At the height of the Ebola epidemic, the Red Cross worked furiously to combat a disease that would eventually claim more than 11,000 lives in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. What was little known at the time is that the virus’s rampage was being compounded by a silent killer—corruption. The Red Cross has since estimated that over $6 million of its assistance was lost to fake customs bills, overbilled supplies, and payments to non-existent workers. Other international aid and domestic budgets were likely subject to similar leakage. Will waste and abuse again threaten citizens’ lives in the global response to the coronavirus pandemic?
How Corruption Makes Outbreaks Worse
The novel coronavirus outbreak is on a collision course with corruption. Across Africa, Latin America, and South Asia, healthcare systems are already weakened by chronic graft, making them ill-equipped to respond to this type of crisis. As the virus spreads, citizens who cannot afford to pay bribes may be denied access to testing and treatment, accelerating the pace and scope of the contagion. Those subject to quarantines may bribe their way out, as documented in the Ebola crisis, and as already reported this week among border-crossers from Iran into Pakistan.
In addition, massive public procurement projects related to the coronavirus will face serious risks of collusion and embezzlement, especially in countries like Kenya where public spending is already vulnerable to diversion. Globally, the UN estimates that a startling 10 to 25 percent of all public contracts is lost due to corruption, according to several studies. This kind of systemic corruption breeds a deep mistrust of government, which undermines even well-intentioned attempts to convey important public health messages.
How the U.S. Government Can Respond
Thankfully, there are steps the U.S. government can take to avert the darkest scenarios. In Congress, four bills are pending that would expand U.S. action against corruption abroad. Of particular relevance, the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act (H.R. 3843/S. 3026) would establish an Anti-Corruption Action Fund to surge support to countries experiencing an unexpected opening to tackle graft, as the coronavirus crisis could be. These bills, which are all budget-neutral, enjoy bipartisan support and deserve urgent passage.
The executive branch should also emphasize corruption risks in its international response to the pandemic. Of the $37 million in new assistance that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced recently, none appears targeted toward strengthening the fiscal management of the low-capacity healthcare systems that are soon to be flooded with international aid. Addressing this gap is vital, alongside diplomatic engagement to press for public transparency, robust oversight of procurement processes, accountability to combat local bribery, and protection of whistleblowers. U.S. assistance should also support civil society and media organizations in monitoring government performance, building new coalitions, and challenging public resignation about corruption.
It is not too late to act. In countries with the most severe corruption, the coronavirus has yet to take hold—but the virus is moving fast. Rapid U.S. action could apply the lessons of the Ebola crisis and save millions of lives in the coming year.
Abigail Bellows is a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an independent consultant on governance and civil society issues. She previously worked at the U.S. Department of State, where she created and led the anticorruption portfolio in the Office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.