Ebola, Corona and Corruption


It is often said that, during times of crisis, we see both the best and worst of humanity; the coronavirus pandemic is no different.

Small acts of kindness are replicated across the world, helping a neighbour unable to shop, walking a stranger’s dog, even just picking up the phone. The outpouring of appreciation shown for public health services across Europe, straining under the weight of Covid-19, has not been witnessed in modern times. Not on this scale anyway.

But unfortunately, we also see extreme selfishness, profiteering, stockpiling, putting others at risk with careless action. There are those who view the world through a zero-sum prism, seeking to gain at the expense of others.

Public health crises, wherever they may be, expose the fragility of health systems. Papered cracks split to reveal long unaddressed inadequacies. According to Transparency International, a charity, corruption within the health sector costs US$500bn each year globally. That’s greater than what the cost of universal health coverage would be.

As in most cases, procurement is often most vulnerable to exploitation. Supply chains are hampered at the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. Transparency estimates that up to a quarter of what’s spent on drugs and other supplies is lost to graft during times of stability; imagine what the figures could be now.

In the developing world, the coronavirus is on a collision course with corruption. The health crisis has snowballed into an economic one, which will only compound the seriousness of the situation. Those who can afford bribes will get faster access to healthcare. The 2019 Global Corruption Barometer for Africa found that bribery rates in hospitals and health centres were at 14% across the continent.

Bribes will also exacerbate the virus’s spread. During the Ebola crisis, families paid off border guards to escape the worst-afflicted areas. While this may not have been such an issue then, Covid-19 does not always present symptoms. People will unknowingly bring the virus to an area previously unaffected, endangering many more lives.

The International Red Cross, who led the fight against Ebola in West Africa, have estimated that over US$6m of their assistance was lost to corruption in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea between 2014-16. The role corruption played in diverting desperately needed drugs and supplies heavily mitigated the efforts of medical professionals. This could easily happen again.

It is highly likely that Europe, the current epicentre of the virus, will get a hold of the pandemic in a matter of months. By that time, Africa will see a huge spike in the number of positive cases. International aid, ripe for exploitation, will flood the continent as the rich world looks to block the virus’s return, imported from Africa.

Policymakers have traditionally paid little attention to graft, and rarely steps taken to fight it prove effective. It creates a deep sense of mistrust between people and their government. Public health messages, even those best intentioned, will fall on deaf ears.

The African continent does not have a good track record in this arena, but things can and should be done. Transparency must be promoted within supply chains. Governments need to come down on profiteering and stockpiling. Misinformation must be stopped. Clinical trials and research must be promoted.

Clear communication is absolutely vital during times like these. Without it, more and more people will needlessly die.

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