This investigation exposes the disinformation strategies through which Venezuelan citizens are denied their rights by means of opacity regarding Russia’s failure to
deliver the second dose of its flagship COVID-19 vaccine.
By Ana Julia Niño Gamboa
The “beacon of light” that the propaganda turned Sputnik-V into is beginning to experience “connection failures”. Several countries purchasing the Russian vaccine are already suffering from the lack of the second dose to complete the immunization schedule: Guatemala, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Venezuela do not have a set date to continue their respective vaccination rollouts. Russia promises to deliver but does not say when.
This case could pass as a logistic bottleneck stemming from the demand for the Russian vaccine, especially in the Latin American region. The issue is that, in Venezuela, this case is added as one more tale to the cornucopia of opacities surrounding the deal inked by the administration of Nicolás Maduro with Moscow pending to be honored since December 2020. By that date, US$ 200 million was paid for 10 million doses, which, upon closing of this report, barely manages to reach the 1,430,000-vaccine mark.
We have reviewed the media of Venezuela’s government information system and the official websites of the Office of the Vice President, the Ministry of Health itself and other government agencies, following a tweet from the Ministry of Education’s account on June 8, 2021 announcing that the “second dose of the vaccine may be applied up to 3 months after the first”, based on another post from the account @sputnikvaccine dated April 26 of this year, which reports statements by researchers of Russia’s Gamaleya Institute. Previously, a memorandum dated June 4, 2021 signed by the Minister of Health was leaked, instructing state health directors and entities and epidemiology coordinators that the interval for the second dose of the Russian vaccine would be extended from 21 to 90 days.
Our research shows that the information on this matter follows the same fate of the contracts signed with the Russian government, of the landings with humanitarian aid and of the vaccination days, that is, there is an absolute lack of information and consolidated data. The little that can be found in these sources is propaganda in favor of the Russian government or against the United States, apart from the outright misinformation disseminated, sometimes by action, sometimes by omission, through officials who are constitutionally bound to accountability and to provide timely and truthful information to citizens.
The media review that we offer covers the whole month of June and the first week of July 2021, spans over 11 information sources, distributed among the state-owned media system, Venezuelan public administration bodies, and Russian media.
With this research, we intend to document one more episode in the vaccine deals between Russia and Venezuela. In this case, we refer to the unfolding of the procurement of Sputnik-V, a contract signed over six months ago, whereby the Russian government endeavored to deliver 10 million of these vaccines. In addition to the delay in the shipments of the first dose, there is now a failure to deliver the necessary second dose to complete the immunization schedule initiated in Venezuela.
The objective we set ourselves is to document the handling of public information by the national government. However, the sample we collected leads us to the systematic propagandistic trail prevailing in government agencies. In most cases, the effort is focused on promoting the virtues of the Moscow government, not only regarding the vaccines, but also a wide range of negotiations, most of them undoubtedly sheltered by the secrecy of the so-called Anti-Blockade Law (Ley Antibloqueo).
We have explored 11 sources distributed among official websites and public media from both nations. The period of this research is from June 1 to July 12, 2021. Following the news shared by the Minister of Education on Twitter regarding the extension of the time between the first and second dose for the Sputnik-V vaccine, it was necessary to confirm and fact-check it against other sources including the ministry’s own website and two Russian media outlets.
The sources reviewed are listed below:
Table No. 1: Media
|VENEZOLANA DE TELEVISIÓN||vtv.gob.ve|
|CORREO DEL ORINOCO||correodelorinoco.gob.ve|
|RT (Russia Today)||actualidad.rt.com|
Table No. 2: Government sources
|MINISTRY OF HEALTH||mpps.gob.ve|
|SISTEMA PATRIA (Fatherland System)||covid19.patria.org.ve|
|MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS||mppre.gob.ve|
|OFFICE OF THE VICE PRESIDENT||Vicepresidencia.gob.ve|
|MINISTRY OF ECONOMY AND FINANCE||mppef.gob.ve|
|MINISTRY OF COMMUNICATION AND INFORMATION||minci.gob.ve|
Our inquiry was limited to reviewing the government sources and the coverage given by the media selected. From them, we tried to understand what these sources reveal as well as what they do not reveal. This design allows us to detect a pattern of behavior and handling of public information in the hands of those in power. We also focused our gaze on the propaganda marked by the evident favoritism of Chavismo towards Russia, disregarding its constitutional duty to make the national interest prevail.
This is a research with a qualitative, documentary perspective. Our corpus focuses on the above sources, the data obtained from the national Executive official sites, and the news items published by the domestic and foreign media selected.
The reading of the sources was conducted online. For this purpose, we used the Google search engine and sometimes its advanced search tool. Our information gathering and data construction tool is based on content analysis, with initial categories to determine whether a media outlet has any news on the subject under investigation and if so, what the focus given is.
Venezuela resents not having appropriate information on a vaccination rollout structured under the guidelines of the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization. Indeed, on May 29, 2021, the government announced a brief vaccination plan with no details other than the random selection of those registered on the website of the benefits program for government loyalists, Sistema Patria. Such announcement followed a controversial episode of vaccination parties among the circles closest to the government. Therefore, public health criteria prioritizing the elderly or patients with associated conditions did not prevail then or now.
It is worth reminding that Russia’s failure to deliver the promised vaccines has not yet been remediated. Up to June 2021, the meager figure of 1,430,000 of the 10 million agreed in December 2020 has been received. Citizens do not have consolidated, timely and accurate information about the reasons for this delay, especially if we compare the figures in the millions that have been shipped to Argentina or Mexico. Beyond this circumstance, the Venezuelan government remains hellbent on its dealings to access other Russian vaccines, for instance EpiVacCorona or Sputnik Light, with no guarantees of compliance so far. When it mentions them, it does not seek to inform but to spread propaganda of its alliance to face the common enemy embodied by the U.S. government.
To date, the delay is attributed to the difficulty encountered by the Gamaleya Institute in obtaining the compound for the second dose of Sputnik-V. To provide more context, it should be noted that the two doses of Sputnik-V are different: The first works with the adenovirus 26 (Ad26) and the second with the adenovirus 5 (Ad5) acting as an effect booster. It is precisely this second compound that has proved difficult to access.
The issue here is not only the Russian government’s failure to admit its inability to provide a timely response regarding the production of the second dose, which by the way affects several countries, but also the systematic lack of information from the Nicolás Maduro administration is reprehensible. First, the nation has never been able to obtain information about the different agreements signed with the Moscow administration. This includes vaccines. Every time the medicine is received, the exact number of doses is not disclosed. Furthermore, it is not stated whether complete vaccines with their two doses are in fact received. On this occasion, the pattern of disinformation is repeated.
The public was not informed in a timely manner about the possibility of not receiving the two doses of Sputnik. Now, when circumstances change, the administration of this second dose is extended from 21 to 90 days in an internal memorandum that is not further detailed on government websites or the state-owned media system. Therefore, in addition to the difficulty of getting news on the vaccination rollout, there is reasonable doubt as to whether the promised immunization will be available. Even worse, people who already have been administered the first dose voice their concern over whether they are fully immunized or not. On the other hand, those who have not yet been vaccinated are hesitant about the possibility of initiating a schedule that may not be completed. Consequently, they prefer not to be vaccinated. All these scenarios are conducive to the dissemination of hoaxes and conspiracy theories of anti-vaccine groups, and the direct responsibility for all this rests with the policy of opacity by the national Executive.
In any case, it must be underscored that the public administration continues to be under the constitutional duty to inform the public. Furthermore, it is bound to manage the expectations of accessing the drug. The government owes the country an explanation, a campaign explaining the situation and the actions to be taken so that Venezuelans will endure the ordeal of not being guaranteed a vaccination plan in accordance with their serious public health situation.
In these circumstances, a government committed to its citizens would activate risk communication as advised by the World Health Organization. It is information based on trust, which implies joint work among those who know (healthcare personnel, scientific association), those who decide (the government and health authorities) and those affected (the people, all citizens). The media are also involved in this cooperative effort.
The review of government websites and what is disseminated by the state-owned media system reveals neglect of their duty to inform, especially in these sensitive circumstances that may represent the difference between life and death due to disease. Moreover, failure to inform opens cracks encouraging the circulation of hoaxes and manipulation. On the other hand, this feeds conspiracy theories that intensify biases based on fear.
On this occasion, the first thing that stands out is the post appearing on the Twitter account of the Ministry of Health on June 8. One month later, it had not been reproduced on its own official website, nor was it echoed in other sites of the national Executive.
State-owned Venezolana de Televisión published a single news item dated June 27, 2021 under the title “A dose of Sputnik V reduces mortality by up to 80% in people over 60, reveals a study in Argentina”. However, the article did not address the implications for our country, nor did it mention single-dose administration, which seems to become the practice in Venezuela. Additionally, we did not find any references in Correo del Orinoco. On the other hand, on June 20, the website of multistate channel Telesur published a piece with the headline “In Russia, [Vice President] Delcy Rodríguez follows up on the supply of vaccines”. It cites as its source a tweet posted on June 18 by the Vice President herself on her Twitter account. In fact, Telesur copied the item from the Vice-Presidency’s website of the same date as the tweet. In the body of the piece, the news is the meeting with Russia’s Direct Investment Fund “to follow up on the Plan for the Supply of Sputnik V and Sputnik Light Vaccines to Venezuela”. There was also room to sneak propaganda according to which Maduro, “in the midst of the economic blockade imposed by the U.S. government, continues to guarantee the protection and the lives of the Venezuelan people”. Regarding the haphazard vaccination rollout underway in the country, it states: “in Venezuela, Phase 2 of COVID-19 Mass Vaccination Plan is being conducted successfully”.
On the website of Russian agency Sputnik, we did not find any news explaining the delay in the production and delivery of the second dose. For its part, RT published four pieces on the subject under analysis. The headlines are: (i) on June 23, “Moscow speaks out on reports about a shortage of Sputnik V vaccine in Argentina”; (ii) on June 26, “A study in Argentina reveals that one dose of Sputnik V reduces mortality by up to 80% in people over 60”; (iii) on June 29, “Argentina’s lab Richmond announces that next Monday it will begin production of Sputnik V’s second component”; and (iv) on July 12, “Sputnik V produces high levels of antibodies and covid-19 [sic] neutralizers after a single dose, finds Argentine study published in the journal Cell“. All of them refer to Argentina’s case; but nothing is said about Venezuela.
By the way, with the intent of checking how this concern is experienced in Argentina, we reviewed some media that could provide context on the facts. The reason for this is that the Argentinean health authorities supposedly have studies endorsing the extension of the administration period between doses of the Russian drug. In our research, we found that the media in Argentina blew the whistle on delays in the delivery of Sputnik-V. They also reported the statements made by President Vladimir Putin, who acknowledged the delays and confirmed that the second dose was not available for the foreign market because the priority was the domestic demand in his country. This is a fact that we will not learn from Venezuela’s state-owned media or from the information provided by the Venezuelan Executive, which now embarks the country on the light doses of the same Sputnik-V.
The review of these news items hints at an informative policy essentially centered on propaganda. The contents of government websites and the state-owned media system make everyday problems disappear in a shrinking public space for citizens, mostly constrained to social media. We can almost say that there is a blockade: That applied to public information.
In the current review, the results of other investigations are repeated: The state-owned media system is at the service of the regime, not of the citizens. In this sense, they become propaganda tools. This is a constant noticed during the pandemic, especially in matters regarding its relationship with Moscow, in which propaganda is favored and information that is public in nature is concealed. This curtails the constitutional right of access to information and circumvents public officers’ accountability.
Managing opacity does not imply any effort for the Chavista government. Instead, it allows it to strengthen its political complicity with Russia. Otherwise, it would have to openly claim non-compliance, demand the return of the amounts paid, as it threatened the COVAX initiative. At least, it should adopt more measures to ensure the health of Venezuelans, as it passionately did to prevent the arrival of AstraZeneca’s vaccine into the country.
Meanwhile, Russia does not relent in its eagerness to promote its vaccine around the world, although there are already delays in the manufacturing of the first and second doses. A reasonable question, to which an answer may never come, is whether the government of Nicolás Maduro knew about this possibility from the day it disbursed US$ 200 million in December 2020.
It has been demonstrated that the propagandistic use of state media erodes democracy and impairs public debate. The silence of public information sources promotes informational disorder by favoring the politics of rumors and hoaxes to position the official truth without society, the Academia, or journalists being able to have an equivalent space serving as a democratic counterweight.
We continue to assess the management of this crisis by the authorities as a failure. It would be advisable to desist from this attitude and promote the collaboration proposed by risk communication as information based on trust to eliminate or mitigate the effects of misinformation.
It is understandable to notice that the regime favors positioning Russia as a selfless friend of Venezuela in a scenario aiming at opening geopolitical spaces away from the gravitational center of the U.S. However, it is a practice that should not conflict with the health care of citizens or with the need for information as demanded by democracy.