COVID-19 and Corruption: Two Risks and One Opportunity

This blog was initially published in an abridged format in the Global Anticorruption Blog. The Global Anticorruption Blog is both required reading for anyone interested in current anticorruption issues and co-host of KickBack, our favorite anticorruption podcast. 

COVID-19 as a Critical Juncture

The immediate consequences of COVID-19 are visible and visceral for everybody, even as some feel the effects more than others. In addition to reshaping everyday life, COVID-19 will also transform global governance for years to come. In this blog, I will reflect on one facet of COVID-19’s impact on governance: the dynamics of COVID-19 and corruption.

Elizabeth Kolbert in a recent New Yorker piece, showed how pandemics and political responses to them can have a large influence on world history. The Justinianic plague is credited for taking the wind out of the sails of a resurgent Eastern Roman Empire in the 6th century.

In the Americas, devastating diseases like smallpox left only a tiny fraction of native populations behind, giving European colonizers the opportunity to invade and colonize the two continents. More recently, the AIDs epidemic killed millions of people in dozens of countries, hampering development and transforming patterns of global aid funding.

While the COVID-19 pandemic’s full impact is still uncertain, all indications point to similarly historic and long-lasting repercussions on governments, the economy, and wider society. Scholars of political institutions describe events like this as critical junctures, periods of uncertainty during which the decisions taken by key actors can change the direction of institutional development.

Oxfam Senior Strategic Advisor Duncan Green recently hosted a webinar where he framed COVID-19 as a critical juncture (and posted an informative working paper on the topic). In his paper, Green highlights the pandemic as a “fork in the road” where governments have rare opportunities to make pathbreaking policy decisions for good or ill that will difficult to break away from down the road.

I see three main ways that the COVID-19 pandemic will corruption:

  1. Government responses to the crisis will be hampered by corruption
  2. Governments, and the individuals within them, will use COVID-19 as an excuse to increase their discretion and control over society
  3. Governments may adopt new e-governance solutions necessitated in part by requirements for public officials to work from home

Corruption Hampering Emergency Responses

Corruption harms the ability of governments to deliver services to citizens. As Abigail Bellows writes, a crisis like COVID-19 may reveal the ways that corruption degrades the quality of service provision. Healthcare systems that have been sapped by corruption will be even more likely to lack the supplies, qualified care providers, and facilities they need to tackle spiking numbers of sick patients.

In addition, corruption can reduce public trust in government, undermining important public health announcements. Oligarchs, made rich off the proceeds of corruption, can bribe their way out of quarantine or stockpile important medical supplies. Public outrage at such corruption can topple governments—both democratic and autocratic—in what is becoming an accelerating global trend.

COVID-19 As an Excuse to Increase Discretion and Control

Expanding government discretion as a result of COVID-19 is on display in many countries. Governments around the world have declared states of emergency, suspended normal operating procedures, limited public oversight of government, authorized large spending packages, and accelerated procurement processes. The IMF has published an excellent tracker of these responses, linked here.

Increased discretion and control may give governments the power they need to act quickly in response to the health crisis, this power will undoubtedly be used for other ends.

Professor Nic Cheeseman, at the University of Birmingham, argues that authoritarian governments may use COVID-19 to justify the erosion transparency and democratic freedoms. Without transparency and accountability mechanisms in place, nothing will stop corrupt—or corruptible—actors within governments from stealing resources from public institutions and diverting international aid funding.

Professor Cheeseman also argues that “the assumption of emergency powers by governments creates long-term problems because these powers – and the new technologies developed to respond to crises – are rarely fully reversed when the crisis is over.” This “ratchet effect” applied to procurement policies, general transparency, and concentrated discretion has the potential to greatly increase the opportunities for corruption after the immediate crisis has passed.

In Hungary, for example, new emergency powers have allowed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time. This expansion of executive discretion and control in Hungary, a country already experiencing democratic decline, is effectively an open invitation for corruption and authoritarianism.

Instance of human rights abuses in the name of COVID-19 are occurring in many countries. Journalists, healthcare workers, and other critics of government COVID-19 responses have been detained, fined, or attacked in China, Tanzania, Thailand, Cambodia, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Turkey, India, Azerbaijan, Zimbabwe, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Nigeria, among others. When space for independent criticism of governments closes, it creates room for corruption.

Opportunity to Advocate for More E-Governance

On a more positive note, COVID-19 has forced many governments to adapt to a new context with creative, practical, and positive solutions. The Open Government Partnership is keeping a list of examples of these solutions from around the world.

One central challenge posed by COVID-19, is how can governments continue to operate when many government employees cannot go into work at their offices. Some governments will perform well despite stay-at-home orders because they have better digital infrastructure and e-government platforms.

In addition to helping governments operate more effectively, these solutions are often more transparent and make corruption more difficult. Successes may have a demonstration effect, which can be seized upon by civil society groups eager to push their governments to adopt more e-government platforms.

If this happens, and if the new e-government platforms work well, citizens will benefit from more productive government operations and civil society organizations and journalists will gain greater access to the information they need to hold governments accountable.

This process may already be accelerating. At a recent CIPE-hosted event on COVID-19 and corruption in Africa, Gyude Moore of the Center for Global Development argued that COVID-19 will push African governments to accelerate their shift towards e-government platforms and cashless transactions that are easier to track and audit.

What Comes Next?

COVID-19, like pandemics before it, is a critical juncture for corruption and democracy in countries around the world. At this early stage, it is unclear which path each government will take going forward. That said, pre-existing corruption will undermine government responses to the crisis, new forms of corruption stemming from government responses to the crisis will arise, and new opportunities to combat corruption will appear.

More than ever, pro-democracy and anti-corruption advocates and activists have their work cut out for them. CIPE’s Anti-Corruption and Governance Center is committed to double down on its efforts to amplify their voices and support their work. We urge our partners, colleagues, and peers to do the same.