Responding to Corruption Risks in the Context of Covid-19

Viet Nam, 18 December 2020 - In the wake of the outbreak of Covid-19, governments around the world are grappling with the impact of the pandemic on the economy and on the health and livelihoods of citizens. To mitigate the potential of economic instability, governments across Southeast Asia have taken dramatic measures to provide a financial safety net for citizens and businesses in distress, including through direct cash disbursements, short and medium-term forgivable loans, the deferment of payments and unemployment insurance. On 9 April 2020, the Government of Vietnam passed Resolution No. 42/NQ-CP on measures to support those who are facing hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic (“Resolution 42”), which lays out a raft of support for employees and employers. Experts and observers have warned however that emergency packages throughout the region may lead to increasing risks of misuse, fraud and corruption.

The current rise in corruption risks is of particular concern with regards to the health sector, a highly lucrative industry characterized by a high number of stakeholders with limited or indirect accountability. Public procurement in the health sector is particularly susceptible to corruption, given the large flows of money that are issued to finance expensive equipment, staff and infrastructure. In 2019, Viet Nam's healthcare expenditure was approximately US$17 billion, equivalent to 6.6 percent of its GDP. Meanwhile, healthcare spending is expected to reach US$23 billion in 2022.

Slide presented by Cornelia Koertl (UNODC Crime Prevention Officer) on the nexus of Covid-19 & corruption

In addition to this, another risk area relates to Southeast Asia’s expanding role in sourcing and trafficking counterfeit medicines. The UNODC Transnational Crime Threat Assessment for Southeast Asia (2019) reports that in 2017, approximately 20% of 3,509 global pharmaceutical crime incidents were reported in Asia, of which 16.5% (127) incidents were reported in Southeast Asia. Other risk areas include the bribery of health officials and doctors for the utilization of specific medicines and equipment by the private sector, the creation of ‘ghost patients’ to take advantage of government support or drugs in limited supply, conflicts of interest at the policy and regulatory level and nepotism in the hiring and promotion of staff.

Against this backdrop, on 18 December 2020, UNODC held a workshop in Viet Nam to shed light on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on corruption, focusing in particular on the health sector and on risk mitigation strategies to consider.

At the event, Tim Steele (UNODC Anti-Corruption Advisor) emphasized the importance of an assessment of corruption risks that draws on a wide array of stakeholders, including healthcare providers and patients. Based on this, the most important corruption risks should be identified, leading to the integration of practical measures to be mainstreamed into policy and planning considerations. Mr. Steele warned that, when building logistical systems around the storage and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, anti-corruption measures should form a key part of this. A change of mindset would likely be needed within the sector, as many healthcare workers may not initially recognize the relevance of integrity measures to their work.

During the plenary discussion, a number of national experts acknowledged the broad array of benefits that integrity measures could bring to the healthcare sector. One senior official stated that in provincial healthcare centres in Viet Nam, medical equipment is often imported from overseas. As part of the procurement process, suppliers are not always able to share price lists, since they are reliant on organizations overseas. Reworking the procurement process to take this into account could have various advantages, including stabilizing price fluctuations, reducing the inflation of prices and improving the efficiency of supply logistics.

Opening Statement by H.E. Mr Tran Van Minh, Deputy Inspector General, Government Inspectorate of Viet Nam

At the event, senior law enforcement officials shared recent measures to prevent corruption in the healthcare sector, concluding that transparency can have a far-reaching impact on the integrity of procurement processes. One participant stated that since September 2020, specific regulations were introduced to introduce oversight for bidding on medical equipment and medicines, prior to which there was a high variation in the price of the same goods. He voiced optimism that greater transparency around price lists would enable the public to have greater confidence in the pricing of medical products, allowing the State to conduct procurement with an enhanced degree of integrity.

Other Useful Links: