The scandal erupting in Argentina following the discovery that politicians and their relatives obtained "vaccinations of privilege" against Covid-19 out of turn has turned into a harder blow than expected for President Alberto Fernández and his government.
A casual February 19 radio comment by journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who explained live on air how he was vaccinated thanks to his friendship with Ginés González García, the former health minister who resigned last weekend in disgrace, has triggered a wave of immediate repudiation by citizens and opposition politicians seeking to capitalise on the misconduct, despite the president claiming it was time to “end the nonsense.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, leaders from the Juntos por el Cambio coalition sought to keep the scandal in the headlines, describing the events as the "modus operandi" of the ruling Peronist coalition and accusing the Fernández administration of seeking to "vaccinate a Kirchnerite oligarchy."
Radical-UCR leader Alfredo Cornejo said the government had "poorly managed" the vaccination programme from the start and described the revelations as "a phenomenal scandal" that had cost officials their "authority."
PRO party leader and former security minister Patricia Bullrich, meanwhile, said the government was guilty of "partisanship" with its deployment of vaccines. "We want to know why a political oligarchy was vaccinated," she declared.
According to reports in local outlets on Friday, Bullrich is keen to capitalise on the scandal and has asked all provincial leaders from her party to "watch out" and probe other 'VIP vaccinations' that have not yet been uncovered. She has requested the help of leaders, deputies, senators and even local councillors in order to uncover more undoing.
"We all have to get involved with this cause, it is because about transparency in the care of lives, it is a cause of the PRO's values," she reportedly told her party members, according to one source who asked to remain anonymous.
The opposition has called on Cabinet Chief Santiago Cafiero and Health Minister Carla Vizzotti to attend Congress and face questions from lawmakers.
Inside the Casa Rosada, they believe that they are taking steps to contain the issue. Despite Fernández immediately requesting González García’s resignation and deciding to publish a list of 70 vaccine beneficiaries who received jabs, the criticisms of his government have not stopped. This week, during a trip to Mexico, the president showed the full extent of his irritation.
"Let’s cut out this farce – there’s no law in Argentina saying that anybody who jumps the queue to be vaccinated should be punished," exclaimed Fernández last Tuesday as he was questioned over potential lawsuits and a police raid on the Health Ministry.
Most political analysts agree the vaccine scandal is damaging the government’s credibility. According to pundit Enrique Zuleta, the scandal has taken off because, aside from the ethical questions that have arisen, the government faces the problem of insufficient vaccines to immunise the population.
In the midst of this shortage, the inoculation of allies "has snowballed because there should be a more objective focus on the population, responsibly recognising how serious is the case of each person to be immunised," said Zuleta.
Since December Argentina has received 1.8 million doses of vaccine against Covid-19 from Russia and India for its 45 million inhabitants, destined for health workers and the elderly. A million more doses from China arrived this week.
However, this number is significantly lower than the 20 million doses of Russia’s Sputnik V which the government initially said would arrive by the end of February, to which would be added AstraZeneca-Oxford University and Covax vaccines for a total of 50 million.
After publishing the list of 70 privileged persons being vaccinated – which included people aged over 60 but also youngsters like 38-year-old Economy Minister Martín Guzmán, Fernández advanced the justification that attending to some senior officials was "strategic," owing to their responsibilities.
However, on the list disclosed last Monday were leaders from the ruling Peronist coalition, mid-level government officials and family members who received the shots. Among the names were Ambassador to Brazil Daniel Scioli, Treasury Attorney Carlos Zannini (listed as a ‘health worker’), as well as a number of businessmen. Former president Eduardo Duhalde, his wife and their children also received shots. Even Duhalde's secretary and spokesperson Carlos Mao was vaccinated.
Fernández was among the first to receive his dose of Sputnik V, which he did in front of the cameras to transmit his confidence in the Russian vaccine.
"The problem is that if the government had published its vaccination criteria in anticipation, those criteria might have entered into discussion but not the transparency of the process," political consultant Carlos Fara told AFP.
"It is going to have a lot of impact in the short term: this is a sensitive and irritating issue,” he added. "The issue is not over … I think that in the short or long term this will be resolved with millions of vaccines – as long as there are vaccines for everyone, [the fact] that some have been vaccinated, it will be irrelevant.”
Public opinion expert Pablo Knopoff considers that "perhaps nobody in Argentina is going to reproach an elderly person for being vaccinated but they will reproach the politician who made it possible. For the average Argentine the question which matters is: Where’s the vaccine for my grandparents?"
Under the pressure of finding more vaccines in a world fighting for them, Fernández last Tuesday asked that vaccines against Covid-19 be declared a patent-free "global asset" which may be freely produced.
"The problem in Argentina is not only that vaccines are lacking but they are lacking in respect to what was announced and people see neighbouring countries like Chile which have managed to vaccinate much faster," highlights Knopoff.