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[OPINION] Corruption and COVID response

Is there a link between a country’s level of corruption and how it responds to the pandemic? Yes there is, and the causes and effects are evident.

Corruption weakens public institutions and corrupts the minds and actions of public officials. We see this in the never-ending repair of roads and bridges, the construction of white elephants, and the bloated cost of projects. For each license or permit that is mandated by government, there is an official fee and an under-the-table charge. We witness the accounts of whistleblowers against erring bureaucrats that continue to hold on to their positions. Those who are fired are placed elsewhere, ad infinitum.

From all indications – the worst recession since 1946 at negative 9.5% in 2020, and the worst in Southeast Asia, plus the continuing delay of a life-saving vaccination program amid the scandal of smuggled vaccines for VIPs, and the bloated price of a monopolized vaccine – these demonstrate gross negligence and incompetence of government functionaries at the minimum, and corruption at the worst.

Can government not be smarter or more diligent in the discharge of its functions?

More than a year after the onset of the virus, regulations are as senseless as they can get. A list will include the requirement of face masks even in wide, open spaces, and face shields for joggers and bikers; the imposition of a shield for back riders on motorcycles as a consequence of the foisting of face shields (the only country in the galaxy to do so) on everyone; the constricting of public transportation without provisions for alternatives; the monthly last-minute announcement on the quarantine status; among others. Lately, the overturning by the President of task force resolutions, the determination of quarantine status in Metro Manila by majority vote of politicians, and the task force's opening of arcades and cinemas but not schools, add to the catalog.

Remember – we entered the pandemic with corruption in PhilHealth, and the pastillas scheme in the Bureau of Immigration, and the wholesale drug smuggling in the Bureau of Customs. Why should the onset of a virus suddenly cleanse the government of filth?

As of today, the Philippines has borrowed and loaned, budgeted, and allocated the grand total of one trillion pesos (P1,000,000,000,000) in the name of corona. Assuming the cost of a two-dose vaccine is on the high side of P5,000, multiplied by the total population of 120 million Filipinos, it only comes up to 6 hundred billion pesos (Php600,000,000,000). We should all be vaccinated for free; may sukli pa. With so many zeroes, where is the money?

Yet even when the private sector takes the initiative to secure vaccines, the government steps in to require that for each dose given to their employees, another must be donated to the government. This is purely an unjust taking. The justification is that these vaccines do not yet have the full government approval. The response is to quickly and carefully approve them especially if they have been approved elsewhere or are being used in the inoculation programs of several other countries.

It is now clear that because of our government’s inactions, our procurement of vaccines is at the term sheet stage, meaning, there is no contract. A term sheet is not binding and only outlines the basic conditions that the parties agree to.

In the context of the "dropping the ball" and the dillydallying, the playing God and the vaccination dry run without any vaccines in sight, there is no one accountable in the governance structure. It is not a surprise. From the very beginning, in the 3 T's strategy of tracing, testing, and treatment, which of them have been actually implemented? At the tail-end of the pandemic, we are still in our sorry state, but now with many workers laid off, families going hungry, businesses closed, and ventures shuttered for good.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) points out the vulnerabilities in emergency procurement and the use of emergency funds for COVID-19 response. If corruption attends the regular procurement process, what more the emergency ones?

Corruption can take the form of jumping the vaccination queues to favor those in power and not for those who need it most. It can be in the overpricing of testing kits, quarantine facility kickbacks, the marking up of scarce vaccines (and these events have actually happened.)

In ordinary times, corruption is sad and bad. In extraordinary times, corruption magnifies the rot and the people bear the brunt. The full story of the Philippine response to COVID-19 remains to be told, but the incompetence, impunity, and the sufferance of integrity will surely be a central part. – Rappler.com

Geronimo L. Sy is a former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Justice. He set up the Office of Cybercrime and the Office for Competition.