‘V.I.P. Immunization’ for the Highly effective and Their Cronies Rattles South America
LIMA, Peru – Hope awakened by the arrival of the first vaccines in South America is growing into anger as vaccination campaigns have sparked scandals, cronyism and corruption, rocked national governments and weakened confidence in the political establishment.
Four ministers in Peru, Argentina and Ecuador resigned or are under investigation this month on suspicion of receiving or preferential treatment for rare coronavirus shots. Prosecutors in these countries and Brazil are investigating thousands more allegations of vaccination irregularities, most of which involve local politicians and their families.
In a region where popular outrage over transplants and inequality has led to violent protests against the political status quo in recent years, tensions are building as allegations of misconduct seduce more dignitaries. The frustration could find its way back into the streets – or in the elections that influence voting decisions in upcoming races like the Peruvian elections in April.
“They all knew that patients had died,” said Robert Campos, 67, a doctor in Peru’s capital Lima, of the country’s politicians. “And they vaccinated all of their little friends.”
The anger at powerful line cutters has been compounded by the scarcity of vaccines. South America, like other developing regions, struggled to get enough cans as the rich nations bought up most of the available supply.
Dr. Campos said he hadn’t made the vaccination schedule when limited doses arrived for hospital staff last week.
South America was rocked by the virus, accounting for almost a fifth of all pandemic deaths worldwide – 450,000 according to the official balance – even though it accounts for about 5 percent of the world’s population. Mortality data suggests that the real number of pandemics in the region is at least twice the official numbers.
The virus also collapsed national health systems, pushing millions into poverty and plunging the region into the worst economic crisis in modern history.
Despite the heavy toll, the pandemic sustained public support for most of the region’s governments as several financially supported their populations and called for unity.
The vaccine scandals could end this goodwill and usher in a new wave of instability, analysts warn.
“People find it much more difficult to tolerate corruption when it comes to health,” said Mariel Fornoni, a pollster in Buenos Aires.
The brazen nature of some scandals reflecting similar issues in Lebanon, Spain and the Philippines has outraged the region.
In Peru, a deputy health minister along with his wife, sister, two children, a nephew, and a niece were vaccinated with extra doses from a clinical trial. The Ecuadorian health minister sent doses of the country’s first batch of vaccine, which the government said was reserved for the public sector, to a luxury private nursing home where his mother lives.
A prominent Argentine journalist announced in a radio interview last week that he had been shot at the Ministry of Health after calling his friend who was then the Minister of Health and revealing what locals called the “VIP Immunization Clinic” for government allies . In Brazil, prosecutors have requested the arrest of the mayor of Manaus, a northern city devastated by two waves of coronavirus, on suspicion of giving allies preferential access to vaccines.
Apr. 25, 2021, 5:13 p.m. ET
And in Suriname, the 38-year-old health minister assigned himself the country’s first vaccine to “set an example”.
While the exposés were being received, citizens across South America used social media to denounce the abuses and identify the suspected line cutters. Doctors and nurses in Peru protested outside hospitals last week to demand vaccines as the country’s vaccine scandal escalated.
Health ministers have resigned in Peru and Argentina, where the former official has been charged with abuse of power. The Ecuadorian health minister is facing impeachment and criminal investigation.
The vaccine scandals have had a particularly violent response in Peru, where the pandemic has officially killed more than 45,000 people, although excess mortality data suggests the actual number could be more than double that.
Earlier this month, the doctor who conducted Peru’s first vaccine study admitted to vaccinating nearly 250 politicians, personalities and their relatives with undeclared extra doses. Some, according to the study’s director, Dr. Germán Málaga, received three doses to maximize their immunity.
The scandal rocked a nation already plagued by a series of corruption investigations that have broken confidence in democratic institutions and entangled all six of the country’s youngest former presidents.
Only one of the former presidents, Martín Vizcarra, stepped down with high approval ratings because of his tough stance on corruption. Now Mr Vizcarra is embroiled in the vaccination scandal after it was revealed that he was secretly shot in office before Peru even approved or bought vaccines. Then he tried to cover it up.
“We thought he was a good person,” said Ana Merino, a newspaper seller in Lima whose husband died of Covid last year. “Who can we turn to? Who is left? “
The list of those who illegally benefited from the vaccine study in Peru includes the minister of health, vaccine regulators, academic hosts of the study, and even the Vatican’s envoy in the country. The envoy, Nicola Girasoli, told local media that he received the vaccine to be an “ethics advisor” to the university conducting the process.
After his resignation, Peru’s Health Minister Pilar Mazzetti said the injection was “the worst mistake of my life”. Another politician who took advantage of the process, the country’s Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Astete, also gave up after arguing that she “did not have the luxury” of getting sick at work.
The vaccine scandal could upset Peru’s general election in April and benefit candidates who promise a radical break with the current political system, said Alfredo Torres, head of Ipsos’ electoral office in Lima.
Among them are Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of an imprisoned former president who has announced plans to turn Peru into a “demodura,” a mixture of Spanish words for democracy and dictatorship, and Rafael López Aliaga, who has proposed that corruption sentences be passed on politicians.
Since most of the countries in the region have so far only received a tiny fraction of the vaccines they need, various groups have sought priority.
In Peru and Venezuela, governments have declared that security forces would have priority along with health workers, leading to protests from the medical community.
In Brazil, which vaccinated just 3 percent of its population, a third of the country’s 210 million people are now on the priority list, far exceeding the number of doses available. The group includes veterinarians who argued that they work in health care; Truck drivers who threatened to strike if they did not get the vaccine; and psychologists, firefighters and builders.
Confusion was exacerbated by the Brazilian government’s decision to delegate part of the vaccination order to local officials, creating a kaleidoscope of conflicting rules. Some prosecutors investigating vaccine transplants said the bureaucratic chaos may have been deliberately increased to hide cronyism and corruption.
“Doctors keep calling me and saying they are scared of dying,” said Edmar Fernandes, president of the medical union in the Brazilian state of Ceará. “That kind of corruption kills.”
Mitra Taj reported from Lima; Anatoly Kurmanaev from Caracas, Venezuela; Manuela Andreoni from Rio de Janeiro and Daniel Politi from Buenos Aires.
Additional coverage by Isayen Herrera from Caracas, Venezuela; Ank Kuipers from Paramaribo, Suriname; José María León Cabrera from Quito, Ecuador, and Jenny Carolina González from Bogotá, Colombia.