June 24, 2020 – “Our priority is to save people’s lives”, has been the official line of most Latin American governments inresponse to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most countries have taken a series of measures that prioritized the right to health over other considerations. But, in the midst of the overwhelming health crisis, countries are also grappling with other systemic problems, including a pandemic of corruption: a recurring problem that our countries have been unable to solve, despite the democratic and institutional advances of the last decades.
Now, faced with the urgency of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, many governments have bypassed control mechanisms designed to avoid conflicts of interest in state purchases, through emergency declarations. This has resulted in questionable practices and possible acts of corruption. The most recent Capacity to Combat Corruption Index (CCC), launched in 2019 to assess Latin American countries’ ability to uncover, punish, and prevent corruption, indicates that the fight against corruption in Latin America is weak, and that COVID-19 poses a risk of proliferating expenses that are shielded from accountability. Here are a few examples of how that risk is playing out..
In Bolivia, the Minister of Health was fired in May, in the wake of a price gouging scandal related to artificial respirators. According to reports from various media outlets, the Bolivian government paid more than $27,000 per respirator when its market price is close to $7,000. The former official is detained while the investigation continues.
In El Salvador, a recent journalistic investigation from a Latin American project called Salud con Lupa (Health with a Magnifying Glass) revealed that the health ministry spent a million dollars on face protectors, at a 121% mark up from a company owned by a public official. The publication forced President Nayib Bukele to dismiss the official who sold the supplies, but not the minister who authorized the purchase. Days later, a local newspaper revealed a new case of overpriced purchases, in which another official is involved.
In Mexico, an investigation by a civil society organization revealed that ventilators were purchased from a company owned by the son of a senior official. The equipment was later returned and the contract was cancelled as a result of the investigation. In Mexico, civil society organizations are working to develop control mechanisms to fight corruption during the pandemic, such as the Susana Vigilancia initiative.
The United States recently included Honduras and Guatemala in the list of countries that comply with the rules of fiscal transparency regarding the management of public resources and access to public information, which is ironic given the widely known history of corruption in both countries. It is even more ironic that in the United States, the Congress has so far failed to exercise oversight over hundreds of billions of dollars in public resources spent on subsidies that were designed to support small businesses during the health crisis.
It comes to no surprise that corruption has taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic given its endemic nature. But we cannot let the health pandemic be an excuse for the corruption pandemic to flourish. Strong and transparent government regulation, civil society oversight and a vigorous free press are three key ingredients for success in fighting both of these ills.