Low on shots and overwhelmed by the coronavirus, a country with one of the highest Covid-19 death rates is taking a novel approach to fighting vaccine corruption: publishing the name of everyone who gets a shot.
For those who want to know if a friend, neighbor or member of Paraguay’s political elite are among the 400,000-some people with an inoculation, the answer is just a few clicks away on the Health Ministry’s website. There a public database lists the person’s name, place of vaccination, type of vaccine and number of doses. Scroll through and you’ll see ex-President Fernando Lugo got his first shot of Sputnik V on May 19 and Carlitos Vera, a well known Paraguayan comedian, received the Covaxin jab.
“It’s a tool for citizen oversight,” Lida Sosa, a deputy health minister, said in an interview. “There were people who looked at the list and reported individuals who got vaccinated who” weren’t eligible.
Paraguay’s degree of disclosure would be banned in many countries with stricter health-privacy laws. But with only enough shots to fully vaccine 7% of the population and a culture of deeply entrenched corruption — Paraguay ranked second-worst in South America in Transparency International’s 2020 corruption perceptions index — there are widespread concerns about people seeking to skip to the head of the line. So-called VIP vaccination scandals involving senior government officials and politicians who used their influence to surreptitiously get shots have roiled Argentina, Peru, Lebanon, Spain and the Philippines.
In Paraguay, people who receive vaccinations can request to not be included on the public list, but so far no one has asked to be anonymous, according to Sosa.
Valentin Sanchez, a 23-year-old Paraguayan software engineer living in the U.S., is something of a celebrity back home thanks to his efforts to find irregular vaccinations.
Sanchez was writing a program to study the Health Ministry’s vaccine data in April to satisfy his curiosity about how shots were being administered when his girlfriend suggested he also look for vaccine cheats. He found more than 500 suspicious cases by comparing the names and personal ID numbers on the vaccination list with those in public databases of civil servants and politicians.
While many of them turned out to be people with physical disabilities who were eligible for shots, his sleuthing discovered Mirta Gusinky, at the time a senator for the ruling Colorado Party, had been vaccinated out of turn. Gusinky resigned last month amid a public outcry. That same week, the Health Ministry said it would refer 88 unjustified vaccinations to the public prosecutor’s office after reviewing 518 cases brought to its attention.
“Because we have so few vaccines and people don’t trust the process the only way you can sort of give them some confidence is through this list,” Sanchez said. “People will use their influence if they can to get vaccinated. We are talking about a life-or-death situation.“
The government has purchased or received as donations 981,400 doses of six different vaccines, with orders for almost 8 million shots yet to be filled. Wealthy Paraguayans aren’t waiting, and thousands have flown to Miami or elsewhere in the U.S. to get vaccinated. At the moment, only health-care workers, pregnant women and people 60 or older are eligible for the jabs in Paraguay.
The country, where the virus has killed more than 10,000 people, has the world’s highest per capita death rate over the past 7 days with almost 122 fatalities per 1 million people, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It ranks No.6 by infections. The death rate since the beginning of the pandemic is among the 30 highest in the world.
The situation could remain critical through July as a “weary and fed up” population ignores prevention measures like social distancing and masks, according to Sosa, the deputy health minister.
“That is reflected in our health system which today is saturated” with the sick, Sosa said. “We are in the most critical stage of the pandemic.”