Talk about coronavirus vaccines is rapidly dominating the national conversation. The government needs to get the management of the vaccines right ahead of the midterm elections next year. It’s not going to be easy because Argentina’s infamous political rift is about warring narratives. Misinformation and malice from all sides are part of the game here. President Alberto Fernández has been plugging a Russian-made vaccine and has even promised that vaccination would start before the end of this year. Time is running out on 2020. The vaccine saga is starting to unfold as 2021 dawns.
Health Minister Ginés González García has been addressing the issue. The minister said that another vaccine maker, Pfizer, had made “unacceptable” demands to supply its vaccine. A third vaccine, made by the Anglo-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca and Oxford University, has also suffered delays. The president earlier this year announced an ambitious plan to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine in Argentina. The political dimension of the issue is that the national government needs to deliver on its promise to vaccinate essential workers between now and March because otherwise it will have to field difficult questions about what went wrong ahead of next year’s mid- term elections. González García, a veteran Peronist doctor respected across the political field before the pandemic broke out, is already in a tight spot. During a press conference, the minister hinted that shipping the Russian vaccine – on which Argentina seems to be pinning its early hopes – was also complicated.
González García is battling a nightmare in the form of a virus, and despite his credibility, speculation is rife about internal problems at the ministry. Health officials have flown to Russia and are sorting out the paperwork. The minister appears to have been overruled about transportation problems because officials are still hoping to fly vaccines from Russia by December 23.
The narrative built around the Russian vaccine is far from perfect. Russian President Vladimir Putin was quoted on Thursday saying he has yet to get a shot as the vaccine trials on patients over 60 have not been concluded. Argentine Health Ministry officials scrambled to clarify that only formal approvals are pending. But at least for a day, especially if you believed the anti-government news outlets, it sounded like the Russian vaccine will not work to protect those most at risk. Fernández is 61. The president had promised to take the Russian vaccine as soon as possible. Judging by the talk at press time for this column he will have to wait a little bit more to take it. Ultimately the Russian vaccine will be credible only if Putin gets a shot.
These glitches and delays add up to negative headlines.Opposition leaders accused the government of deliberately keeping the public in the dark about the pending approval of the vaccine for those over 60. Already awkward comparisons are being made with the millions of vaccines obtained by Mexico and Chile. Vaccine maps charting the percentage of the population covered in each country are being looked at. Eventually these initial fumbles as the vaccination saga unravels could go down as nothing more than public relation gaffes if the national government gets the logistics right on the ground once the vaccines are here. Did the president promise the public too much when he said a vaccine would be readily available for millions of Argentines at risk before the end of the year ? Alberto Fernández’s credibility, which has held up relatively well during the pandemic lockdown, is directly on the line here.
An uproar about faulty vaccines could make things more traumatic for the ruling Frente de Todos coalition in Congress where the final approval of a pension reform and the abortion bill are pending. The Senate is scheduled to vote on the abortion bill, already passed by the Lower House, next week. The abortion bill, championed by feminist groups, has been tabled by the president in a bid to deliver on a campaign promise. The ruling coalition controls the Senate, but the vote is expected to be tight. If the abortion bill is unexpectedly shot down by the Senate, like it was in 2018, it will prompt questions about whether Fernández was wrong to force a debate now.