WAR ON GRAFT

Could Covid-19 kill corruption? Don’t bet on it

Corruption might have been king before but Covid-19 wins the global reach race easily.

In Summary

• The virus can be managed by cleaning the environment, hand washing and social distancing.

• The way to manage corruption is much the same, improve sanitation and transparency in our daily interactions with the public service.

Chinese wear face masks to protect themselves from coronavirus.
Chinese wear face masks to protect themselves from coronavirus.
Image: COURTESY

Covid-19 has spread to 210 countries and territories so far. There are not a lot of places left that it has not touched.

Corruption might have been king before but Covid-19 wins the global reach race easily. One assumption that corruption rankings make is that life is so much better in countries with low corruption.

Consistently in the top 10 rankings of countries where corruption is low, you will find, Denmark, New Zealand and Finland, in no particular order.

In 2019, Transparency International ranked Kenya 137 out of 180 countries, as we all believe and know that Kenya is quite a corrupt country. Ask the average Kenyan and they will tell you who are the corrupt ones, individually and institutionally. 

The National Ethics and Corruption survey by the Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission ranked the Police as among the most corrupt institutions in the country; public hospitals and police stations tied, for places where you have to bribe to get a service.

So now into our corrupt country, enters Covid-19. Should we be scared?

If we look at the Covid-19 statistics for Denmark, New Zealand and Finland — the countries with the least corruption, and for now ignoring the different strategies states are adopting to curb the spread of coronavirus — we find a mixed picture.

When we compare with Kenya, it may look like corruption wins. Of the four countries, Denmark has had 1,250 cases per million persons, while Kenya is at just five. The death toll from Covid-19 is low in Kenya. But we do know that testing is the key to knowing how widespread the virus is. These countries are testing 50-100 times more than Kenya is doing. So that partly explains why they have more cases.

Table Comparing COVID-19 Cases Least Corrupt Countries vs. Kenya. Adapted from https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

So what are the chances that the two primary institutions that we have entrusted with Covid-19 will do a decent job given the environment we know so well?

Some definitions are useful at this point. Corruption (Transparency International, World Bank) is “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”

UNDP defines it as misuse of public power or authority for private benefit through bribery, extortion, influence peddling, nepotism, fraud, speed money, or embezzlement.

There are then elements that makeup corruption such as collusion, the world where cartels live in; and conflicts of interest.

Take some examples. There is a dire global shortage of personal protective equipment. Every country wants to protect its health workers. Do we have sufficient trust that every PPE offered to our health worker will not pass through the hands of corruption? Who should be tested is a scientific and moral question.

At a time like this, you want the very best people available managing the crisis and thereafter. Do we have the best people in the right place? Or does the suspension of normal practices because of the emergency allow favouritism and nepotism?

This is the situation where an ambulance is used to take relatives home. You can be sure this was not the first time. But where do you place the coffin carrying group? Perhaps that’s not an event we should compare across countries, but then again Covid-19 is in 210 countries. Or maybe there is another explanation.

When people are corrupt, there is an element of pride hidden somewhere, that some cleverness is involved; just that the persons concerned choose to be morally bankrupt. But it might be, that we are just not very good.

That institutions are so run down, that they are at best mediocre, with just a few individuals acting as fig leaves, covering up, how poor things are. It is these few individuals we hope can rise up in a crisis, to take charge.

Why are we so hopeful?

One problem we all have is to think in black and white terms. That a mediocre person has it written on his face. We forget that incompetence is not all round.

A person can be thoroughly incompetent in the office but produce beautiful babies at home. They know just enough to claim credit and do a little bit more to block those who can get the job done. And another day passes. Except that, for now, we have coronavirus lurking about. So people will die as we watch.

The virus can be managed by cleaning the environment, hand washing and social distancing. The average cartel member thrives in making the environment as murky as possible and plotting in huddled spaces. So deaths have been hidden. The way to manage corruption is much the same, improve sanitation and transparency in our daily interactions with the public service.

Could Covid-19 kill corruption? Don’t bet on it.

Ayah is the director Science and Technology Park, University of Nairobi