As Ecuador’s National Assembly moves forward in its effort to fire Health Minister Juan Carlos Zevallos, some experts warn that his removal could delay the country’s vaccine program by several months and result in more loss of life.
The Assembly is demanding that President Lenin Moreno sack Zevallos because he delivered several doses of Ecuador’s first 8,000 Covid-19 vaccines to a private nursing home where his mother lives and that he had vaccinated himself. Legislative charges also claim he has not provided clear details about who will receive the first Pfizer vaccines.
If Moreno does not act, the Assembly has the authority to remove Zevallos by impeachment.
In addition to the Assembly charges, Ecuador’s chief prosecutor’s office said the Friday it has opened an investigation into Zevallos for alleged influence peddling in the rollout of the Covid vaccination based on a claim by two citizens, charges that the minister calls “garbage.”
Zevallos justified delivery of the first vaccines, saying almost all of them are going to healthcare workers. He justified his own vaccination on the grounds that he needed to remain healthy to do his job.
Augusto de la Torre, an adjunct professor at Columbia University in the U.S. is warning the National Assembly that removing Zevallos could have deadly consequences for the country. “I agree that the optics are not good that he goes first to a private facility to have his mother vaccinated and that the rollout of the vaccine is not more transparent, but I do not think this should result in his firing,” he says. “Having worked at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and with the World Health Organization, he is very well tied into the network that will provide vaccines to Ecuador. He has been in very sensitive negotiations with pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the vaccines and if he leaves his job the country will be starting all over again in its acquisition efforts.”
De la Torre adds, “He is literally Ecuador’s lifeline to the quickest possible vaccination program at this point.”
According to de la Torre, Zevallos should apologize for vaccinating his 87-year-old mother first and for the lack of a clear plan for dispensing early doses. “Going to a private health facility first, instead of a public one, was certainly a mistake given the shortage of doses, as was the absence of transparency. On the other hand, I understand his explanation that the private health institutions have as much need for vaccines as public ones.”
Zevallos has defended himself and says he will not resign voluntarily. “Don’t count on me to run out the door. We haven’t finished the job and this is no time to let our guard down. We keep losing people to this terrible disease.”
In response to Assembly demands, Moreno says he has full trust in Zevallos, his knowledge and relationships in the healthcare community.
De la Torre says removing Zevallos could cause lengthy delays in Ecuador’s fight against Covid-19. “If he is fired, it’s likely that the country will be set back by at least two months in its vaccine acquisition program since a new health minister would be unlikely to make significant progress before the new government takes office in May. Given the current political eagerness to remove officials from office, who would want to take any bold actions at the ministry if they were thrust into the job? The best outcome, in my opinion, is that the Assembly ask for an apology from Zevallos and let him continue his work.”
Ecuador has been promised 86,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine this month with two to three million arriving in March and April, according to the health ministry.