Corruption, Covid-19 and Inequality: the vital role of companies in preventing this deadly mixture

By Daniela Cepeda Cuadrado, Project Officer, Transparency International Health Initiative

With over 1.4 million deaths, COVID-19 has disrupted health systems all over the world and highlighted profound inequality. Corruption during the pandemic has widened the gap between the haves and have-nots. Alongside policy makers, there is much that businesses can do to tackle corruption in the response to COVID-19 and contribute to more equal societies.

So far, there are almost 40 million cases of COVID-19 globally and more than one million deaths. Despite these staggering numbers, we now know the virus does not affect us all equally. Failing to address corruption risks in this environment can make that inequality so much worse. And alongside policymakers, businesses arguably have the biggest role to play in tackling the corruption ingredient of this deadly cocktail.

Recent studies have shown that social determinants of health—that is, the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age, have a considerable impact on COVID-19 outcomes. Issues such as poverty, physical environment (such as overcrowding or homelessness), and race or ethnicity play a key role in determining whether certain groups of people will survive or die from the virus.

Marginalised groups are the most reliant on health and other public services. If these services are blighted by corruption, it is unlikely that they can cater effectively to the needs of all vulnerable groups. During health emergencies like the current pandemic, when large amounts of funding are allocated rapidly without normal scrutiny, there is ample opportunity for corruption to go unchecked.

And when health public services cannot deliver, many people in positions of vulnerability need to turn to private practices where inflated prices either further impoverish them or prevent them from accessing lifesaving healthcare services altogether.

But in addition to its devastating impact on health, corruption also holds business from all sectors back. It distorts the free market, erodes public trust, and creates an uneven playing field. Despite increased regulation and rising corporate standards, corruption remains a significant challenge for companies, and, for those living and working in many countries around the world, an escalating problem.

Challenges like these will only increase in coming years as the global economy begins its recovery from the pandemic and emerging markets assume a greater share of world trade.

There is, therefore, a win-win here for companies: tackling corruption levels the playing field so is good for business and, at the same time, this will also limit its pervasive and unequal impact on people’s health. But how best to achieve that during a time of global crisis?

Here are just a few practical tips for companies to ensure they are running with integrity and ensuring anti-bribery and corruption (ABAC) best practice.

Tone from the top on responsible corporate behaviour has never been more important

Businesses should ensure their C-Suites are living and breathing integrity. Now more than ever, it is critical that business leaders act with integrity and ensure that their employees are doing the same. They can do this through regular communication with employees – perhaps a short video reminding staff of the company’s values and ethics priorities.

Review your lobbying practices

Most, if not all, businesses lobby government and this is a perfectly legitimate business activity – when done responsibly. During this time of crisis, where government policy is being created and implemented at pace and where markets and sectors are facing huge amounts of disruption, we have already seen in many markets a huge upsurge in lobbying activity.

At this time where lives and livelihoods are dependent on the decisions made, it is all the more important that businesses have ethical policies and procedures in place, ensure they are open about who and what they are lobbying for/against, and ultimately ensure they do not exert undue influence over political decision-making.

Ensure you have a good risk-assessment framework – and that it is actively being used as your business changes

This is particularly important for organisations whose business models have changed dramatically, such as those who have pivoted to support efforts to produce healthcare products or whose supply chains have shifted dramatically from one region to another. New geographies and new sectors bring new bribery and corruption risks and, in many cases, additional regulations. These risks must be assessed, understood and mitigated – even in these challenging times and even by those businesses who genuinely want to support the effort to combat COVID-19.

Seize this opportunity to conduct training on ethics and compliance

Once the COVID-19 crisis is over, sales and frontline staff will be back out there in the market. Scheduling training – even short refreshers – is a good way to demonstrate your company’s commitment to ethics at this time. Even if you don’t have training materials ready, Transparency International has some free-to-use online training which you can use. It is also customisable for a small cost. If you feel that you really want to seize this opportunity, we are still offering virtual face-to-face training to support businesses.

In the face of a global pandemic, businesses have an outstanding opportunity to rise to the challenge and ensure COVID-19 responses leave no one behind. The alternative—that is, putting private interests before the common good—is not only unethical, but in the long run, it will be detrimental to businesses’ credibility. Today, businesses are being judged by how they respond to the pandemic and how they, like all of us, tread the difficult line between economic and other (health or social) interests. Tackling corruption now is the best way forward.

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