman's demand for accountability from the Food and Drug Monitoring Agency (BPOM) and the Health Ministry over tainted medicinal syrups that have been linked to the deadly spike in acute kidney injury (AKI) cases among children.
The horrifying deaths of at least 143 children since August is a serious state of emergency.
Justifiably, the Ombudsman, which has the authority to oversee the implementation of public services, calls the situation a humanitarian emergency, pointing to the state's failure to guarantee the safety of the people and the safety of products consumed by the public.
The BPOM and the Health Ministry – whose heads answer to the President – have so far deflected the blame over the medicines found to have unacceptable levels of ethylene glycol (EG) and diethylene glycol (DEG), making their way into the hands of trusting parents.
On Monday, the government stated it is considering a criminal investigation into drug manufacturers whose products have been linked to the deaths, with the BPOM singling out two pharmaceutical companies.
But where were the watchmen? The Ombudsman has weighed, measured and found these two state institutions wanting.
The BPOM, as the Ombudsman has so terrifyingly found, has no meaningful control to ensure safety, having relinquished medicinal testing to the pharmaceutical companies. This simply means the state has given up its authority.
The Ombudsman has found the Health Ministry guilty of failing to provide transparent health data surrounding the AKI cases.
The BPOM is adamant that it has fulfilled its mandate and observed all prevailing regulations in inspecting products circulating on the market. It insists that it is the responsibility of pharmaceutical companies to check the level of contaminants found in their own products, pointing out that there is no international standard to be used as a reference to check EG and DEG content in medicine.
We do not buy this argument. The BPOM's main responsibility is to keep the public safe from dangerous food and drugs. It has failed to do exactly that, with dozens of children reportedly falling victim to medicines tainted with dangerous chemicals.
There is no question that the pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable for their recklessness and total disregard for public safety. But it is wrong to suggest that the authorities – the BPOM and the Health Ministry – are in no way complicit in the whole fiasco. Those two institutions, too, have blood on their hands.
As our hearts are wrenched as parents continue to lose the lives of their precious children, we now find gross negligence and a lack of supervision by the government.
The tainted medicine scandal broke on the heels of the Kanjuruhan Stadium stampede in Malang, East Java, that killed more than 130 people – for which only a few, if any, public officials have been willing to accept responsibility.
This culture of impunity cannot be the norm. We need to hold the government accountable for its mistakes and oversights. Nothing will ever change and more lives will be lost because of the state's negligence if it can get away with its worst, fatal mistakes.