A health minister and his deputy in Kyrgyzstan, the mayor of Hanoi, a Japanese man on the run in Indonesia: All arrested in the last week over COVID-related corruption.
The pandemic, officially declared by the World Health Organization on March 11, 2020, cratered economies as borders slammed shut. It also sparked massive public spending across the world, which only intensified as vaccines became available and necessary to chart a course back to some kind of normalcy.
With speed a top priority, the race to develop and procure COVID-19 tests and vaccines proved a fertile medium for corruption to blossom from the very top of ministries charged with protecting public health to average citizens abusing the systems established to help people and business survive.
On June 2, 2022, Kyrgyz Minister of Health Alymkadyr Beishenaliev was detained in Bishkek. Three other ministry employees — Deputy Minister Uluk-Bek Bekturganov, director of the Republican Center for Immunoprophylaxis Gulbara Ishenapysova, and head of the Department of Medicines and Medical Products Sultan Satarbekov — were also detained.
According to the Kyrgyz Prosecutor General’s office, as reported by RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service, Kyrgyzstan received more than 450,000 doses of coronavirus vaccines from China, Russia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and international initiatives as humanitarian aid. Separately Kyrgyzstan negotiated to receive 6 million doses from China and Russia for free.
Then, the authorities allege, in April, June, July and September 2021, Beishenaliev ordered the purchase of more than 2.4 million doses from private foreign companies for more than 1.5 billion Kyrgyz som (around $18.8 million). The money, authorities said, went into offshore accounts and the oversupply of vaccines meant a surplus of around 3 million doses, which are now expiring unused.
Two other deputy ministers of health have been fired and those who have been detained faced a range of charges including corruption, extortion, and abuse of power.
Less than a week later on June 8, and thousands of miles away, Vietnam’s health minister and the mayor of Hanoi, the capital, were detained as part of an expanding investigation into massive price gouging of COVID-19 tests.
Health Minster Nguyen Thanh Long was dismissed from his post and Chu Ngoc Anh, a former science minister, was fired from his job as the capital’s mayor. Both are being investigated for abuse of power and have been booted from the Communist Party of Vietnam. According to the Associated Press, a government investigation found that mismanagement in the health and science ministries allowed Viet A Technology Corporation to inflate prices for test kits supplied to hospitals and health centers in Vietnam. Around 60 people have been arrested in the course of the investigation, with the company’s director, Phan Quoc Viet, reportedly confessing to paying kickbacks to government officials who arranged the purchase of testing kits at inflated prices.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia on June 7, authorities in Sumatra arrested Taniguchi Mitsuhiro, a Japanese citizen wanted by Japanese police for fraud. Taniguchi and a group of acquaintances allegedly submitted about 1,700 false applications for COVID-19 relief funds. The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department believes they received subsidies for more than 960 of those applications totaling an estimated 960 million yen ($7.3 million).
Taniguchi reportedly left Japan in October 2020, two months after the office offering the subsidies consulted with Tokyo police and the scheme was revealed. He has been wanted by Japanese police since May 2022, when police in Japan arrested his ex-wife and two sons. Taniguchi’s passport was revoked by Tokyo, paving the way for his arrest in Indonesia and likely extradition.
While each case is different (and the authorities in each state should prove their allegations in a fair court of law), COVID-19 is the thread that ties them together. These cases are not the first and won’t be the last.
The pandemic generated both desperation and opportunity. The still-reverberating social and economic affects of the pandemic make it good politics to punish the corrupt now. Blame for the inadequacies of any government’s pandemic response can be thus shunted off to a few bad actors, rather than entire systems. Never let a good crisis go to waste.
With reporting from the Associated Press, including by Andi Jatmiko and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta, Indonesia.