Vaccine certificates-for-sale scam undermines Lesotho’s Covid effort

By Silence Charumbira

The Lesotho government’s plans to implement a Covid passport system this week are being undermined by widespread fraud involving certificates being sold to unvaccinated people.

Covid-19 vaccination certificates are being sold for less than £20 by unscrupulous health workers to the largely vaccine-averse population in Lesotho, where there has been little positive campaigning around the jabs.

The prime minister, Moeketsi Majoro, announced in October that from this week, restaurants, bars, nightclubs, gyms and sporting facilities would only admit people who had a Covid-19 vaccination certificate.

It led to an immediate increase in the numbers presenting for vaccination, with queues at health centres, but has also sparked a burgeoning hidden market in fraudulent certificates.

In October the UK removed Lesotho from its “red list”, and announced that Lesotho’s vaccination certificates would be recognised in Britain, making travel between the two countries easier.

“Very pleased that from 1 November Lesotho’s vaccination certificates will be recognised in the UK. Travellers from Lesotho will be able to visit without needing to self-isolate on arrival as long as you meet the vaccine requirements,” said the British high commissioner to Lesotho, Anne Macro, on Twitter.

The latest scam follows a reported jabs-for-cash scandal involving health workers from Motebang hospital in Leribe, about 50 miles north-east of the capital, Maseru. The health workers allegedly sold Covid-19 jabs to ineligible people, among them expatriates, for about £19, during a period when the government was still vaccinating frontline workers and vulnerable people.

The national Covid-19 secretariat deputy CEO, Thabo Ntoi, said the government was now considering introducing digitised Covid-19 passports, but it would probably be December before these were available.

Health professionals are critical of the government’s lack of promotion of the vaccination campaign, a doctor in Maseru told the Guardian.

“The reasons people are not being vaccinated are so varied. Some just hate needles, some are scared of the rumoured side-effects, while others are citing their religious beliefs which do not support vaccinations.

“However, it all boils down to the lack of knowledge. Little is being done to promote vaccination by the government.”

The government should employ the same mechanisms it uses to encourage people to get tested for HIV or tuberculosis, he said.

The Lesotho authorities began a vaccination programme in March this year and have so far double vaccinated 340,000 people, 16% of the population, surpassing the World Health Organization benchmark for all countries to vaccinate at least 10% of their populations by the end of September 2021.

However, the statistics have been thrown into doubt because of the scam. Health workers say a proportion of those purporting to be vaccinated are fraudulent certificate holders.

It has raised fears that under these circumstances, Lesotho’s Covid-19 passport could become worthless.

Ntoi said those purchasing certificates are putting people’s lives at risk. “Covid-19 is a deadly virus and some of these people who paid for their certificates without actually being jabbed will be freely moving around and mixing with those who have been vaccinated.

“These selfish people are endangering other people’s lives.

“Not only that, they are also endangering their own lives because if they get infected, they will not be able to fight off the worst symptoms of the disease without being vaccinated. They could fall critically ill or even die,” Ntoi said.