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Asia-Pacific’s double whammy of COVID-19 and corruption

With an average score of 45, the Asia-Pacific region struggles to combat public sector corruption and tackle the profound health and economic impact of COVID-19
A bird's eye view of the Auckland city in the night

In the recently released Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, New Zealand is ranked the least corrupt country with a score of 88 out of 100, followed by Singapore (85), Australia (77) and Hong Kong (77). On the other end of the spectrum, the worst performers from the region are North Korea with a score of 18, followed by Afghanistan (19) and Cambodia (21). 

Exhibit 1: Top scorers vs bottom scorers in Asia-Pacific

Source: Transparency International

In terms of regional average rankings, Asia-Pacific scored 45 points, coming second after Western Europe & the EU region which scored 66 points. Meanwhile, the Sub-Saharan Africa region scored the lowest regional average of 32.

However, the report states that in Asia, “key economies such as India (40), Indonesia (37) and Bangladesh (26) experienced slow progress in anti-corruption efforts, with several government commitments to reform not yet materialising effectively”.

Exhibit 2: Results by region

Source: Transparency International

The damage inflicted by cyclone Harold coupled with the effects of the pandemic, further made Pacific the most vulnerable sub-region in Asia-Pacific in terms of corruption. Multi-million dollar stimulus package meant to help Solomon Islanders struggling with the economic impacts of the pandemic were siphoned off to ineligible government officials and people. In addition to this, every other Pacific country has levied some sort of restriction on press freedom around COVID-19. The government of Vanuatu has enforced media outlets to only report stories of COVID-19 that have been authorised by them.

Top does not always mean good

The view from the top does not always mean the best. New Zealand which was ranked the least corrupt country globally along with Denmark has its fair share of corruption risks that it needs to address at the earliest. The country has no central register to monitor beneficial ownership of companies or trusts leaving it open to malpractices. And its legislative framework around foreign bribery falls short of enforcement and protection of whistleblowers. There are equal number of corruption shortcomings in other large Asia-Pacific economies such as Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan.

Least scorers in the index such as Afghanistan has shown a robust 11-point growth in its anti-corruption stance since 2012. The establishment of Transparency national contact in Afghanistan is the first step to this cause. The international organisation licensed as an NGO will advocate for transparency in government procurements and fulfilment of the Afghanistan government’s anti-corruption commitments, among others.

Pandemic and corruption

Even in the midst of a global pandemic, corruption continued unabated in countries such as Bangladesh and the Philippines. Food meant for poor and low-income people were stolen by local leaders of the ruling party in Bangladesh during the pandemic. Additionally, there were wide gaps noticed in the disbursement of stimulus packages recording higher handouts for larger industries than for farmers and small businesses. Even the healthcare sector was manipulated by syndicates who installed overpriced oxygen tanks and pipelines in hospitals, while issuing purchase orders to automobile companies for PPE supplies.

Meanwhile, reports of abuse circulated from the Philippines where COVID-19 violators were forced into dog cages and made to sit in it through the midday sun as punishment. In addition to this, the Duterte government has also empowered himself with emergency powers to penalise anyone circulating fake news. In less than a month alone, 60 individuals across the country were charged by government officials on the pretext of this provision.

Steps to arrest corruption

Countries will need to remain vigilant to counter the double-whammy of COVID-19 and corruption. The report goes on to recommend some essential steps such as ensuring transparency and strong oversight in COVID-19 response and allowing freedom of speech, media and civil society.

Check and audits remained unnoticed in the garb of quick response to the pandemic. But governments need to remain vigilant while remaining open and transparent to combat wrongdoing. They should also ensure relevant data is freely accessible to all. As pointed out by Delia Ferreira Rubio, Chair, Transparency International, “COVID-19 is not just a health and economic crisis. It’s a corruption crisis. And one that we’re currently failing to manage”.

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