Guest Post: Lessons from Moldova’s Covid-19 Vaccine Distribution Scandal

Today’s guest post is from Valeria Ciolac, a member of the National Political Council of Moldova’s Party of Action and Solidarity, and a Youth Delegate of the Republic of Moldova to the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.

Since the prospect of effective Covid-19 vaccines emerged last fall, experts have warned about the risks of corruption in the vaccine procurement and distribution process. Alas, in many countries these warnings proved prescient. My home country, the Republic of Moldova, is reeling from reports that politicians and local officials arranged for certain doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to be provided, in secret, to themselves, their family members, and their associates. Evidence of such corrupt misallocation first emerged last March, in the city of Edinet. But this was not an isolated incident. Over the last several weeks, it has become clear that even though the vaccine supply—which was procured only through donations and considerable effort—is supposed to be allocated first to high-priority groups, a group of seven hundred politicians, bank directors, restaurant owners, and others from around the country jumped in front of the line, leaving seven hundred medical workers behind.

When confronted with this evidence, the officials involved tried to explain away the diversion of the vaccines as legitimate use of excess supply. The Mayor of Edinet, for example, claimed that some medical workers chose not to get their vaccines right away, and the vaccines provided to politicians and their friends were surplus doses that would otherwise have been thrown away. But given the long history of public corruption in Moldova, and the resulting lack of trust in the state authorities, most Moldovan citizens doubt this explanation. It seems far more likely that in this case, as in so many other cases, politicians and well-connected individuals used their influence to secure vaccines that should have gone to those with greater need.

While it is tempting to conclude that such corruption is inevitable in a country like Moldova—the poorest country in Europe, and one that has long been immersed in corruption and negligence by the of public authorities—it is more useful to look closely at the Moldovan vaccine distribution system and ask whether things could have been done differently. And indeed, while there’s probably no way to prevent some degree of corruption in vaccine distribution, there are several measures that Moldova, and other countries in a similar situation, could have adopted, and should still embrace now, to minimize the risk of this sort of corruption.

  • First, the existing system is too vague regarding vaccination priorities, appropriate procedures for allocating surplus doses, and similar issues. It would be better for the Public Health Ministry to issue a strict vaccination guide, which would provide more procedural clarity and would not leave as much room for the regional and local officials responsible for vaccination to interpret the law as they see fit.
  • Second, the authorities should put in place an automated monitoring mechanism of the vaccination process, which would keep track not just of the total number of citizens vaccinated, but the number of vaccinations provided to people in various high-priority categories (such as people over age 60, medical workers, and those with pre-existing conditions). This would provide more transparency as to whether the official vaccination plan was being followed, and whether the doses were being administered to the target populations. Currently, Moldova keeps track of which individuals have been vaccinated in an electronic database, but that database just includes the names and professions of vaccinated individuals, and is not automatically searchable. So, it’s extremely cumbersome, and for all practical purposes impossible, to use this database to figure out whether the people who have received the vaccines are in fact in the high-priority groups. (On top of this, the public version of the database includes only names, not jobs, allegedly because Moldova’s data privacy law prohibits the provision of additional information, though this law is often used by the authorities as a pretext to limit access to information that might expose malfeasance.)
  • Third, in addition to the deficiencies of the vaccination database, a more general problem—one that is not specific to the vaccination program, but bears directly on that program—is that the Moldovan health system lacks an effective system for monitoring and auditing the acquisition and distribution of medical supplies and health services. Until these monitoring and auditing systems are improved, it will be very difficult for authorities—both domestic authorities and interested outside donors, such as the European Union—to detect corruption in the distribution of vaccines.

These problems—the lack of a sufficiently clear vaccination plan, a lack of transparency regarding compliance with the priorities established by the plan, and the lack of effective monitoring and auditing in the health sector—have created the conditions that give rise to corruption scandals like that first reported in Edinet. These problems can and should be fixed. The big question, though, is whether there will be the political will to do so. On that front, may Moldovan citizens could be forgiven for being pessimistic. Yet there are some reasons to hope that something good might come of the recent scandal. Anger over corruption in vaccine distribution has intensified citizens’ dissatisfaction with the corrupt practices of some officials, and a majority of Moldovan citizens are increasingly determined to get rid of the politicians who let them down. With early parliamentary elections on the horizon, we can only hope that these scandals provide the catalyst for genuine political change.

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