Vaccine scandals add to political tensions in Latin America

Vaccine scandals add to political tensions in Latin America

Health care workers wait to receive a dose of Sinopharm's COVID-19 vaccine in Lima, Peru, Feb. 9, 2021. Peru's bishops are indignant that vaccines are being given to VIPs instead of essential workers; one of those who received the vaccine was the papal nuncio. (Credit: CNS photo/Sebastian Castaneda, Reuters.)

As violence, corruption and vaccine scandals continue to shake Latin America, Catholic bishops are calling for people to avoid being “tempted by hatred,” to urge peace and to avoid the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic.

ROME – As violence, corruption and vaccine scandals continue to shake Latin America, Catholic bishops are calling for people to avoid being “tempted by hatred,” to urge peace and to avoid the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Paraguay, a call for peace

Bishop Ricardo Valenzuela on Sunday consecrated the people of Paraguay to their national patroness, Our Lady of Caacupé, and called for the Mother of God to help the country overcome what he defined as a period of much concern and tension in the political, economic, and social order.

The bishop of Caacupe also released a pastoral letter in which he referred to a wave of extreme violence that is affecting the country, as well as the corruption in Paraguay’s ruling class.

The considerable violence of the past few months, he said, are the “reflection of a sick society.”

In addition, Valenzuela noted that everyone in the country feels “the deep corruption in important spheres,” making specific mention of the national police force.

After a growing number of cases of corruption involving public officials, the minister of interior announced late last week that changes will be made to try to “improve results,” acknowledging that there have been many cases of extorsion from police officers.

Regardless of the challenges the country faces, Valenzuela said, the “heart of Paraguay is big, we have seen this before and in the recent events,” including during a series of storms and flooding that have affected various regions of the country: “How much solidarity!”

For this reason, he called on the faithful to make that heart “larger” by organizing a strong and compact network involving all the lay movements, groups and associations of the Church, that would become an instrument to foment initiatives that bring hope.

“Vaccine-gate” in Argentina, Peru

Scandals continue to grow due to what the president of Argentina’s bishops’ conference has called the “politicization” of the COVID-19 vaccine. Both in Argentina and Peru, it has been revealed that hundreds of people with ties to those in power have “jumped the line” and called in favors to get the vaccine.

In Peru, there is a list of nearly 500 people who received the vaccine ahead of schedule, and before essential healthcare workers, including the papal representative in the country, Archbishop Nicola Girasoli. The scandal has rocked the country, and led to the resignation of over 100 public officials.

The snowballing scandal began in early February when former President Martín Vizcarra admitted that he, his wife and his brother had received China’s Sinopharm vaccine back in October.

The doses they received were part of a batch of 3,200 sent by Sinopharm to supplement a clinical trial it was conducting in Peru with nearly 12,000 volunteers. The Peruvian government, now headed by interim President Francisco Sagasti, signed a deal in January for 38 million doses of Sinopharm’s vaccine. One million doses had arrived by mid-February.

But the country’s former president and his family were not the only ones to benefit from the extra doses, and this is what led to uproar in a country that has seen over 45,000 people die with COVID-19. Girasoli is thus far the only high-ranking Church official involved in the scandal, and the local bishops themselves are unwilling to give him a pass for having received it as a “consultant on ethical issues” for one of the universities that ran the clinical trials.

In Argentina, a similar scandal brought down the health minister, Gines Gonzalez Garcia. The health minister had completely misread the coronavirus crisis in February 2020, saying it was “just a flu” that would never reach the country and that it would be a “failure” if the county reached 10,000 deaths. So far, over 51,000 people have died of COVID-19.

Gonzalez Garcia had set up a “VIP” vaccination center in the National Health Ministry, and it all came to light when a pro-government journalist acknowledged on air that he’d called “his old friend” the minister and asked for the vaccine. The politician proceeded to add him to the line, and sent him to the ministry to receive it, where at least a dozen, but probably more, people received the vaccine before their turn.

Archbishop Oscar Ojea released a video message late last week, as he does every week, and this time chose to focus on the vaccines scandals: “I think about the temptations that we Argentines have at this moment. I think that we have the tremendous temptation to destroy ourselves, and to boycott what can be good for us.”

And then he expressed his dismay at the revelation of favoritism in the application of the COVID-19 vaccine and recalled what the priorities should be in its application.

“Now we are perplexed by the politicization of the vaccine,” said the archbishop of San Isidro. “A vaccine which, as the Holy Father has told us repeatedly, must have a universal scope, no one should be left without, and those who have the responsibility of essential care deserve to receive it first.”

“With this [the vaccine] we have to have great delicacy,” Ojea said, “because it is about life and death. When we are faced with the possibility of sustaining ourselves in life, that cannot be politicized. The vaccine is for the good of all.”

The bishop, widely seen as very close to Pope Francis, invited Argentines to ask the Lord “not to give in to temptation and the rupture of division.”

Nicaragua, “tempted by hatred”

Bishop Rolando Alvarez, among the youngest and newest bishops in Nicaragua, said on Sunday that the country is immerse in a serious social, political and humanitarian crisis.

Quoting the Gospel of Mark, read in churches throughout the world this weekend, that tells the story of Jesus going to the desert for 40 days and being tempted by the devil, the prelate argued that Nicaragua is going through its own desert and is “tempted by hatred.”

“Nicaragua lives its own desert: The desert of trial, of the social, political, economic and health crisis caused by the pandemic,” said the bishop during his homily at the San Pedro cathedral church in Matagalpa, north of Managua, the country’s capital.

The country is still reeling from a 2018 popular revolt over a series of controversial changes to social security announced by President Daniel Ortega. The decision was later rescinded by the president, but the damage had been done. Over 300 people were killed in clashes with the police and military, and over 30,000 fled to neighboring countries.

The government classified the protests as an “attempted coup,” and the government labeled the Catholic bishops as “coup organizers.”

Nicaragua is also experiencing a health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has denied the disease exists in the country, and has taken no measures to stop the spread of virus.

“There is poverty, pain, hunger, loneliness, sometimes confusion, homeless people, outraged women, abandoned children,” Alvarez said. “The desert is a place of trial, there we meet God, in whom we place our total trust and hope.”

For the prelate, Nicaragua is also being “tempted by hatred, hopelessness, fear,” adding “we must not give in to that” because “God is with us.”

“Nicaragua is being tempted by ambition, leadership, group interests and personal interests, by ideas foreign to our idiosyncrasy, by a certain deafness or insensitivity to the reality that the people live,” he said, adding that the country is also tempted by “clan groups and sometimes even intrigue.”

The country is preparing for national elections, scheduled for November 7. In their Lenten message released last week, the bishops called for an electoral reform that would guarantee free and transparent elections.

When presenting the Lenten message, Monsignor Carlos Avilés, who directs the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Managua, said that the reforms are necessary to avoid electoral fraud.

“The call is for peace, it is for non-violence and for everything that contributes to the common good, in this case electoral reform, so that the elections can be authentically credible and transparent, if not, we are heading back to another fraud,” Avilés said.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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