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. Continue reading

Guest Post: Corruption in Covid-19 Vaccine Distribution–Early Lessons from Brazil

Today’s guest post is from Guilherme France, a legislative assistant in the Brazilian Senate

The urgency of halting the Covid-19 pandemic, combined with the limited supply of vaccines, has increased the challenges of distributing the vaccine quickly but fairly. As others have pointed out, including on this blog, there are significant risks of corruption in the vaccine distribution process. Brazil provides a troubling illustration of this problem, with instances of corruption or other improprieties related to vaccine distribution having already sparked investigations into mayors and other local officials. For example, there have been complaints that in Manaus, a Covid-19 epicenter, relatives of a local businessman in were fraudulently appointed as employees in health clinics so that they would qualify for early vaccination. And this is but one of several cases where mayors and other local officials allegedly helped their relatives or close associates cut in the line. There have also been reported attempts to pay bribes to nurses for early vaccine access.

There has been similar line-cutting behavior on a grander scale, with various groups, such as prosecutors and judicial authorities, using their political influence and leverage to attempt (without success) to get priority status for receiving the vaccine, ahead of those, like health care workers and the elderly, who need it more urgently. On other occasions, the government acceded to the use of the “priority status” for vaccine distribution as a bargaining chip. In the midst of strike negotiations, it agreed to place truck drivers and other transportation workers ahead of the general population in the vaccination line.

This behavior, while reprehensible, is understandable. Given how hard Brazil has been hit by Covid-19, access to the vaccine is a life and death matter, and the temptation to cut the line, for oneself or a loved one, is just too great. This is why increased control and transparency for vaccine distribution should be a priority for governments at all levels. Continue reading

Corruption and the COVID-19 Vaccine: The Looming Problem of Distribution

From the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, activists and analysts have called attention to the significant corruption risks associated with the response to both the public health crisis itself and the economic disruption it has caused. Anticorruption advocates have highlighted, for example, the corruption risks associated with the distribution of relief funds and personal protective equipment, and have emphasized the need for reforms like enhancing transparency, requiring audits, and ensuring protections for whistleblowers. (For samples of the discussion of the need for anticorruption measures in coronavirus response, see here, here, here, and here.) Yet there has been surprisingly little sustained discussion or planning concerning a specific issue which, while still prospective, is of pressing global importance: the inevitable corruption risks that will be associated with the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, if and when such a vaccine becomes available.

This is not to say that there has been no exploration of the subject. Commentators have discussed the difficulties of ensuring that a vaccine is distributed equitably, as opposed to simply being given to the most affluent, and have called attention to the problems of black markets and price gouging that are likely to emerge once vaccines are available. There has also been some general, abstract discussion of the fact that the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine, once one exists, has significant potential for both grand and petty corruption. Absent from the discussion, though, has been the development of concrete plans for incorporating anticorruption measures in vaccine distribution—plans that take into account the inherent logistical challenges. The World Health Organization (WHO), to its credit, has released a seventeen-page plan for fair allocation of a COVID vaccine, which discusses detailed measures to ensure that vaccines are distributed fairly. However, the WHO plan devotes little more than a page to promises of “strong accountability mechanisms” in the governing bodies to “ensure protection against undue influence.” The WHO does note that the primary role of its own Independent Allocation Validation Group is to ensure that proposals from the vaccine Allocation Taskforce remain “transparent and free from conflicts of interest,” but while this sort of internal monitoring is laudable, the WHO plan conspicuously lacks any further guidance or recommendations on appropriate anticorruption measures once the vaccines are handed over to their allocated countries.

Although the timeline for a vaccine remains uncertain—and there’s no guarantee that a vaccine will be available any time soon—it would make sense for both international organizations and national governments to identify the most likely corruption risks associated with vaccine distribution and to begin developing safeguards to mitigate those risks. While there are many possible corruption risks associated with vaccine distribution, the two most significant are diversion of vaccines and extortion. Let’s examine each in turn:

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