COVID-19 is an opportunity for corruption, reform

Paco A. Pangalangan, Executive Director, Stratbase ADR Institute

Winston Churchill said an optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity. Ten months into this lockdown, with among the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the region, and little to show in terms of long-term strategies and plans to fight this virus, it’s hard for Filipinos not to be a bit pessimistic.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought an array of issues to the fore— the risk of corruption being key among those. 

With the mass mobilization of public funds to respond to this global pandemic, many of these funds bypass traditional methods of public accountability, transparency, and checks and balances in the interest of expedience. 

As a result, democracies worldwide risk opening their doors to unscrupulous activities, such as misallocation of funds, or worse, misappropriation of properly allocated funds.

Furthermore, according to the U4 Anti-Corruption Center study on previous pandemics, like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, “what we do know from previous epidemics and global crises is that they provide a perfect environment for corruption to flourish and that this guarantees further loss of life, depreciation in public trust, and dysfunction in society that persists much longer than the crisis itself.” 

Another major threat during this pandemic is electoral continuity. During the Pilipinas Conference 2020 session on “Opportunities within the COVID-Crisis: Towards Transparent and Accountable Governance,” organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute, Katherine Ellena of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems shared that “elections have been postponed all around the globe. While many now have been rescheduled, it has allowed those in government to use resources and extra time to campaign.”

Despite this seemingly unavoidable risk of corruption, former Ombudsman and Supreme Court Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales reminds us that Filipinos have a choice. 

Carpio-Morales, who used the Churchill quote above in her keynote address, also said that “the entire world is now confronted with either a difficulty or an opportunity depending on which perspective to take.” “In any given nation, believers in good governance see the silver lining while skeptics simply cross their fingers and doubt the chances of genuine reform,” she added.

Indeed, while the pandemic has undoubtedly opened the door to the risk of corruption, it has also opened the door for genuine governance reform.

It was also discussed during the conference that, here in the Philippines, the new focus on its digital transformation could be a catalyst for these reforms. 

According to the University of the Philippines Prof. Fe Mendoza, the pandemic has brought about the more aggressive adoption of remote/online processes in education, public health, other government services, commerce and trade, diplomacy, and other aspects of government, private sector, and civil society operations, and that the pandemic has also brought about new ways for people to solve policy challenges.
Commission on Audit Chairperson Michael Aguinaldo also shared how his organization is looking into adopting Artificial Intelligence to detect statistical anomalies in transactions.

The technology is envisioned to work as an audit assistant, going through volumes of government records and helping auditors sort and process available digital data for faster and more efficient examination and audit.

While speakers at the conference session called for the harnessing of technology to improve transparency and accountability mechanisms in government, it was also emphasized that technology on its own is not a vaccine against corruption.

Technology and data inform democracies, but at the end of the day, robust democracies are ultimately built through the cooperation and consensus of all sectors of society.

Expounding on the whole-of-society approach needed for genuine reform, former Chairperson of Transparency International and current chair of the International Anti-Corruption Conference Council, Huguette Labelle, said “by linking with other non-governmental organizations, the academic sector, various institutes, as well as industry, CSOs have increased their capacity and become more impactful, and this needs to continue. We need collective action in order to make a difference.”

During her remarks, Carpio-Morales also said that “the people should remain vigilant more than ever. The people should watch closely how power wielders exercise the extended power at their disposal, on top of their vast array of already existing governmental powers.”

So, while the COVID-19 pandemic serves as the perfect environment for corruption to flourish, it also provides Filipinos the opportunity to make strides towards genuine transparency and accountability reform.

A little over a year ago, President Rodrigo Duterte, too, quoted Churchill, “my fellow citizens, to borrow the words of Churchill — akin ‘to, this is mine: We are now entering a period of consequences. The consequences of what we did and did not do but should have done… I assume full responsibility for that.”

This was during his fourth state of the Nation address in 2019, then referring to his first three years in office. A little over a year and one pandemic later, Filipinos have an opportunity to come together to make this government accountable to the promises it has made and for the consequences of what it does and does not do during this COVID-19 health crisis. 

Failing to do so would be a calamity in and of itself. 

This article was originally published in Image Source: AFP/Ted Aljibe.

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