Covid-19: 'VIP immunisation' for the powerful and their cronies rattles South America

A nurse prepares a dose of the Sinopharm vaccine during a health workers vaccination campaign in Lima, on Feb 19, 2021.
A nurse prepares a dose of the Sinopharm vaccine during a health workers vaccination campaign in Lima, on Feb 19, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

LIMA, PERU (NYTIMES) - The hope brought by the arrival of the first Covid-19 vaccines in South America is hardening into anger as inoculation campaigns have spiralled into scandal, cronyism and corruption, rocking national governments and sapping trust in the political establishment.

Two ministers in Peru and one in Argentina have resigned for receiving or giving preferential access to scarce vaccines.

A minister in Ecuador is being investigated for doing the same.

Prosecutors in those countries and in Brazil are examining thousands more accusations of irregularities in inoculation drives, most of them involving local politicians and their families cutting in line.

As accusations of wrongdoing ensnare more dignitaries, tension is building in a region where popular outrage with graft and inequality has spilled in recent years into raucous protests against the political status quo.

The frustration could find an outlet in the streets again - or at the polls, shaping voter decisions in upcoming races such as Peru's elections in April.

"They all knew that patients have been dying," Dr Robert Campos, 67, a doctor in Peru's capital, Lima, said of the country's politicians. "And they vaccinated all their little friends."

The anger at powerful line-cutters has been amplified by the scarcity of the vaccines.

South America, like other developing regions, has struggled to procure enough doses as rich nations bought up most of the available supply.

Dr Campos said he did not make the vaccination list when limited doses arrived for hospital staff last week.

South America was shattered by the virus, accounting for nearly one-fifth of all pandemic deaths worldwide - 450,000, according to the official tally - despite representing about 5 per cent of the world's population.

Mortality data suggests that the pandemic's real toll on the region is at least double the official numbers.

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The virus also collapsed national health care systems, pushed millions into poverty and plunged the region into its worst economic crisis in modern history.

Despite the heavy toll, the pandemic shored up public support for most of the region's governments as several offered financial support to their populations and called for unity.

The vaccine scandals could bring this goodwill to an end, heralding a new wave of instability, analysts warn.

"People find it much more difficult to tolerate corruption when health is at stake," said Ms Mariel Fornoni, a pollster in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The scandals mirror similar affairs in Lebanon, Spain and the Philippines - and the United States, where there have also been instances of elite access to early shots and unequal distribution across racial and ethnic groups.

In Latin America, the brazen nature of some of the cases has fuelled outrage.

In Peru, a deputy health minister was inoculated with extra doses from a clinical trial, along with his wife, sister, two children, a nephew and a niece.

Ecuador's health minister sent doses from the country's first vaccine batch, which the government said was reserved for the public sector, to a luxury private nursing home where his mother lives.

A prominent Argentine journalist disclosed last week in a radio interview that he got a shot at the health ministry after calling his friend, who was then the health minister, exposing what the locals have called a "VIP Immunisation 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 vaccine access.

And in Suriname, the 38-year-old health minister allocated to himself the country's first vaccine shot to "set an example".

As the exposés poured in, citizens across South America took to 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 graft scandal grew.

Health ministers have resigned in Peru and in Argentina, where the former official was charged with abuse of power; Ecuador's health minister is facing an impeachment trial and a criminal investigation.

The vaccine scandals have resonated especially hard in Peru, where the pandemic has killed more than 45,000 people, according to the official tally, although excess mortality data suggest the real toll could be more than double that number.

Only one of the former Peruvian presidents, Mr Martín Vizcarra, left office with high approval ratings, thanks to his tough stance on corruption.

Now Mr Vizcarra has become entangled in the vaccine trial scandal after it emerged that he secretly got a shot while in office before Peru had even approved or purchased any vaccines. He then tried covering it up.

"We thought he was a good person," said Ms Ana Merino, a newspaper vendor in Lima whose husband died from Covid last year. "Who can we turn to? Who's left?"