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Covid-19: Palestinian Authority criticised for VIP vaccine distribution

A significant proportion of the first batch of vaccines have gone to PA government figures and their allies
An UNRWA employee prepares a shot of the Sputnik V Covid-19 vaccine for medical staff at UNRWA's al-Sheikh Redwan clinic in Gaza City, on 25 February 2021 (AFP)
By in
Ramallah, occupied West Bank

Political and security figures from the Palestinian Authority (PA) were the first in line to receive the opening batch of Covid-19 vaccinations, the PA Ministry of Health revealed on Tuesday, following criticism over its handling of the immunisation campaign.

The ministry had been asked to disclose how it was managing the distribution of the vaccines following accusations of corruption by Palestinian civil society and human rights organisations.

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In a statement published on its official Facebook page, the ministry said that the PA had received 12,000 doses.

According to the statement, those who received the vaccine include PA ministers; presidential and ministerial security personnel in direct contact with PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh; members of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) Executive Committee; workers in the Central Elections Committee; employees of a number of Arab embassies in the occupied territories; players in the Palestinian national football team; and 100 students heading abroad.

The ministry later modified the statement on Facebook and on the PA-owned Wafa news agency, removing a reference to the delivery of 200 doses to the royal court of Jordan.

The ministry’s statement was met with widespread criticism from Palestinian citizens and NGOs, as it flew in the face of previous assurances that medical personnel, the elderly, and chronically ill patients would be given priority in vaccination.

Accusations of nepotism

In spite of the damning revelations in the ministry statement, Palestinian activists said that it failed to mention that Palestinian media personalities close to or affiliated with the PA - such as those working at the Palestine Radio and Television Corporation, Wafa, or Ma'an news agency - had also received the vaccine.

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A news report published on 8 February by Ma’an Agency stated that members of its staff had received the vaccine to “encourage the audience” to get it.

“The statement of the Ministry of Health came too late and only following pressure and questions by the Palestinian street,” Issam al-Arouri, director of the Jerusalem Centre for Legal Aid and a spokesperson for civil society organisations in Palestine, told Middle East Eye.

“The statement contains lies, the most important of which is the cover-up of those who received the vaccine, whom the statement did not mention.

“The Ministry of Health’s priority in distributing the vaccine violates the standards that most countries adhere to, such as age group, health status, and those most at risk,” Arouri added. “The priority of the Ministry of Health was the political class and those close to it.”

Palestinian civil society organisations held a press conference on Monday calling on Shtayyeh to establish a committee of inquiry into the distribution of vaccines, publish a plan, and hold accountable those who violate these standards.

“Incoming information and testimonies indicate that there are still many [personalities] receiving the vaccine… in disregard of the principle of distribution priorities, which [includes] medical personnel, the elderly and patients,” a joint statement by the NGOs read.

The organisations accused the PA of “neglecting the principles of transparency regarding coronavirus vaccination, which generated a fertile environment for favouritism and selfishness, and ignores the public interest”.

“The Ministry of Health’s statement confirms the mismanagement of the distribution of the vaccine,” Issam Haj Hussein, executive director of the Coalition for Integrity and Accountability (Aman), told MEE. “It violated the protocols it had set regarding the mechanisms for distributing the vaccine, including vaccination priorities."

Vaccine budget shortfall

While the vast majority of Palestinians have yet to be vaccinated, the number of new Covid-19 cases in the occupied Palestinian territories continues to rise. Since the outbreak of the pandemic a year ago, at least 2,296 Palestinians have died of the virus, according to PA statistics.

“It has emerged that the Ministry of Health is not the main player in managing the distribution of the vaccine,” Islam al-Tamimi, director of the community advocacy department at the Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights, told MEE.

Tamimi called on the Anti-Corruption Committee to hold to account “those who are found responsible for depriving the groups that actually need the vaccine”.

While it is accused of “vaccination corruption”, the PA vaccination plan faces a $30m funding shortfall, “even after factoring in support from a global vaccine scheme for poorer economies”, as it needs a total of around $55m to vaccinate 60 percent of the population, according to the World Bank.

Palestinian activists took to Twitter demanding the PA explain the distribution process, using the Arabic hashtag “Where is the vaccine.”

“Human rights demands are not limited to investigating what happened, but also for the Palestinian Authority to provide guarantees and a clear strategy to ensure that what happened will not be repeated,” Tamimi said.