In Latin America and around the world, governments are enacting emergency legislation to respond to the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that their health systems have the medical equipment they need to save lives.
From basic supplies, like face masks and protective gowns, to more advanced devices like ventilators, front line health care workers are woefully unprepared to tackle the pandemic in most hospitals and clinics across the region.
While emergency legislation can help reduce the time it takes to procure these critical medical supplies, unfortunately, it often also allows governments to bypass the usual checks and balances on public spending.
To save lives and minimise suffering, the region’s crisis response must be as efficient as possible. Otherwise, precious resources lost to corruption could cost countless lives.
Reducing corruption in public procurement
Last week, thirteen of our national chapters from across Latin America raised alarm over serious corruption risks in the region’s emergency response to the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic, and specifically, the public procurement process.
With countries the world over facing similar risks, recent recommendations of best practices from Latin America offer solutions that can be applied both in the region and beyond.
The measures aim to reduce the risk of hidden contracts, bribery, embezzlement, overpricing, lack of competition, collusion and other forms of corruption that would make national responses to the pandemic less effective.
Examples from Brazil
While issues of price gouging are all too common across the region, many governments face an impossible choice: pay exorbitant amounts for basic supplies, like surgical masks, or put health care workers at unnecessary risk of infection.
But in Brazil, a recent media report also points to corruption in how the government chooses the companies from which to buy those supplies. For example, despite competitors offering to charge significantly less for surgical masks, the government opted to award a contract to a company charging up to 12 times more than market price, but with close ties to the President.
Conflicts of interest are also a concern. The Brazilian government recently awarded emergency contracts for hospital gowns to a company that donated to the Minister of Health’s past election campaigns.
The report highlights several corruption risks and key preventive strategies to ensure that public purchases and contracts benefit ordinary citizens during this crisis, including recommendations that:
- Information on purchases and contracting should be published in open data format and accessible to all audiences;
- Procurement processes should prevent price gouging and hoarding and promote competition among companies;
- Broad public accountability should include the monitoring of resources used during the emergency response.
In addition, to ensure best practices for public procurement, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic, national leaders should commit to:
- Activate national anti-monopoly agencies to avoid collusion between economic actors and practices that result in price speculation.
- Implement real-time audits for public procurement, precisely because of the exceptional nature and magnitude of the emergency.
- Develop a single platform for government procurement information and ensure proper accountability during the emergency response.
An appeal to the private sector
The private sector has an essential role to play in keeping corruption out of the emergency response.
Undue influence over public health undermines transparency and puts the health of countless individuals, families and communities at risk.
Companies should avoid price gouging practices that affect the supply of goods and services, act with greater integrity and put people before profits in the face of this global health emergency.
Moving forward: Why transparency matters during a state of emergency
During a crisis like COVID-19, when countries must resort to extraordinary measures to help prevent the spread of the virus, quick decisions and resource allocations can often make the difference between life and death.
Sadly, even during an unprecedented global crisis, there are those who would exploit a public health emergency for their own corrupt benefit.
Under these circumstances, corruption could cost additional lives. Misinformation or the inappropriate use of emergency funds could divert valuable resources from the people who need them most.
While Latin America and other regions around the world continue to experience greater demand for medical supplies and equipment, it is more important than ever to keep corruption out of the public procurement process.
Illustration from iStock.com/Ada Yokota