Covid corruption rears its ugliest head in Vietnam

BANGKOK — Vietnam has arrested officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Tourism, Air, Medicine and Manufacturing and expelled them from the ruling Communist Party amid multimillion-dollar corruption scandals that test Hanoi’s reliability in the American Indo-Pacific economic framework and centers for disease control.

Corrupt officials are said to have pocketed US$240 million by tricking frightened Vietnamese into paying inflated fees for government-organized Covid-19 repatriation flights from abroad and cumbersome permits. They would also have set the prices for emergency health care and equipment in the event of a pandemic.

“The anti-corruption campaign is causing growing uncertainty and anxiety among [Vietnamese Communist Party] from the grassroots,” Carlyle Thayer, professor emeritus at the Australian Defense Force Academy at the University of New South Wales, said in an interview.

“The steering committees of each of Vietnam’s 68 administrative units should be more proactive in eradicating economic corruption.

“This raises the possibility of factional fighting at the national and local levels,” said Australia-based Thayer, who returned from Vietnam two weeks ago.

“The US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) provides an opportunity for both parties to work together to address corruption issues.

“Vietnamese participation in IPEF will be seen as an opportunity to link international commitments to domestic reform,” Thayer said.

Vietnam’s other international partners are also concerned.

“The scandals definitely affect Vietnam’s standing with governments, financial and development institutions and the private sector,” said Bangkok-based Kasit Piromya, a member of the executive board of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights. (APHR).

“It also undermines the position of the CPV (Communist Party of Vietnam),” he said in an interview.

Women wearing protective masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19 walk on a street in Hanoi on January 29, 2021. Photo: AFP / Manan Vatsyayana

“The United States and Vietnam’s other investors and business partners need to be tougher on anti-corruption governance measures and the rule of law,” said Kasit, who served as Thailand’s foreign minister from 2008 to 2011. .

US President Joe Biden launched the IPEF on May 23, bringing together Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore , Thailand and Vietnam.

The White House said that among the “key pillars” of IPEF is the “criminalization of corruption in accordance with UN standards…to strengthen our anti-corruption efforts.”

Communist Party leader Nguyen Phu Trong, 77, won a third five-year term in early 2021, partly on a tough and continued anti-corruption platform.

“This anti-corruption fight is still very difficult,” Trong said at the time.

When Covid-19 first swept through Southeast Asia in 2020, Vietnam was praised for its effective fight against the virus with mass testing, strict lockdowns and prompt medical treatment.

But in 2021, “the demand for medical devices in Vietnam has skyrocketed, giving rise to more opportunities for corruption,” warned Global Compliance News of international law firm Baker McKenzie.

When the country’s infection rate rose from 1,500 in 2020 to 10 million in the first months of 2022 – including 43,000 deaths – test kits suddenly became abnormally expensive.

In response, the government’s “burning stove” anti-corruption crackdown has accused more than 60 price-fixers, including at the foreign and health ministries.

Officials were also arrested at the Ministry of Science and Technology, the Military Medical Academy, government-owned Viet A Technologies, the Hanoi Center for Disease Control (CDC) and local health departments.

Hanoi CDC director Truong Quang Viet was arrested on June 10 for “violating auction regulations, resulting in serious consequences” and inflating the prices of Covid test kits, police said according to Tuoi Tre News from the Vietnam.

A propaganda poster on preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is seen on a wall as a man smokes a cigarette on a street in Hanoi on April 29, 2020. Photo: AFP / Manan Vatsyayana

“Several officials – including high-ranking military generals and directors of provincial branches of the [Hanoi] Center for Disease Control – have been arrested or placed under criminal investigation for their involvement in the case,” VnExpress reported.

Viet’s predecessor, former Hanoi CDC director Nguyen Nhat Cam, was jailed for 10 years in 2020 for similar bribery involving Covid-19 testing equipment, costing the government $233,000.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris launched a U.S. CDC Regional Office for Southeast Asia in Hanoi in August 2021, in part to work with the Vietnam Provincial CDC.

“The U.S. CDC has a long-standing presence in Southeast Asia, including a national CDC office in Vietnam that has worked with the government of Vietnam for nearly 25 years to address common health priorities,” said said the US Embassy in Vietnam in June.

No evidence or allegations of corruption have been publicly released involving the new US CDC regional office or US citizens.

In 2020, the US CDC said its country office staff in Vietnam included eight “U. assignees” and 60 “local employees”.

In March, “the US CDC provided training on Covid-19 testing, biosafety and sample collection at Vietnam CDCs and provincial hospitals in 34 of Vietnam’s 63 provinces,” he said. .

Bribes, however, reportedly convinced Vietnam’s health officials to provide overpriced Covid test kits to the Hanoi CDC and several hospitals.

In January, Phan Quoc Viet – chief executive of Viet A, which made the swab kits – ‘admitted’ to paying $35 million in bribe ‘bounties’ to health and safety officials. hospitals, VnExpress reported.

Phan Quoc Viet admitted to having paid bribes. Photo: nhadautu.com

“In April 2020, the company was authorized by the Ministry of Health to distribute Covid-19 test kits,” Vietnam News reported.

“Since then, he has supplied the test kits to [Vietnam’s] Disease control centers and other medical institutions in 62 provinces and cities nationwide. »

Various officials allegedly resold kits for public use for $20 – a 45% increase over their normal price – raking in millions of dollars in illicit profits.

Meanwhile, Viet A’s PCR kits have been hailed as a successful joint venture with the Military Medical Academy. Viet A won a government medal, awarded for his entrepreneurial role.

Suspicions emerged, however, after the World Health Organization (WHO) said the Viet A kits were “not eligible for WHO supply”.

This was at odds with a boast from the Ministry of Science and Technology in April 2020 that the WHO had approved the kits. Director Viet A claimed that nearly a dozen countries want to buy them.

Investigators found Viet A also allegedly lied when they said they had locally manufactured at least three million rapid test kits in 2021, which were actually cheap imports from China.

In June, officials expelled Health Minister Nguyen Thanh Long and Hanoi Communist Party chairman Chu Ngoc Anh from the party and accused them of corruption.

Both allegedly violated Party and government regulations, “resulting in serious consequences, loss of money and state assets, undermining the fight against Covid-19, causing social unrest and affecting the reputation of the Party, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Science,” the Politburo and the Hanoi Secretariat said.

Long, a 56-year-old northerner, became health minister in November 2020 and was tasked with protecting Vietnam from Covid-19. He also headed the Central Health Care Committee.

Anh, 57, born in Hanoi, served as science and technology minister from 2016 to 2020 before being elected chairman of the Communist Party of Hanoi, coinciding with the worsening spread of Covid-19 in the capital.

To fight corruption, the Communist Party’s powerful Central Inspection Committee proposed to the Politburo in April that the entire Party Committee of the Ministry of Science and Technology from 2016 to 2021 be disciplined, according to VnExpress media.

The inspection committee proposed the same mass discipline for all members of the health ministry’s party committee from 2016 to 2021.

Corruption allegations have also exploded. In April, the Ministry of Public Security arrested Deputy Foreign Minister To Anh Dung and two others allegedly linked to exorbitantly priced plane tickets for emergency repatriation flights.

Deputy Foreign Minister To Anh Dung has been singled out for alleged corruption in Covid-related emergency repatriation flights. Image: VnExpress

Vietnam has brought home more than 200,000 citizens from more than 60 countries and territories.

Dung, 58, arranged air tickets for Vietnamese in various countries, including poor migrant workers who lost their jobs overseas due to the economic ravages of Covid.

Others had to return to Vietnam urgently to help affected relatives.

In May, the former deputy foreign minister was imprisoned for four years for selling counterfeit drugs.

In March, security officials arrested the general manager of Binh Air Services and Tourism Trading Co, Nguyen Dieu Mo, for allegedly paying bribes in exchange for favors.

Some Foreign Ministry consular officials have been arrested for “seeking personal gain” by paying bribes to companies licensed to organize repatriation flights, the Public Security Ministry said.

The Communist Party Central Committee said in May that new anti-corruption steering committees would be set up in all provinces to root out illegal activities at the local level.

Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent who has reported from Asia since 1978.

Excerpts from his two new non-fiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex.—Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, and New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available on https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com

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