Saudi Arabia targets vaccinating 5m students in July

Dozen of people accused in scheme to manipulate immunisation statuses

A medical worker displays a dose of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine at a drive-through vaccination centre in Riyadh earlier this year (Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty)

Saudi Arabia aims to vaccinate five million students this month as the kingdom seeks a return to full in-person education this fall, the government said. The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Health said the vaccination plans would cover primary education students aged 12-18 and students at universities, colleges and training institutes, as well as teachers, faculty members and administrative staff who have not been vaccinated yet.

More than 18m doses of the coronavirus vaccines have been administered in Saudi Arabia so far, with about 53% of the population jabbed with at least one dose, and authorities are optimistic that continuing the vaccination campaign at this rate would help further restore normality to daily life. To achieve that, the government said displaying proof of immunity using an official app would be a requirement as of August 1st for entering public and private establishments, including malls and shopping centres, as well as attending sporting and entertainment events.

This means those who have been resistant or hesitant to take the vaccine might find themselves under more pressure to reconsider their decision as their movement and access to many types of services would be increasingly restricted in a few weeks, which appears to have pushed some people to resort to unlawful means to preemptively escape any potential restrictions.

The Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority, aka Nazaha, announced last week that 12 people have been arrested over suspected involvement in a scheme of tampering with immunisation status records in exchange for money. The dozen include two employees of the Eastern Province Health Affairs department who were accused of receiving money from citizens and residents in exchange for changing their coronavirus status from “infected” or “not immune” to “first dose taken” or “fully immune.”

Nazaha said three others used social media to advertise their services and receive money from those who want their status changed. This sounds brazen, but it also indicates there is enough demand by vaccine-resistant and hesitant individuals for such schemes despite their obvious illegality.

“Legal procedures are underway in order to refer the accused to the court for their involvement in crimes of bribery, forgery and money laundering,” the anti-corruption body said in a statement. “Given that these actions and violations have a dreadful negative impact on the efforts made by the government in combating this pandemic, the authority is firmly proceeding with applying what the law rules against the violators.”

Okaz columnist Humoud Abutalib wrote that what the accused have done defies belief:

Yes, it is a heinous crime by humanitarian standards, and high treason by national standards. If there are people who do not want to take the vaccine, that is their business despite the danger to them, but if there are others who manipulate information about their health conditions by taking advantage of the nature of their jobs and the trust granted to them during these circumstances, that is what cannot be comprehended. Again, I did not believe the news until the statement of the Oversight and Anti-Corruption Authority quickly appeared to confirm the arrest of the gang of health sector employees, brokers and beneficiaries, and their referral to the judiciary for their involvement in crimes of bribery, forgery and money laundering.

Imagine how if their attempt succeeded and then continued, the result would be the presence of people who may be infected, but they mingle and move freely as if they are immune. What a crime that would be against society, and the misinformation that will affect statistics and data about the disease and patients, at a time when the state stands with all its capabilities to besiege the pandemic, and society continues to live on edge. Their crime is greater than bribery, forgery and money laundering, because it is a crime against life and humanity, and a betrayal of the state and society. We hope that the punishment will be swift and deterrent.

Hasan al-Mustafa, a columnist for al-Riyadh daily, wrote that it is important for people to be concerned about their health but that such concern should not lead to corrupt practices that break the law:

The danger of this network is not just in violating regulations, or receiving bribes, but also endangering the safety of the community, and showing individuals as if they are “immune” when the reality is otherwise, which threatens the great efforts made by the kingdom to protect citizens and residents.

There is a double problem: individuals do not want to receive the vaccine, and others benefit from this behaviour in graft.

Some may say that people are free to do what they want with their bodies, and they have the right to be vaccinated or not. This is true in principle, but what is important to note is that the pandemic that has exhausted the world is not a natural situation in which a person is completely free and has the privilege to choose, because reaching “herd immunity” requires vaccinating a large segment of people, snd if many people hesitate to take the vaccine, reaching this point will be difficult and painful.

One lawyer told the same newspaper that the accused face up to ten years in prison and 1m riyals in fines if they are found guilty. Qais al-Mubarak, a former member of the Senior Scholars Council, said such actions are haram, or religiously forbidden.

Despite these warnings, it is unlikely that such cases won’t be repeated. The fact that the government is making one app —called Tawakallan— linked to a central database the cornerstone of its Covid-19 tracking efforts might make it easier to enforce rules about health restrictions and freedom to travel, but it also opens the system to potential manipulation or abuse because many parties would be expected to have access to the system to keep the database up to date over time, not to mention concerns about privacy.

The app was recently updated to feature a health passport with a Covid-19 travel insurance policy as well as information about immunisation status, and the date and result of the latest PCR test.

Ibrahim Badawood, who leads the Saudi arm of the non-profit Community Jameel organisation, wrote in al-Madina daily that there will always be corrupt individuals who seek to contravene laws even when technology is used to decrease the chances of abuse and manipulation:

The digital transformation came to contribute to progress, improvement, development, shortening of time and effort and making people’s life easier, but the corrupt would always find a way to defile new, clean and high-end fields with such crimes, despite the gigantic and huge efforts made by the state to combat this pandemic that the world is grappling with. These corrupt people even wreaked havoc with the health situation, and even published ads on social media for those who wish to participate in their corruption and what they called benefiting from their services in order to reap material profits from it.

Meanwhile, the government has moved to reassure the public that existing vaccines are effective against the emergent Delta variant of the coronavirus and said side effects should not deter people from getting vaccinated. “There are some side effects from receiving any vaccine, whether coronavirus vaccine or others. The symptoms resulting from the coronavirus vaccine are rare and have not been proven to be related to the vaccine,” health ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Abdulaali said in a press conference Sunday.

The ministry has recently resumed offering second doses after a pause due to constrained supply, with state television reporting that people aged 30-40 should receive them after two weeks.