Health and Healthcare Systems

Corruption can have no place in our COVID-19 recovery

Bribing opportunities may increase as people try and secure access to healthcare.

Bribing opportunities may increase as people try and secure access to healthcare. Image: Reuters/Lim Huey Teng

Lisa Ventura
Practice Lead, Partnering Against Corruption Initiative (PACI), World Economic Forum Geneva
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• Transparency and accountability must not be lost in the haste to respond to COVID-19.

• Putting sound processes and accountability into place during this time is an opportunity not just to avoid corruption, but to rebuild trust.

Governments, businesses, civil-society organizations and citizens are facing an unprecedented challenge and are asked to be resilient and find effective measures to address the health and non-health-related implications of COVID-19. As this unparalleled crisis puts healthcare systems, people’s safety and the economy under strain, it is imperative that transparency and accountability remain at the heart of the global response. This generation will be judged on how this situation is handled, and we need to make sure good governance is at the core of a new social and economic order.

“The fight against corruption must be considered a value rather than a priority, since priorities can be subject to arbitrations within companies.”

Patrick Pouyanné, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer, Total; Co-Chair of World Economic Forum Partnering Against Corruption I

World leaders need to call for global cooperation, inclusive multilateralism and innovative partnerships in order to stop the pandemic and limit the human and economic impact. However, this can only happen if citizens see transparency, integrity and trust in how government and business operate. Sadly, corruption often flourishes in times of uncertainty and could undermine the response to the pandemic. Last year was marked by a lack of trust in political leaders as many corruption scandals erupted across the globe, as highlighted in the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer.


The response to COVID-19 should primarily focus on saving lives and addressing the health and socio-economic consequences. However, principles of transparency, justice and good governance need to underpin all measures at all times. This way, the crisis can be an opportunity to build a new social contract based on trust, solidarity and transparency. For example, when critical situations like the COVID-19 crisis call for extraordinary measures, political leaders need to disclose why we don’t follow specific rules and how accountability is still enforced. This is the opportunity to reset the current state of global affairs and to have a system that enables sustainable supply chains, contributes to all workers’ welfare and protects the environment.

Below are three features that should not be overlooked while building solutions to face COVID-19 to avoid the risk of corruption:

1. Integrity and compliance

Legal compliance setups and programmes are being tested by this crisis. In a setting of economic downturn, many organizations will be looking for ways to cut costs and corners, increasing the risk to step into dangerous territory, where they might compromise standards. In terms of society at large, the uncertainty we live in may fuel anxiety, and bribing opportunities will probably increase as citizens look for access to health treatments. This phenomenon is not new and was widely noticed during the Ebola crisis, as reported here by Transparency International.

“Based on my experience, I am 100% sure that a company managed with integrity and equipped with a good governance framework is better placed to overcome the crisis and confront the future economic environment.”

Nicola Bonucci, Managing Director, Investigations & Compliance, Paul Hastings (Europe) LLP
Companies must be proactive in combatting corruption.
Companies must be proactive in combatting corruption.

2. Digital readiness

This crisis is highlighting the need for more digital readiness and the opportunity to go further in the digital transformation of companies and governments, such as e-government tools (automation of internal processes) and digital public services (getting an ID, paying taxes). Governments will need to not only invest in those infrastructures, but also ensure they can guarantee the protection of critical data. Transparency must be the guiding principle of any government digital agenda to keep the trust of their citizens, while protecting their basic human rights, including privacy.

“Digital infrastructure investments ought to be protected so as to strengthen our countries' digital resilience and ensure universal access to public services in times of crisis. The crisis is highlighting the need to accelerate the digital transformation of our governments.”

Carlos Santiso, Director, Digital Innovation in Government, CAF Development Bank of Latin America

Other reasons to invest in digital infrastructure, especially during COVID-19, are highlighted by the cybersecurity risks due to the large portion of the global workforce working remotely; and the need for online learning, from which at least 3 billion people without internet access are excluded. Technology has emerged as the greatest ally of transparency and a critical tool against corruption. It can anchor integrity in the public sector if it is deployed with the appropriate accountability mechanism for data protection. It should be used to accelerate the fight against corruption and rebuild trust in society.

3. Agility vs. transparency

The current health emergency is putting our social and economic systems under significant stress. The fear of losing more lives, coupled with a grim economic outlook among other pressures, are testing world leaders. As they look for ways to mitigate the sanitary and economic impacts, critical decisions are being made, sometimes based on incomplete information. There is no doubt that an agile response is needed, and that decision-making processes designed for “normal” times need to be revisited and reframed to rise to the occasion. However, acting under a state of emergency with the best of intentions could very well open the door to opacity and eventually to a greater exposure to corruption. Unfortunately, integrity events in the delivery of health services/supplies are not uncommon under normal circumstances, or when responding to humanitarian crises. At a time when emergency procurement protocols and large financial/stimulus packages are being prepared to address the immediate sanitary challenges as well as the economic/developmental ones, transparency is one of the most effective tools society has to achieve effective results.

“Agility in response to the health emergency need not be in conflict with the fundamental principles of transparency and good governance.”

Pedro G. Gómez Pensado, Head of the Partnership Against Corruption Initiative

What's the World Economic Forum doing about corruption?

Business leaders need more than ever to act with ethical leadership and integrity as laid out by the Global Future Council on Transparency and Anti-Corruption in its Agenda for Business Integrity. In addition, coordination and solidarity between the world’s largest economies will build a path towards a collective responsibility between citizens and government and a culture of integrity.

“There is a clear need to ensure that a human-centred and rights-aligned view of these boundaries, both during and following any period of emergency, is undertaken to appropriately protect citizens’ human rights and our collective global well-being.”

Nicole Bigby, Partner and General Counsel - EMEA and Asia, Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP
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