The breakdown of one of the only CT scanners in Abkhazia, as well as deadly power outages in a regional COVID-19 treatment centre, have led to calls for the resignation of Abkhazia’s Prime Minister Alexander Ankvab.
On 12 August, at the meeting of the COVID-19 Coordination Headquarters, Prime Minister Alexander Ankvab commented on the recent breakdown of the only CT scanner in Abkhazia used for COVID-patients.
As the Prime Minister put it, the CT scanner is 'dead' and there are no prospects of fixing it. The CT scanner was in use since September 2020 and broke down for the last time on 21 July 2020
'It already was at the end of its intended lifespan, it had already clocked 19,000 hours on its meters. It is normally considered completely used up when it has 8,000 hours', Ankvab said.
Some have speculated that the CT scanner may have been a victim of the repeated power outages affecting Guduata COVID Centre, the primary treatment facility for COVID patients in Abkhazia outside of the capital.
The most serious such incident took place on 11 August, when a voltage fluctuation put the ventilators in the intensive care unit in the centre into emergency mode. A subsequent drop in the oxygen supply led to the death of a patient that same day and one on the day after.
According to Ankvab the purchase of a new CT scanner would require ₽60 million from the budget.
After Ankvab’s comments, Abkhazian media and users of social networks attacked the Prime Minister for incompetence, with some accusing the government of an 'unreasonable waste of money’, and suggesting that the CT scanner was purchased by the Ministry of Health. In actuality, the machine was bought with charity proceeds raised by the We are Together movement — an association of Abkhaz businesspeople, members of the Abkhaz diaspora in Moscow, and regular Abkhazian citizens who were willing to donate money during the pandemic.
According to Polina Lukashevich, a representative of the medical equipment supplier Foresight Medical that supplied the CT scanner, the device, despite being second-hand, had undergone modernisation and was supposed to function for at least three years.
'In our opinion, with an average patient flow of 20 people a day, the CT scanner at the Gudauta Central Regional Hospital was supposed to last at least until 2023, given so long as there was compliance with operating rules and timely maintenance,' she said.
Lukashevich also noted that the proper functioning of a CT scanner depends on a stable power supply without outages or emergency blackouts. According to her, being able to conduct 4,947 non-stop examinations in one year was an extraordinary performance, when the operating conditions are considered.
Businessperson and We Are Together member Nikolai Achba said that as of March 2020, with the pandemic already underway, it was nearly impossible to find a CT scanner on the Russian market. That they managed to find one, for only ₽15 million, was ‘miraculous’ especially since it was a much more advanced model than the only other CT scanner in Abkhazia.
‘Only when something breaks’
Although the money allocated for the medical equipment was collected by a private organisation, the purchasing contract for the CT scanner was signed by the Ministry of Health of Abkhazia. One of the provisions of the contract was regular maintenance of the CT scanner, but the Ministry of Health was not willing to sign it.
As it turned out, devices installed in public health facilities in Abkhazia do not undergo preventive maintenance. According to the head of the radiology department of the Republican Hospital Aslan Berzeni, the CT scanner being used in Sukhum (Sukhumi) was left without quarterly maintenance as soon as the warranty period expired.
'Currently, we personally do what we can and beyond, and we call in engineers only when something breaks', Berzenia said.
A statement released by We Are Together criticised Ankvab for ‘shirking’ his responsibilities.
‘The government of Abkhazia has not created the necessary conditions for the operation of the CT, its quarterly maintenance was not carried out’, the statement reads. ‘We are not responsible for the state of the CT scanner after signing the act of commissioning of the equipment [...] this responsibility lies entirely with the government of Abkhazia.’
Calls for resignation
On 20 August, at a closed-door meeting of the Presidential Administration, Abkhazia President Aslan Bzhania and his administration head Alkhas Kvitsinia voiced their disagreement with the Prime Minister's position.
According to Kvitsinia, Ankvab's statements, in which he used the adjective 'dead' referring to the high-tech medical equipment, were inappropriate. He also stressed that the outrage of the business community was justified.
President Aslan Bzhania, meanwhile, expressed his gratitude to We Are Together and instructed the Ministry of Health to repair the malfunctioning CT scanner at the Gudauta COVID Hospital. He also noted that the government will be looking for ways to finance the purchase of a new CT scanner, as other medical institutions in the country also need such equipment.
The same day, August 20, at a closed session of the Public Chamber members of the Aruaa veterans’ organisation announced that they will demand the resignation of the Prime Minister in light of the CT scanner scandal.
The primary geographic terms used in this article are those of the author’s. For ease of reading, we choose not to use qualifiers such as ‘de facto’, ‘unrecognised’, or ‘partially recognised’ when discussing institutions or political positions within Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh, and South Ossetia. This does not imply a position on their status.