by Rachel Ansley
High-level corruption scandals around the world have exposed the actions of health ministers and high-level officials who manipulated the system to ensure close contacts receive COVID-19 vaccines out of turn. Such dealings have “destroyed” public trust in the vaccine distribution process and could hinder steps taken to move past the pandemic, according to a civil society group monitoring government pandemic response programs.
“It has become clear that the criteria to define the distribution and application of vaccines are not met but that the private interest rules over the public interest,” said representatives from Poder Ciudadano, the Argentine chapter of Transparency International.
On February 19, Argentine Health Minister Ginés González García resigned amidst claims that he had abused his authority and given doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to close political contacts before they were distributed to vulnerable populations. A local journalist—and close friend of García’s—broke the story, revealing he had been given a vaccine dose upon request. This is not the first scandal of its kind. In Peru, Former President Martín Vizcarra and his wife were among a group of over four hundred political officials to receive doses of the vaccine out of turn. Similar stories of corrupt dealings and misappropriation of COVID-19 vaccines have emerged from Lebanon, Spain, and the Philippines, among others.
The widespread corruption wrapped up in vaccine distribution poses a significant challenge to inoculating populations around the world and moving past the immediate threat of the coronavirus. The combination of inequity and lack of transparency in the distribution process has led to a lack of trust and growing reluctance to sign up for a vaccine.
Civil society groups around the world are well-poised to step in and help close the trust gap between political officials and the communities they serve. In Argentina, Poder Ciudadano has worked to improve transparency in the public procurement system within the context of the government’s COVID-19 response, and against the backdrop of a state of emergency which has made the process murky and opaque. They created a Public Procurement Observatory, using open-source information to make procurement deals available to the public, increasing citizen engagement and accountability in the procurement process. They now plan to transition to monitoring the distribution of vaccines.
Representatives from Poder Ciudadano spoke with Partnership for Transparency’s Rachel Ansley to elaborate on the fallout from these corruption scandals, and what may be done to improve the vaccine distribution process in the future. Here are excerpts from their interview:
Q: What is the significance of a scandal like this?
PC: The case known as “VIP vaccination” reveals the lack of transparency in the measures taken by the government to mitigate the effects of the pandemic. This is mainly in the distribution of vaccines but also in other actions such as public purchases, among others. This deterioration in integrity has a direct impact on the guarantee of basic rights such as health and access to social protection in emergency contexts.
Q: How will this impact public trust in the vaccination process?
PC: This scandal will have an important impact on the public’s trust in the national government. Although credibility was already severely impaired by handling the pandemic in general and quarantine in particular, it was expected that the processes of acquisition, distribution, and application of vaccines would recover some of that confidence. However, these scandalous acts of corruption destroyed that possibility. It has become clear that the criteria to define the distribution and application of vaccines are not met but that the private interest rules over the public interest. The entire vaccination process is affected and at risk by this fact, since society is affected by its right to obtain immunization against the pandemic, and above all, health personnel and sectors with priority for vaccination, not complying with the own priority criteria established by the government itself. It is therefore necessary to redouble efforts in terms of transparency in order to regain public confidence.
Q: What steps are necessary to mitigate the fallout?
PC: It is essential that the government take responsibility and adequate measures to guarantee higher levels of transparency, monitoring, and publication of information on the vaccination campaign. Likewise, it is necessary for citizens to mobilize and monitor the vaccine distribution processes.
Faced with this scandal, one of the actions we carried out together with a group of civil society organizations was to request centralized information published daily from the Ministry of Health to generate a transparent and equal vaccination campaign. This information would include details on the prioritization plan for vaccine distribution, numbers of vaccine shipments and their distribution, and lists of those who had been vaccinated.
Q: Can civil society help prevent a recurrence of this kind of corruption?
PC: Civil society is a key actor when it comes to preventing the recurrence of this type of irregularity. However, it is important to highlight that the main responsibility resides on the government to guarantee transparency in all official acts that seek to improve public health services in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For civil society, as organizations as well as individuals, we have the right and we must demand access to information on how each government decides to manage the resources to alleviate the global pandemic. This implies that the public is involved, informed, has an active role, and is not simply a spectator of what is happening.
Q: How can Poder Ciudadano’s Observatory help?
PC: Taking into account the lessons learned, Poder Ciudadano expects to be able to continue and strengthen the work done so far and extend it until the end of the declared state of emergency. In addition, due to the great experience acquired in relation to purchases and contracts within the framework of the pandemic, one of Poder Ciudadano’s main objectives is to replicate the Observatory and its methodology in the greatest number of jurisdictions that make up the National State.
Considering the complexity surrounding the purchase and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, and especially after the recent scandals related to the sharing of vaccines with certain political personalities and their relatives and/or friends, Poder Ciudadano expects to apply the methodology of monitoring, purchase, distribution, and effective delivery of vaccines.
This monitoring will be of vital importance since we will have updated data on the distribution and application of the vaccine, which will allow us to evaluate the efficacy of the vaccination plan, identify shortcomings and risks in the process, and, where appropriate, make recommendations.
Q: What must be done to ensure equitable vaccine delivery in Argentina?
PC: Transparency is a key factor in ensuring the equitable distribution of vaccines. The government must provide centralized information published daily on the entire vaccination campaign, with disaggregated data and in accessible formats.
In order to guarantee this transparency, it will be necessary for the government to also provide clear, timely, and accessible information. Only in this way can effective social control be carried out to avoid irregularities and detect ineffective processes.
On the other hand, in order to guarantee concomitant control, the contribution of citizens and civil society organizations (CSOs) is essential. For example, citizen engagement is key to pressuring the government to provide all the relevant information. Furthermore, CSOs play a decisive role in analyzing such information. The documentation available is usually not only highly complex, but also large in volume and scattered across different portals. That is why trained people are needed to be able to analyze and systematize the information.
It is unnecessary to explain the importance of networking between organizations and citizens, but it is important to point out that Poder Ciudadano has acquired great experience in the last year of work and is available to share this knowledge as well as to receive proposals and suggestions in order to continue improving and expanding their work.
Rachel Ansley is the communications manager at the Partnership for Transparency.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the official policies of PTF.