Opinion: from politics to economics, corruption has many implications for how countries will fare during the pandemic

According to my friends and colleagues, I have a tendency to see corruption everywhere, albeit not in the paranoid way that some people do. Rather, put a novel, TV show, or even an historical work in front of me and I will find an interpretation of it that fits with my understanding of how important it is to understand and fight corruption.

That said, I really do think that the current crisis that the world faces tells us a lot about, well, how important it is to understand and fight corruption. While we will probably never know for certain, we are told that the coronavirus outbreak which has paralysed economic, cultural, and social activity around the world can be traced back to a so-called wet market in a city many of us had never head of until recently.

So where does corruption enter the story? Well, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, health inspectors tasked with ensuring good hygiene and preventing the spread of diseases, both in terms of spreading across borders and across species, gave the market a passing grade late last year. Given what we now know about how these markets operate and the prevalence of corruption in the Chinese public health system, it is not unreasonable to speculate, as some have done, that the current global health crisis and the looming global economic crisis are the product of a single instance of localised petty corruption.

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Corruption also has implications for how countries will fare during the pandemic. Bribery, embezzlement and nepotism can all serve to distort choices and outcomes away from what is in the public interest in favour of what is good for a narrow group.

A study of public health outcomes in the Philippines found that corruption reduced immunisation rates, the share of newborn children being vaccinated and increased the waiting time at clinics. Corruption also, not surprisingly, undermined public trust and confidence in the health system. Another fascinating study used 50 years of Turkish data to document a meaningful effect of changes in corruption on infant mortality outcomes. Clearly, countries and regions with corruption problems will face particular challenges in combatting this pandemic in terms of both effectively deploying the available resources and getting citizens to buy-in for essential public health measures.

There is a potential for increased spending to lead to increased corruption in some countries at least

We should also plan for the aftermath of the coronavirus with reference to corruption. The size of government is increasing in many countries in response to economic and social challenges posed by this crisis. This is a welcome intervention but we should be aware of the studies that examine the link between government size and corruption. The evidence is somewhat mixed, but does suggest that there is a potential for increased spending to lead to increased corruption in some countries at least.

Another necessary response to the pandemic has been the granting of some emergency additional powers to government. However, national parliaments and international and supranational bodies must ensure that the crisis is not used as an excuse to permanently enshrine one party rule, undermine the rule of law, or curb media freedom. Democracy is a strong bulwark against corruption.

The open-ended emergency powers recently granted to Viktor Orban's government should be a significant cause for concern to all EU members. These powers include jail terms for those deemed to have spread misinformation about the government’s handling of the crisis. As noted by the Guardian, this has given rise to concerns about how such laws could be used to reduce press freedom. Critics have alleged that a similar "power grab" was used by Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to delay the start of his own bribery trial.

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Irish public officials, politicians, and civil society organisations must be aware of all of these dangers, foreign and domestic. Oversight of increased spending on new and existing programmes is essential, as is transparency of processes. There will clearly be even greater demand on public funds for some time to come but an increase in the resources made available for governmental and NGO efforts to fight corruption at home and abroad should be part of the recovery and resilience building efforts. The media is an important anti-corruption watchdog and so it must be protected and supported.

There will be many lessons to learn once this is all over. One is that corruption, like a virus, does not respect borders, and no country, or community, is immune to its effects. As is usually the case, it is those who were already vulnerable who will pay the highest price.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ