As Ebola began to rage across the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2018, the disease had a powerful accomplice: corruption. The country’s health minister and his financial adviser embezzled $400,000 in relief funds—crimes for which they were recently sentenced to five years of forced labor. Yet the systemic vulnerabilities that enable this type of fraud persist around the world. How is the U.S. government assisting partners in Africa, Latin America, and South Asia in addressing corruption vulnerabilities before they are hit by full-blown outbreaks of the new coronavirus?

Ignoring Corruption Is Risky

Corruption is like gasoline poured on the flames of a pandemic. Healthcare systems already debilitated by graft will struggle to address the most basic of needs during the crisis. Citizens who can’t afford to pay bribes may be locked out of access to testing and treatment, a problem that would accelerate the virus’s spread. Those who can bribe their way out of quarantines will probably do so, as has been reported already in Cameroon and Uganda. And government attempts to convey public health messages are likely to fall flat in places where decades of corruption have deeply undermined trust in the state.

Abigail Bellows
Abigail Bellows was a nonresident scholar in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
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At the elite level, the pandemic is setting off a flurry of public procurement spending, which faces serious risks for diversion, especially since traditional watchdog groups are also scrambling to adapt. Foreign assistance pouring in from the United States and other countries is also vulnerable to leakage. In normal times, various sources estimate that more than 10 percent of global healthcare spending is siphoned off by corruption, amounting to losses of more than $500 billion annually—and these risks are only heightened during a disaster. Meanwhile, oligarchs may be using the proceeds of corruption to buy up ventilators and arrange for private healthcare, as seen in Russia, a practice that drains resources from the public health system.

The pandemic’s further spread around the globe, fueled by corruption, could cause serious harm to U.S. interests and foreign policy objectives. Public anger at government malfeasance could topple regimes, embolden antiestablishment populists, and provide openings for terrorist recruitment. Long-standing allies may turn away from the United States and toward China, desperately applying authoritarian measures in hopes of containing the virus. If corruption becomes more entrenched overseas, U.S. businesses will struggle to compete.

Charting a Different Course

The good news is that the U.S. government can take action to avoid this dark prognosis. The biggest near-term step would be inclusion of the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy (CROOK) Act (H.R. 3843/S. 3026) in Congress’s planned fourth coronavirus-related spending package. The bill would form an Anti-Corruption Action Fund to surge support to countries eager to take rapid action against corruption, as the current crisis demands. The proposal, which is budget-neutral and enjoys bipartisan support, has already passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee and has been introduced in the Senate.

The next step would be for relevant committee leaders and the bill’s bipartisan sponsors—Representatives Bill Keating and Brian Fitzpatrick alongside Senators Roger Wicker and Ben Cardin—to fold the measure into upcoming legislation. This would fill a glaring gap in congressional action to date on the coronavirus and signal that U.S. decisionmakers recognize the links between international corruption, public health, and U.S. national security.

Alongside congressional leadership, the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) could take important steps to address the corruption-coronavirus nexus. Global health assistance should include strong anticorruption safeguards and support for emergency procurement mechanisms that are rigorous and transparent—in both U.S. and multilateral assistance. Diplomats should reinforce the need to maintain anticorruption law enforcement to deter crime during the pandemic. The United States can also celebrate local officials who act with integrity and urge civil society, media outlets, and whistleblowers to keep playing their vital roles in spite of rising repression.

The virus has yet to become a full-scale disaster in the most corruption-prone parts of the world—but time is running short. If the United States seeks to avoid a replay of the Ebola epidemic—on a far graver scale—it must act now to address global corruption risks.

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.