“Behind every great fortune is a great crime” is a saying attributed to the French novelist Honoré de Balzac. To this one might add that behind every great crime is a great opportunity.
While the economy is in the grips of a crisis so severe the likes of which have not been seen or experienced since the immediate aftermath of World War II, there is no lack of “great opportunities” for those ready and willing to take advantage of them. Even if these money-making opportunities result in misery and suffering for those being taken advantage of.
Such is the case with the current controversy over the supposed sale of anti-COVID-19 vaccines and of reservation slots for vaccinations to those not yet eligible for a turn at getting a jab. While the vaccines are given for free at public health facilities, the scammers, using social media, reportedly entice future clients with offers of two-dose vaccine shots complete with a vaccination schedule and booklet.
The criminal minds even practice some form of market segmentation, pegging prices to specific brands: P6,000-P8,000 for China-made Sinovac, and P10,000-P12,000 for the US-made Pfizer vaccine and the British-developed AstraZeneca.
Such a scheme can only come about, of course, because of the current scarcity in vaccines, as the government has been forced to apportion what’s available for now to priority sectors, leaving millions more anxious and antsy to get their jabs. Reports of the scam immediately drew the attention of the mayors of Mandaluyong and San Juan where the anomalous transactions were supposed to take place, and prompted police and the National Bureau of Investigation, with Malacañang chiming in, to launch an investigation into the criminal activity.
On Wednesday, a suspect by the name of Kyle Bonifacio surrendered to Mandaluyong Mayor Carmelita Abalos, the surrender supposedly facilitated by Bonifacio’s father who is a village councilor in Mandaluyong. The younger Bonifacio has since denied his involvement in the activity.
The clandestine sale of vaccine shots and reservations is not the first scandal to surface in light of the current COVID-19 crisis. Soon after Metro Manila and nearby areas were placed under a strict lockdown, reports emerged of bogus health certificates submitted by people who wished to travel to Boracay and other provincial destinations. Fraudsters were so enterprising that fake certificates of authorized travel and even negative COVID-19 tests were also produced.
Dishonesty and duplicity are not the only misdemeanors at issue here. Such transgressions also endanger the people living in places that tourists and other visitors wish to visit. Note, for one, the spread of the virus around the countryside by returning overseas workers or urbanites relocating to their hometowns who had bypassed the proper screening and quarantine protocols.
The risk from possibly fake or expired vaccines is far more dire. The gullible may be lulled into a sense of complacency, thinking they are already safe from COVID-19 infection. But the larger danger is that the “vaccine for sale” scam could very well slow down if not derail the vaccine roll-out, with people discouraged from signing up for the jabs because they think they could not afford the exorbitant sums advertised by scammers. Vaccine hesitancy remains high, with many wary of talk of side effects and health risks arising from vaccination. They could be further discouraged by suspicions of being taken for a ride, speculations of private or public profiteering, as well as anxiety arising from delays and lack of proper information.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson has called on health authorities to dispense with redundant pre-screening requirements that slow down the vaccination drive, to help prevent the rise of “vaccine for sale” rackets. Sen. Joel Villanueva likewise urged the government to “kick the vaccine drive into high gear,” while Sen. Grace Poe noted the need to vaccinate “as many Filipinos as possible” to bring an end to the country’s economic doldrums.
Filipinos are no strangers to kilometric queues, with people jostling and shoving for essentials like water, rice, relief goods, and cash grants. This is not because of some inherent weakness in the Filipinos’ character or upbringing. Rather, it is behavior borne of desperation arising from chronic shortages, and the fear of starvation or being left behind by the privileged or well-positioned. That such desperation is being exploited for profit by the unscrupulous and duplicitous should prod authorities to crack down on and nip in the bud any vaccine fraud being foisted on the public, which can only add to the sense of inequality, exclusion, and mistrust being felt by many amid this pandemic.
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