By Eric San Juan
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Jun 14 (EFE).- Vietnam, the country which had surprised the world during the first months of the pandemic due to preventing large-scale deaths, has witnessed its reputation maligned by corruption scandals that have emerged at the highest policy level of its health management system.
Last week, the country was rocked a major development in the biggest scandals, the so-called Viet A affair, with the arrest of former health minister Nguyen Thanh Long and the former president of the people’s committee of Hanoi – equivalent to the mayor – Chu Ngoc Anh.
Long and Anh were expelled from the Communist Party and arrested for facilitating a bribery racket linked to the sale of Covid-19 testing kits, being accused by the government of demeaning the political ideology, violation party rules and causing losses to the exchequer.
So far, it is not clear whether the two directly benefitted from the bribes or are only accused of mismanagement that allowed Viet A, a barely known healthcare company, to supply tests worth $174 million between April 2020 and the end of 2021 at prices inflated by 45 percent, allegedly to account for $35 million in bribes.
Apart from bribes to health officials and hospital heads across the country, the plot involved a fake advertisement in the press that the kits had been approved by the World Health Organization.
The company’s operations were facilitated by the health ministry and local authorities across Vietnam.
When the scandal broke in December, the director of the company Phan Quoc Viet was the first to fall, having remained in prison ever since.
In recent months, investigators have spread their net, thanks to Viet’s admissions, to include the minister and mayor, making it in an unprecedented case for the country.
The latest arrests could just be the tip of the iceberg, as dozens of high-level officials, company executives as well as the top brass at hospitals and health centers have been implicated in the scandal.
The case comes after other smaller irregularities unveiled by the press in recent months, such as bribes to high-ranking officials – including the deputy foreign minister, who was arrested in April – to get access to repatriation flights at a time when Vietnam had strictly closed its borders and its citizens were stranded abroad.
The constant trickle of bad press has undermined the image that the east Asian country had built up during the first year of the pandemic, when for months it maintained a unique record of registering barely any deaths, as the government urged the people to sacrifice on facilities while the nation was turned into a fortress.
This had resulted in the system being witnessed in the country with pride and as a symbol of national unity.
However, analysts have insisted that corruption in Vietnam’s health sector was nothing new, even though the scandal had taken people by surprise due to its scale and the fact that it had occurred during the pandemic.
The affair seems to have shaken the public confidence in efforts to fight the pandemic.
The case also comes at a time when Vietnam has been running an unprecedented anti-corruption campaign for at least six years, with many officials and businessmen of the country facing action as a result.
As per an investigation by Hai Hong Nguyen of the University of Queensland, by the end of 2020 the government had investigated 1,900 cases of corruption involving 1,400 suspects including high officials of the Communist Party, an unprecedented measure in the 91-year long history of the party, which has been in power in Vietnam since 1976.
Despite unparalleled action – which has led to rumors of party factions settling scores with each other – experts agree that the campaign would fail to resolve structural corruption if deep-seated reforms are not carried out, such as ensuring the independence of the judiciary and giving more freedom to the press, which is currently controlled by the state. EFE