Palestinian Authority under fire for VIP vaccines

Al-Jazeera  /  March 3, 2021

Palestinian human rights and civil society groups say the PA’s COVID vaccination programme lacks transparency.

The Palestinian Authority has confirmed that it diverted some COVID-19 vaccination doses meant for medical workers to VIPs, as critics have claimed, but said this involved a small fraction of inoculations.

A PA health ministry statement on Tuesday said 10 percent of the 12,000 doses it received were given to the Palestinian national football team, government ministers, presidential guards and members of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Executive Committee. Another 200 doses went to the Jordanian royal court, after a request from Amman.

But it said the other 90 percent went to health workers treating COVID-19 cases in intensive care units and emergency departments, and health ministry workers.

The ministry statement followed criticism from several Palestinian human rights and civil society groups, who urged an investigation into the vaccination programme, saying it was not transparent.

“The incoming information and testimonies point to ongoing cases where vaccines are obtained by several parties, in disregard of the principle of priority in distribution,” the groups said in a joint statement on Monday.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas has long faced accusations of nepotism and cronyism. In a December poll, 86 percent of Palestinians surveyed said they viewed PA institutions as corrupt.

But, defending its vaccination programme, the health ministry said the ministers and security officials who received vaccines were “in direct contact with the president and the prime minister”. It also said some of those who received vaccines were election officials while the football team was vaccinated because the players needed vaccination certificates to be able to travel “to represent Palestine in a match”.

Social media users have launched the hashtag in Arabic #WhereIsTheVaccine.

Issa Amro, a well-known activist from Hebron, wrote on his Facebook page that the PA failed in allocating the vaccine fairly.

“The scandal of distributing the vaccine to officials should be the reason for not electing the list that represents the government,” he said, referring to the upcoming parliamentary elections in May – the first in 15 years.

“Shame on you, you have failed even in distributing the vaccine,” he said, referring to the PA.

Record high of cases

In the occupied West Bank, coronavirus cases have reached a record high since the pandemic began, resulting in the announcement of new lockdown measures.

“The outbreak is very bad, and the cases themselves are very bad, worse than in the beginning,” said Tayeb Zeineddin, who has been working at a Ramallah testing centre since the pandemic began. He said more than 1,000 people show up daily for tests.

The PA has reported more than 130,000 cases in the West Bank since the outbreak began, including at least 1,819 cases on Tuesday.

At least 1,510 people have died, and dozens are in intensive care. In Gaza, which is under a 13-year blockade by Israel and Egypt, authorities have reported more than 55,000 cases and at least 553 deaths.

The effects go far beyond the disease itself.

The World Bank estimates the Palestinian economy shrank by 11.5 percent in 2020, with tourism and restaurant sectors hit particularly hard. Unemployment in the West Bank spiked to 15 percent this year, and about 1.4 million Palestinians are living in poverty, it said last month.

The occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, home to a combined 5.2 million Palestinians, have received about 34,700 vaccine doses to date. These came from small donations by Israel and Russia as well as 20,000 sent by the United Arab Emirates to Gaza.

The numbers lag far behind Israel, which has vaccinated more than one-third of its nine million people in one of the world’s fastest roll-outs.

Israeli officials have said that under the Oslo peace accords, the PA health ministry is responsible for vaccinating Palestinians.

But Palestinians have accused Israel of ignoring its duties as an occupying power by not including them in its inoculation programme, saying vaccines from Israel should not be donations as Palestine is not a poor country but a territory where Israel has complete economic and political control.