President Alberto Fernandez continues to fight a rearguard action to limit the political fallout from last week’s revelations about a group of officials, government allies, and the well-connected who secretly received Covid-19 vaccines in violation of eligibility rules. The very strong likelihood that the list of recipients goes well beyond the 70 people that the government admits received vaccines is likely to undermine the government’s crisis containment strategy. Additionally, Fernandez’s combativeness is a sign of how worried he is about the political implications ahead of the October mid-terms.
Fernandez came out fighting yesterday, 23 February, when asked about the scandal in a press conference jointly held with his Mexican counterpart Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO); the scandal has dogged Fernandez throughout his Mexico trip this week, dashing his hopes that the replacement of Health Minister Gines Gonzalez Garcia on 19 February would be enough to allow things to blow over. The irascible Fernandez dismissed judicial investigations as a “charade,” criticized the media, and attacked those who had previously expressed concerns about the safety and efficacy of the Russian-developed Sputnik V vaccine, on which Argentina has been largely reliant.
Back in Buenos Aires, the official position is that the list of beneficiaries does not extend beyond 70 people, which seems highly unlikely. Cabinet chief Santiago Cafiero has also defended some on the list as “strategic personnel.” That line may be accepted for Finance Minister Martin Guzman and his team. However, it is harder to justify for the likes of former president Eduardo Duhalde (2002-2003), lower house president Sergio Massa’s father and parents-in-law, and Carlos Zannini, who is VP Cristina Fernandez’s point man in the judiciary. Meanwhile, the government appears to have a plan to put pressure on the lead prosecutor investigating Gonzalez Garcia. Finally, a first delivery of 1mn Sinopharm-manufactured vaccines, which arrives tomorrow, 25 February, will be administered exclusively to the education sector, a key voting constituency.
The electoral implications of the scandal will depend on how long public outrage is sustained. An M&F poll carried out last weekend showed a high level of public indignation, as well as mistrust in the government’s vaccine promises. While it is possible that the scandal fades in the public consciousness amid widespread resignation about nepotism, elite privilege, and abuse of power, it is also the case that the scandal is especially awkward for the Peronist movement, which purports to stand for social justice. The speed and reach of the vaccine campaign will also determine the public mood. Almost two months since the start of the vaccine rollout, fewer than 800,000 vaccines have actually been administered. It is not even clear that all frontline medical personnel have received a vaccine. Meanwhile, the official Covid-19 death toll reached 51,510 yesterday.