Some Elites Race to Cut Vaccine Lines

Democracy Examined

As the world races to vaccinate itself against COVID-19, scandals have erupted in South America over access to this scarce resource. But while most countries are actively prioritizing vulnerable populations, some elites are taking advantage of their power and influence to bypass the immunization systems in their respective countries. A recent NYT story detailed the extent to which corruption has “rocked” South America in particular.

In Peru, a deputy minister used doses from a clinical trial to vaccinate himself, his wife, two children, sister, nephew, and niece. In the country’s first clinical trial, doctors inoculated 250 politicians and their relatives, even going so far as to give some notables three separate vaccine doses. Ecuador’s health minister redirected the country’s first vaccines––reserved for vital public sector employees––to his mother’s luxury private nursing home. In Brazil, authorities are investigating thousands of cases where local politicians have allegedly abused their power to vaccinate themselves and their families first.

Governments need to function, and it is important that civil servants who need immunization to carry out their daily tasks are protected. The scandal is not that civil servants or elected officials are receiving vaccines. It is that politicians are breaking their own rules about who should get the vaccine when, and abusing their power to help relatives cut in line.

1. What has the response been?

Many of the officials who have taken part in this corruption have already been held responsible, according to the NYT article. Brazilian prosecutors have already moved to arrest the mayor of the northern city of Manaus; Ecuador’s health minister faces an impeachment trial and a criminal investigation; Argentina’s Health ministers have resigned; and Peru’s health minister and foreign minister have resigned after public outcry that they cut in line to get vaccines. 

 At a time when many Latin American nations face crippling economic crises, this corruption has undermined an already tenuous trust in the democratic process.

2. Have VIPs cut in line in other countries?

The corruption sweeping across Latin America echoes scandals in Lebanon, Spain, and the Philippines. Lebanese lawmakers have prioritized themselves over medical workers and the elderly, breaking regulations they themselves had laid out. In Spain, over 500 politicians cut in line, causing some high-ranking leaders to step down after news outlets exposed their corruption. Filipino politicians are also under investigation for having smuggled unauthorized vaccines into a country in which any kind of COVID-19 vaccine is currently inaccessible to the general public. 

And the United States is not immune to this favoritism. Hospitals across the country are facing questions as wealthy donors and board members have been reported to receive precious vaccines before the elderly and immunocompromised citizens who need them first. And in Florida, a sheriff’s office is investigating after a county commissioner organized a vaccine drive limited to just two wealthy zip codes, including her own, at the request of Governor Ron DeSantis. For those with enough money and influence, it seems that sometimes immunity—both from bureaucratic delays and COVID-19—is for sale.