Why Tackling Corruption Is Crucial to the Global Coronavirus Response

The dusty bor­der town of Taftan in west­ern Pakistan is a fre­quent stopover for reli­gious pil­grims. Many mem­bers of the country’s Shiite minor­i­ty pass through it en route to vis­it holy sites in neigh­bor­ing Iran. But after Iran emerged as one of the coun­tries hit hard­est by the coro­n­avirus, the Pakistani gov­ern­ment set up a quar­an­tine camp in Taftan to pre­vent fur­ther move­ment, inad­ver­tent­ly turn­ing the town into an epi­cen­ter for the spread of COVID-19. Testing in the camp is spo­radic at best, while health facil­i­ties are abysmal. Many pil­grims report­ed­ly paid bribes to escape back into Pakistan, and as recent­ly as the end of March, hun­dreds of peo­ple were still cross­ing the bor­der at Taftan, despite rules to pre­vent them. Some offi­cials in the region believe that 95 per­cent of Pakistan’s coro­n­avirus cas­es are due to “mis­man­age­ment” at the Taftan camp.

There are count­less oth­er sto­ries around the world detail­ing how cor­rup­tion has under­mined the fight against the nov­el coro­n­avirus. They include dodgy pro­cure­ment con­tracts that were fast-tracked through the approval process under emer­gency mea­sures in Slovenia, cops solic­it­ing “coro­n­avirus risk allowances” from cit­i­zens in Zimbabwe, and con­trac­tors over­charg­ing for sup­plies in Colombia. In the U.S., sen­a­tors have been accused of cap­i­tal­iz­ing on the cri­sis to make a killing in the stock mar­ket, while President Donald Trump has open­ly used polit­i­cal loy­al­ty as the basis for dis­trib­ut­ing life-sav­ing med­ical equip­ment to states. Trump has also brazen­ly tried to under­mine the inde­pen­dent fed­er­al watch­dog estab­lished by Congress to over­see the imple­men­ta­tion of the $2 tril­lion coro­n­avirus relief law.

Deep-seat­ed cor­rup­tion with­in gov­ern­ments around the world has dec­i­mat­ed their abil­i­ty to deal with pan­demics. Problems range from coun­ter­feit drugs to price goug­ing to shady pro­cure­ment process­es. Even before this out­break, Transparency International esti­mat­ed that cor­rup­tion in the health sec­tor costs at least $500 bil­lion a year and kills hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple world­wide. One study found that in 2011, $98 bil­lion was lost to fraud with­in Medicare and Medicaid alone in the U.S. During the Ebola out­break in Liberia, I saw first­hand how cit­i­zens had to pay bribes to access health care, and how a lack of account­abil­i­ty in gov­ern­ment expen­di­tures to con­tain the dis­ease led to thou­sands of deaths.

Now, gov­ern­ments and donors are pour­ing huge amounts of mon­ey into glob­al coro­n­avirus response efforts, often with­out the nec­es­sary anti-cor­rup­tion safe­guards. Just last week, four offi­cials in the Ugandan prime minister’s office were arrest­ed for alleged­ly procur­ing food relief at inflat­ed prices. Even in Ukraine, which has one of the world’s lead­ing elec­tron­ic pro­cure­ment sys­tems, the response to this pan­dem­ic has been rid­dled with nepo­tism and cor­rup­tion, and the nation­al med­ical pro­cure­ment com­pa­ny has yet to order any sup­plies at all.

In addi­tion to exac­er­bat­ing human suf­fer­ing and inequity, such wide­spread graft under­mines the trust between gov­ern­ments and cit­i­zens that is so crit­i­cal to over­com­ing a pan­dem­ic. If peo­ple do not trust those in pow­er, mean­ing­ful col­lec­tive action is impos­si­ble, and any response to a cri­sis quick­ly splin­ters into frac­tious and unco­or­di­nat­ed efforts. Take the U.S., where Trump’s con­tra­dic­to­ry state­ments and inef­fec­tive response have led states to go their own way with ini­tia­tives that cir­cum­vent fed­er­al plans. In oth­er coun­tries, like Egypt, wide­spread cor­rup­tion is a major dri­ver of the grind­ing pover­ty that forces res­i­dents to ven­ture out just to make ends meet. In Turkmenistan, the com­plete absence of trust is evi­dent in the fact that even a men­tion of the word coro­n­avirus can be grounds for arrest.

In addition to exacerbating human suffering and inequity, widespread graft undermines the trust between governments and citizens that is so critical to overcoming a pandemic.

Clearly, the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic is also a cri­sis of account­abil­i­ty. But it’s not too late for gov­ern­ments to clean up their act. Here are three key changes pol­i­cy­mak­ers should make to improve pub­lic trust and ensure that coro­n­avirus relief funds reach their intend­ed beneficiaries.

Make health care spend­ing trans­par­ent. Governments should ensure com­plete trans­paren­cy in how pub­lic mon­ey is being spent on health care, par­tic­u­lar­ly with regard to emer­gency pro­cure­ment dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. Researchers and trans­paren­cy advo­cates have designed sev­er­al wide­ly accept­ed stan­dards that this infor­ma­tion should adhere to, includ­ing the Beneficial Ownership Data Standard, the Open Fiscal Data Package and the Open Contracting Data Standards. They ensure that pro­cure­ment data can be assessed, shared and syn­the­sized effectively.

Back up this trans­paren­cy with anti-cor­rup­tion mea­sures. These include inde­pen­dent watch­dogs, like inspec­tors gen­er­al, and oth­er agen­cies to ensure gov­ern­ment account­abil­i­ty. South Korea, for exam­ple, pre­vi­ous­ly achieved a mea­sure of suc­cess with its Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission. Established in 2002, the com­mis­sion con­duct­ed a cre­ative pub­lic out­reach cam­paign and reg­u­lar integri­ty assess­ments of gov­ern­ment agen­cies, while coor­di­nat­ing care­ful­ly with oth­er legal bod­ies. During this cri­sis, gov­ern­ments should estab­lish addi­tion­al inde­pen­dent over­sight boards to over­see the man­age­ment of and report­ing on coro­n­avirus-relat­ed fund­ing, ensure that pro­cure­ment con­tracts con­tain trans­paren­cy claus­es, and pro­vide robust pro­tec­tions for whistle­blow­ers who report corruption.

Get the pub­lic involved. The pan­dem­ic demands rapid action. But it is crit­i­cal that cit­i­zens are engaged in the design, mon­i­tor­ing and over­sight of coro­n­avirus respons­es, which will build the trust and own­er­ship that will ulti­mate­ly make these efforts far more effec­tive over time. There are plen­ty of ways to do this while adher­ing to pub­lic health guid­ance, includ­ing through online town halls as we have seen in the U.S. Emerging tech­nolo­gies can help, as in north­east­ern Haiti, where a com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tion has used a local­ly tai­lored mobile mes­sag­ing tool to con­duct sur­veys and boost pub­lic engage­ment. One sil­ver lin­ing of this cri­sis is that in soci­eties around the world, cit­i­zens are pio­neer­ing hun­dreds of new ways to open up their gov­ern­ments and improve responsiveness.

Finally, beyond tech­ni­cal fix­es to ensure com­pli­ance and pub­lic con­sul­ta­tion, soci­eties around the world must begin a large-scale effort to pro­mote integri­ty and change the incen­tives that lead to cor­rupt behav­ior. Many pub­lic sec­tor work­ers are already mod­el­ing this behav­ior by going above and beyond to save lives, even when their gov­ern­ments are not. The fight against cor­rup­tion can only go so far when it is based pure­ly on enforce­ment and polit­i­cal fin­ger-point­ing. Instead of just nam­ing and sham­ing wrong­do­ers, soci­eties need to get bet­ter at sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly “nam­ing and fam­ing” the do-good­ers, show­cas­ing lessons from their efforts and bring­ing them togeth­er into coali­tions for change. By slow­ly shift­ing norms and sup­port­ing reform­ers in this way, the world will be much bet­ter pre­pared for the next crisis.

Blair Glencorse is the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Accountability Lab. Follow him on Twitter @blairglencorse.

Blair Glencorse

Original source: WPR World Politics Review