Is Covid-19 a Petri dish for corruption?

Stories about coronavirus-related corruption are springing up like mushrooms. In effort to stem the spread of the virus, many countries declared a national emergency, which leads in some cases to weaker institutions and decreased transparency. Clearly, governments need to move quickly in a period of emergency, but removing completely the usual consultation and transparency procedures can open the door wide to corruption.

The Romanian government for example eliminated the obligation to consult and make public draft laws during its own national period of emergency. This behaviour only accentuated similar tendencies present before the crisis. Six weeks before the crisis, the same government passed without consultation 25 emergency ordinances in one night. One of them relaxed public procurement rules for “critical IT infrastructures”.

Already weak institutions are further weakened by the crisis and officials become brazen. The Romanian head of the commission for clinical and epidemiological management of Covid-19 in the ministry of health went so far as to ask publicly for legislation that stipulated that no investigator can touch the people in charge of public procurement of medical supplies – even after the crisis is over and they are out of office.

This does not happen only in Romania; the current crisis encourages corruption all over the globe. Bribery opportunities increase particularly in the health sector and particularly in countries where the health sector is underdeveloped and corrupt even in “normal” times. This phenomenon was also observed in West Africa during the Ebola crisis, according to Transparency International.

The measures taken to combat the coronavirus created very favourable conditions for corruption. There are more tenders for medical equipment and digital devices to accommodate the “shut-in economy”, which create more opportunities for bribes. The opportunities for corruption also arises from the need to finalise these tenders quickly during a medical crisis. Sicily’s coronavirus coordinator and nine other Italian officials have been arrested on suspicion of taking two million US dollars worth of bribes. Ukrainian anti-corruption officials announced that they are investigating a tender for over 70,000 hospital protective suits after the government bypassed procurement rules. In Peru, 166 cases of alleged corruption carried out during its state of emergency are being investigated.

Decreased travel makes it easier for dictatorships to isolate their populations from the outside world and promote corrupt practices. Governments also used the corona crisis to suppress political gatherings and demonstrations, which also facilitates corruption. The ban on travel to some extent weakens international pressure as international organisations and watchdogs have less access to direct information.

The efforts to decrease the spread of the disease led to more regulations which in turn led to more opportunities for extortion of bribes (for example, if restaurants must have tables two metres apart, then inspectors can demand bribes if tables are only 1.5 metres apart).

The economic crisis that will follow the corona crisis also has the potential to encourage corruption. In a recession, many firms will be looking for ways to cut costs and corners, increasing the temptation to compromise standards. The “shut-in economy” hurt many firms, but also helped a few to make lots of money and gain market share. In a post-corona world, the “winning” firms will dominate their markets and have far more influence on government. This can lead to illegal influence on government decisions.

A cut in wages for some bureaucrats as a result of fiscal consolidation and lower incomes for some politicians could also encourage bribe-taking.

The solutions are not new, but they need to be adapted to the situation at hand. Keep at least an adequate level of transparency while keeping the government agile in the time of crisis. Simplify the consultation procedures and shorten the time of debate, but do not eliminate them completely. Make use of technology to stay transparent in times of crisis and social isolation and, more importantly, to keep the trust of citizens. Do not cut pay for key bureaucrats, especially those dealing with procurement. Firms should strengthen their whistle-blowing policies.

Punishment for stealing in times of crisis should be higher than in normal times to deter illegal behaviour. For example, in Peru, congress presented a bill that seeks to punish anyone who commits a corrupt act in the difficult moments of the coronavirus pandemic with life imprisonment. Increased penalties can be better reinforced by messaging from leadership.

The corona crisis does not need to end in a fully-fledged corruption crisis. Such events could create the stimulus to move nations on a path of less corruption. According to an article by Jan Teorell and Bo Rothstein, after Sweden lost a war with Russia, it made the transition from a corrupt bureaucracy to a clean one.

There is hope.

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About the author

Ioana Petrescu

Ioana Petrescu

Dr Ioana Petrescu is a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and a former Romanian finance minister.

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