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Criminal networks continue to prosper under the COVID pandemic

Guest contributor



COVID-19 has accelerated existing trends of organized criminal activity with more infiltration in the legitimate economy, as well as enlarging the scale of illicit trade, including in opportunities specifically driven by the pandemic, writes Transcrime Director Ernesto U. Savona.

At Transcrime we have continued to monitor the impact of COVID-19 on organised crime and illicit trade, reporting our findings to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Cybersecurity researchers in Israel estimate that more than 1,700 new vaccine-related websites have cropped up since November. On the dark web, counterfeit COVID-19 vaccines are offered next to cocaine, opioid medications, handguns, and fake passports. 

To understand the scale of the problem, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimated that over US$2.2 trillion (3% of global GDP) was lost due to illicit trade leakages in 2020. Meanwhile, the International Chamber of Commerce predicts that global counterfeit trade will reach $4 trillion by 2022, primarily fueled by e-commerce.

The ingredients for illegal trade are almost always the same: consumer demand, business supply and regulation. Euromonitor recently pointed out how these drivers have accelerated under the COVID pandemic, and what the potential social and economic consequences are going to be in the years ahead, including the ‘normalization’ of criminal behaviour.

Countries concerned about health and socio-economic problems associated with the COVID-19 pandemic should take note. We are now in the realm of regulatory overreach, which happens when a government’s capacity to place bans or excess regulation could be counterproductive. This, ultimately, increases the amount of bureaucracy and, in some cases, pushes consumers into the illicit market.

A possible driver in illicit trade is the authorisation of extra excise taxes as cash strapped governments try to balance fiscal budgets. Enacting these policies should be closely studied to measure the effect the increase in prices by excise taxes could have. Consumers could be pushed into seeking illicit products as the price gap between legal and illicit goods widens.

For example, EU border forces seized 370 million illegal cigarettes in 2020 alone, with around a third of them originated from non-EU Eastern European countries like Belarus. One of the reasons the trade remains so profitable – and why so much of the contraband continues to flow over the EU border – is that cigarettes, heavily taxed in the EU, are priced much lower in Belarus. This discrepancy has been tolerated for years and it is important to note that recently the EU has decided to address it.

Political trends often go in contradictory directions: overregulating to fight against crime and illicit trade at a country and international level, while at the same time deregulating public spaces, for example, through the creation of Free Trade Zones (FTZs).

Overregulated legislative landscapes, which contain legal and economic loopholes based on the differences between countries, co-exist with the increasing number of exceptions that can be found in FTZs.

This combination makes international police cooperation difficult, inefficient, and ineffective, and allows illicit trade to develop. The task of combatting organised crime and illicit trade has been made harder by overregulation, mostly in the last twenty years. Deregulation in the free trade zones is the result of increased demand for more efficiency in the customs and transit procedure of goods.

But you now have two contradictory and opposing regimes. The former is more complex, with many loopholes, while the second is simple, efficient and in some cases criminogenic because criminals exploit the lack of regulation and control. International police co-operation in the first regime is overloaded by procedures, in the second it is quite rare. Yet the two regimes coexist.

Is there any room to unify these trends and build a single regime to control organized crime and illicit trade?

We can achieve this by analysing the main legislative and organizational obstacles to international cooperation between the police and the judiciary, but we need to find good methodologies and data for analysing the dynamics of criminal phenomena. At the same time, we need to understand why some free trade zones produce opportunities for organized crime and illicit trade and others do not, and then see whether we can reduce the trade-off between the lack of law enforcement controls and their efficiency.

Legislators must seek to simplify the legislative landscape and cut bureaucracy that prevents us from having a complete view of the problem. Meanwhile, there must be more dialogue through public and private partnerships, which will facilitate greater international police cooperation. 

Ernesto U. Savona is the director of Transcrime, Joint Research Centre of the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Università of Perugia and University of Bologna, and professor of criminology at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan and at the University of Palermo.


EU has not yet ordered more AstraZeneca vaccines, says internal market commissioner





Syringes are prepared to administer the AstraZeneca coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine at a new mass vaccination centre in WiZink sports arena in Madrid, Spain, April 9, 2021. REUTERS/Sergio Perez

The European Union has not yet made any new orders for AstraZeneca (AZN.L) vaccines beyond June when their contract ends, European Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton (pictured) said on Sunday (9 May).

Breton also said he expected that the costs of the EU’s recent order for more doses of Pfizer-BioNTech (PFE.N) vaccines would be higher than the earlier versions.

The Commission last month launched legal action against AstraZeneca for not respecting its contract for the supply of COVID-19 vaccines and for not having a “reliable” plan to ensure timely deliveries.

"We did not renew the order after June. We’ll see what happens," said Breton, adding that it was "a very good vaccine".

Concerns has risen on potential side-effects of the Anglo-Swedish COVID-19 vaccine.

Europe's medicines regulator said on Friday it is reviewing reports of a rare nerve-degenerating disorder in people who received the shots, a move that comes after it found the vaccine may have caused very rare blood clotting cases. Read more.

Breton said an increase in prices for second generation vaccines could be justified by the extra research required and potential changes to industrial equipment.

The European Union signed a new contract with Pfizer-Biontech to receive 1.8 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines for 2021-2023, to cover booster shots, donations and reselling of doses, the European Commission said on Friday (7 May). Read more.

“There may be a little extra cost but I will let the competent authorities unveil it in due course,” he told France Inter radio.

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Hoping to lure back tourists, Greece reopens beaches after lockdown





With widely spaced sun loungers and regular disinfections, Greece reopened its organised beaches on Saturday as the popular Mediterranean holiday destination eases COVID-19 curbs in preparation for the return of foreign visitors this week.

Tourism accounts for about a fifth of Greece's economy and jobs, and - after the worst year on record for the industry last year - the country can ill afford another lost summer. Read more

"We're pinning our hopes on tourism," said Nikos Venieris, who manages a sandy beach in the seafront suburb of Alimos, just outside the capital, Athens, where social distancing measures will remain in place.

"We're one of the places along the Athens riviera ... that receives many tourists so the number of visitors from abroad will play a big role in our finances," he added.

Under current measures, beach managers like Venieris will have to place umbrellas at least four metres (13 feet), carry out regular disinfections and test beach bar employees and other staff for COVID-19.

People enjoy the sun during the official reopening of beaches to the public, following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas
People enjoy the sea during the official reopening of beaches to the public, following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Athens, Greece, May 8, 2021. REUTERS/Costas Baltas

Greece fared well in keeping the first wave of the pandemic under control last year but a resurgence in cases pushed health services to the limit and prompted authorities to impose a second lockdown in November.

As infections have fallen and vaccinations gathered pace, authorities have steadily eased restrictions, opening bars and restaurants earlier this week.

On Friday, they announced that museums would reopen next week before the lifting of travel restrictions on vaccinated foreign visitors on May 15.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has said a combination of widespread testing, immunisation, and the fact that many activities would take place outdoors gave authorities confidence that tourists would be able to visit safely.

For Greek beach lovers, Saturday's reopening of the country's largest beaches was a chance to let off steam after months of lockdown.

"We've been longing for this for six months now, because we're winter swimmers and we've really missed it," said Spiros Linardos, a pensioner, reclining on a sun lounger at Alimos.

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EU calls on US and others to export their vaccines





European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen speaks during the opening ceremony of an EU summit at the Alfandega do Porto Congress Center in Porto, Portugal May 7, 2021. Luis Vieira/Pool via REUTERS

The European Commission called on Friday (7 May) on the United States and other major COVID-19 vaccine producers to export what they make as the European Union does, rather than talk about waiving intellectual property rights to the shots.

Commission head Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference on the sidelines of a summit of EU leaders that discussions on the waiver would not produce a single dose of COVID-19 vaccine in the short- to medium-term.

"We should be open to lead this discussion. But when we lead this discussion, there needs to be a 360 degree view on it because we need vaccines now for the whole world," she said.

"The European Union is the only continental or democratic region of this world that is exporting at large scale," von der Leyen said.

She said about 50% of European-produced coronavirus vaccine is exported to almost 90 countries, including those in the World Health Organization-backed COVAX program.

"And we invite all those who engage in the debate of a waiver for IP rights also to join us to commit to be willing to export a large share of what is being produced in that region," she said.

Only higher production, removing exports barriers and the sharing of already-ordered vaccines could immediately help fight the pandemic quickly, she said.

"So what is necessary in the short term and the medium term: First of all vaccine sharing. Secondly export of vaccines that are being produced. And the third is investment in the increasing of the capacity to manufacture vaccines."

Von der Leyen said the European Union had started its vaccine sharing mechanism, citing delivery of 615,000 doses to the Western Balkans as an example.

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