Who should the Covid bribe money go to?

July 27, 2023 | 05:12 pm PT
Vo Nhat Vinh Researcher
I could not find a place on Covid repatriation flights in September 2021, so I didn’t get to see my father before the disease killed him at a HCMC hospital.

My father stayed in the hospital for three weeks. I was in Europe, and could have flown home in just over 10 hours.

Earlier that year, Ninh, a friend of mine in central Vietnam, had to pay nearly VND60 million (US$2,500) to board a repatriation flight from Japan.

He went to Japan under a labor export program in late 2019, before Covid hit, and when a return ticket on the same route cost only VND20 million.

He had not been able to save any money from his job, and he still owed money to the export program. The flight ticket was the final nail in the coffin: his family was drained of all resources.

Ninh and I, and at least thousands of other Vietnamese people affected by the repatriation flight scandal, are closely following the trial of 54 people accused of giving and taking bribes to organize the flights. We are waiting for justice.

According to the investigation, 21 officials on trial accepted bribes worth VND165 billion (US$7 million) in total to approve 372 flights.

Twenty businesses have confessed that in order compensate for the bribe money, they had to hike prices and add different kinds of fees that essentially robbed money from people hoping to come home amid the pandemic.

A repatriation flight bringing Vietnamese people in Europe home amid Covid-19, July 2020. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

A repatriation flight bringing Vietnamese people in Europe home amid Covid-19, July 2020. Photo courtesy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Giving bribes is a crime and is considered an elevated risk in doing business. To encounter such an elevated risk, businesses need to set an exceedingly high profit margin. In this case, the money that the 20 businesses had ripped off from the passengers had to be many times more than the bribe money.

The court is likely to decide to put the retrieved bribe money into the state budget, as stipulated by a resolution on corruption trials.

But who does that bribe money, and the much more money for the hiked ticket fares, actually belong to?

The price of a repatriation flight ticket was indeed agreed upon by the customers, and they paid voluntarily. But it happened in a special situation, a global deadly pandemic, and there was an extremely high chance that people had been abused and manipulated to accept exorbitant prices.

They paid the money regardless of personal difficulties, and they followed all the instructions from the people they believed were authorized to "rescue" them.

One trial may not be able to answer the questions of who the money belongs to, and if the people who had to pay hiked ticket prices will ever get their money back.

Punishing people who violate the government’s humane policies is a sure thing. But how to return justice to the affected citizens is another matter.

*Vo Nhat Vinh is a university lecturer in France.

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