Covid-19 pandemic does not reduce “corruption epidemic” in Vietnam

Vietnamese public opinion is not only concerned about the increase or decrease of the number of people infected with Covid-19 but is also paying close attention to news of a series of health authorities in provinces suspected of corruption in purchasing equipment for the disease testing and treatment.

Independent journalist Huynh Ngoc Chenh told VOA that he was not surprised by this because corruption is a “regime attribute” in Vietnam, given the fact that officials are using all occasions, including the pandemic, to steal from the state budget.

Associate professor, Dr. Nguyen Nhat Cam – director of CDC Hanoi and 6 defendants are probed for purchasing Covid-19 testing equipment with the price three times higher than the initial price.

As reported, on April 22, Vietnam’s Ministry of Public Security arrested Director of the Hanoi Center for Disease Control (CDC Hanoi) Nguyen Nhat Cam and six other suspects, accusing the group of “collusion, fraud” raising the price of automatic testing machines called Realtime PCR.

The acts of the group were considered to “causing particularly serious damage” to the state, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

Citing information from the investigating agency, the local newspaper said the imported price of Realtime PCR machine is about VND2 billion ($85,100), but CDC Hanoi bought at VND7 billion and it has a plan to purchase 370 machines.

Within days of police arresting suspects in Hanoi, the press reported a series of health authorities in at least six provinces and cities, including Hanoi, Thai Binh, Quang Ninh and Quang Nam, bought the same system with the prices from VND5.9 billion to VND8.4 billion.

Revealed yet another “Covid-19 package

Not only the Realtime PCR testing machine, recently, each province and city has spent tens to hundreds of billions of dong to buy materials, chemicals and biologicals to serve the prevention and control of the pandemics.

Most of these tender packages are designated contractors and the winning company is now in the “sights” of the agencies of inspection and police. In particular, the most notable is Phuong Dong Medical Equipment Co., Ltd., led by Dr. Nguyen Xuan Thanh as a general manager. In a case of “violating bidding rules causing serious consequences” at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Hanoi, an employee of this company was arrested.

According to records from the national bidding system, on April 23, Orient Medical Equipment Co., Ltd also won the third package: “Procurement of digital mobile X-ray machines” of the Department of Health of Hai Phong with a value of VND14 billion.

At Hai Duong General Hospital, on April 21, Phuong Dong Medical Equipment Co., Ltd. also won the package “Supplying artificial kidney supplies for professional work” with nearly VND1 billion and the package “Buying lots of material supplies for professional work” worth more than VND600 million. In a short time, the company even participated in 30 bidding packages and won 26 packages.

Meanwhile, Tam Viet Medical and Scientific Equipment Co., Ltd. (located in Hoang Mai District, Hanoi) led by Mr. Ngo Ba Binh, won the tender package “Buying supplies, chemicals, and biologicals for Labo testing in the province. serving the Covid-19 pandemic of CDC Lao Cai” on April 14, worth more than VND1 billion.

At the Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, this company won the package “Buy biological products, supplies, chemicals for testing SARS-CoV2 and some other causes of acute respiratory disease” more than VND3.7 billion.

In Ninh Binh, Tam Viet Medical and Scientific Equipment Co., Ltd provides Realtime PCR testing system with the winning price of about VND7.8 billion. This company has cooperated with 20 contractors in 17 bidding packages and won all 17 packages.

Mr. Nguyen Quoc Cuong (commonly known as Cuong Do La) presented Gia Lai health sector with the Realtime PCR system for Covid-19 test similar to the system that CDC Hanoi which he bought for only VND2 billion.

On his personal Facebook, veteran journalist Quoc Phong, a former editor-in-chief of Thanh Nien newspaper, called the fraud and raising the price of testing machines “brutally dirty “and “vile.”

In online forums such as the Press- Citizens’ Perspective, there have been a number of discussions on the subject with many indignant words condemning “corrupt officials who misuse the disease to steal money from the state budget.

Facebooker Chanh Trung wrote a funny comment:

Testing machine price: from VND1.5 to VND2.3 billion is the market economy’s price. The price of VND7 billion to VND10 billion is the price of a socialist-oriented market economy. The price gap is called: regime superiority.”

One reader commented: “There are elderly people supporting the pandemic fighting with their savings. There are babies who smash their saving pigs. Numerous contributed by sending SMSs. Those have no money make donations by providing materials, some people donate eggs for medical staff and guards of quarantine facilities. Yet there are guys like Nguyen Nhat Cam, director of the CDC Hanoi and his merciless comrades, in a way like that.

And here is the pressing of journalist Ngo Nguyet Huu: “It is frustrating to have to read this kind of information and it is even more boring to know that not only CDC Hanoi has bought a testing system higher than the market price. For the money of the people, the prestige of the State, the national honor, the integrity of the medical industry … cannot accept the existence of those who smear with the sweat, tears of their compatriots.”

Journalist and blogger Huynh Ngoc Chenh told VOA that this incident, like any other corruption cases so far, has its roots in the “one-party mechanism, no opposition and civil society supervision,” he added:

State officials do everything. So they corrupt what they can see. That is, the regime creates conditions for its officials to corrupt. They make frauds every time when use the state budget to purchase.”

While social media users asked authorities to investigate health officials in suspected provinces using the Covid-19 pandemic for corruption, the media reported that the Centers for Disease Control in Thai Binh, Quang Ninh and Quang Nam provinces are still negotiating to reduce the price of testing machines even though they have been installed and put into use.

Different prices for Covid-19 test machine: VND8 billion or VND2 billion?

The state-controlled media reported on the purchase price of Realtime PCR testing machines each different from the lowest price of VND1.5 billion, particularly Hai Phong bought for VND10 billion.

Accordingly, Hai Phong City Preventive Medical Center (belonging to the Department of Health) receives devices from December 12; it was “eligible to operate the machine” on March 23. At that time, some information said that Realtime PCR system was purchased by Hai Phong for VND10 billion. However, Ms. Pham Thu Xanh, Director of Hai Phong Department of Health, affirmed: “The information of buying Realtime PCR machine for VND10 billion is not true. I confirm that Hai Phong has not purchased yet. The system at Hai Phong Preventive Medical Center is the one we borrow from the business.”

On April 26, CDC Director of Lao Cai Nguyen Van Suu, when asked, also affirmed that CDC Lao Cai has not been able to buy the Realtime PCR testing machine and the system it is using is from an enterprise.

Quite a lot of provinces says they are negotiating for price reduction after completing purchase.

In Thai Binh, in the decision to approve the contractor for the supply of medical equipment to fight against the Covid-19 pandemic by the province’s Department of Health at the end of March, the winning bid for the automatic Real PCR PCR system was VND6.48 billion.

However, Mr. Pham Van Diu, director of Thai Binh Department of Health, said that the purchase of the XN system was only VND5.85 billion. “We have also consulted many places. The winning price is also very well approved by the evaluation board of the province. After that, the equipment supplier agreed to reduce the money in order to join hands to fight the pandemic.”

After the procurement, winning the bidding were completed with the price of VND6.48 billion, on April 15, Thai Binh Department of Health invited the winning unit to review and adjust the equipment price, from which the new price would be VND5.85 billion.

Quang Ninh Department of Health submitted to the province’s People’s Committee for approval the purchase of an automatic Realtime PCR system for VND8.4 billion. On March 1, the contract was signed. By March 23, after working with C03 (Ministry of Public Security) on March 15, the Department of Health signed an appendix of the contract, reducing the price of this device to VND7 billion. On March 19, the Department of Health transferred VND4.2 billion to the winning bidder, but on April 21, the winning bidder refunded the advance.

The members of the Press – Citizens’ perspective stated that it is “ridiculous” for enterprises to “lend” or continue to negotiate the discount of testing machines that have been installed and used. This is a high-value product and is on the list of “conditional business” as prescribed by law.

According to forum members, the above actions seem to be a countermeasure of the health authorities in some provinces due to anxiety after police arrested corrupt suspects in Hanoi.

However, according to journalist Huynh Ngoc Chenh, who often speaks on the Internet to help promote social progress, the arrests last week were just a show of the government, with no actual effect on anti-corruption. He told VOA:

Talking against corruption is for fun and to decorate the regime. There are a number of officials whose wrongdoings cannot be covered so police were forced to handle to show that the regime did not tolerate corruption, but the regime itself is corrupted by its nature. Just now it is just dealing with the tops to satisfy the pressure of the people. Now catching this person, catching others tomorrow is just about doing things on the surface.”

Chenh, who was awarded the Citizens’ Report Without Borders Reporter, told VOA that to effectively fight corruption, there must be a strong opposition party and civil society.

Amid the tumultuous public opinion and frustration of the fact that many provinces bought testing machines up to about VND7 billion dong each, the official Facebook page of the Vietnamese government said on April 27 that businessman Nguyen Quoc Cuong, or called “Cuong dollar” gave the Department of Health of Gia Lai province a test machine of the same type costing only VND2 billion on April 10.

But that is not the lowest price because the news of Dan Viet on April 26, quoted by Mr. Do Quang Hung, director of Quang Tri Department of Health, said that the province purchased the testing machine for only VND1.5 billion. Mr. Hung said that the price of VND7 billion that CDC Hanoi paid was “too high” and “not acceptable.”

It is not clear how much the provinces will spend to buy test equipment. Regarding the total funding for the prevention of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Vietnamese press quoted the Ministry of Finance’s leader as saying that up to now, the central budget has spent about VND3 trillion.

Of that money, part of it is for buying medical equipment and supplies. The remainder was used to pay allowances to the anti-pandemic forces, and to provide direct support to those affected by the pandemic, such as food expenses for tens of thousands of quarantined people.

A report on the Corruption Perception Index published by Transparency International in January this year showed that Vietnam was ranked 96th in the list of 180 countries and territories.

With this position, Vietnam is considered to have reached the highest index since 1997, but it is still among the countries with lots of corruption.

Information shows that the anti-corruption campaign of General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong and the leadership in Ba Dinh is still a slogan, because in fact, this evil is still widespread among the party members.

Hai Yen from Hanoi – (Translated)