Coronavirus as Corruption Opportunity

By Femi Macaulay

After the coronavirus crisis, there may well be a corruption crisis arising from the possible mismanagement of funds donated to combat the coronavirus in Nigeria.  Can the Federal Government ensure that such funds don’t end up in the pockets of corrupt government officials and their collaborators?

This question is in order, considering the problem of political corruption in the country, which the President Muhammadu Buhari administration is fighting with its anti-corruption campaign.

It is commendable that the Nigeria Private Sector Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID-19) Relief Fund had N19.488b as at last weekend.  The group intends to raise N120 billion from banks and private sector contributors to support the Federal Government in tackling the coronavirus crisis.

The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) and Alhaji Aliko Dangote of Dangote Industries had donated N2b each. Those who had donated one billion naira each are: Alhaji Abdulsamad Rabiu of Bua Sugar Refinery, Segun Agbaje of Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB), Tony Elumelu of United Bank for Africa (UBA), Oba Otudeko of First Bank, Jim Ovia of Zenith Bank, Herbert Wigwe of Access bank, Femi Otedola of Amperim Power Distribution Limited, Raj Gupta of African Steel Mills Nigeria Ltd and Modupe and Folorunso Alakija of Famfa Oil.

Other donors include Pacific Holding Limited, Union Bank Plc., Sterling Bank Plc., Standard Chartered Bank Limited, Stanbic IBTC Bank, Citibank Nigeria Limited, First City Monument Bank, Fidelity Bank and Ecobank Plc.

Public concern that the donations may be diverted reflects the unimpressive result of the war against corruption.  Minister of Information and Culture and member of the Presidential Task Force for the Control of Coronavirus (COVID-19), Alhaji Lai Mohammed, clarified the situation:”I can say without any fear that as of this moment, the task force has not received a kobo from anybody…The Nigeria Economy Group-led private sector has said it is not going to give a penny to the task force; it says it will only raise the money and ask us what our needs are.”

He added: “We have asked for more equipment and facilities…What we need now are equipment and bed facilities where those who have tested positive can be admitted because we do not want a situation where there will be no bed space. “ This clarification does not mean that the situation cannot be exploited by corrupt opportunists.

The COVID-19 emergency has further exposed the country’s appalling health system. The authorities are now under pressure to provide things that should have been in place before now. An emergency should not mean that the country is caught totally unprepared.

After declaring a lockdown in Lagos State, Ogun State, and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, in order to contain the coronavirus pandemic, the Federal Government should not delude itself into thinking that restricting population movement is the solution to the public health crisis.

The Federal Government should listen to the World Health Organisation:  ”The answer depends on what countries do while these population-wide measures are in place. Asking people to stay at home and shutting down population movement is buying time and reducing the pressure on health systems, but on their own, these measures will not extinguish the epidemics.”

According to the Director-General of the organisation, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, “more precise and targeted measures” are needed to stop transmission and save lives, and countries that have introduced “lockdown measures” should use the period to attack the virus.

The WHO recommends six “key actions”: Expand, train, and deploy your health care and public health workforce; Implement a system to find every suspected case at the community level; Ramp up production capacity and availability of testing; Identify, adapt, and equip facilities you will use to treat patients; Develop a clear plan and process to quarantine contacts; Refocus the whole of government on suppressing and controlling COVID-19.

These recommendations, particularly the ones that have to do with improving the healthcare and public health workforce, and developing facilities, will further expose how the authorities have neglected the country’s health system.

For instance, it is noteworthy that, in September last year, an American physician, Stephen Hunt of the University of Pennsylvania, USA, told journalists at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State: “More than $15bn is spent yearly by Nigerians to travel abroad for medical reasons. We can reduce that if people are trained here so they won’t have to spend a lot of money.”

It is also worth mentioning that more and more medical doctors are leaving the country for greener pastures abroad because of the poor healthcare system, demoralising remuneration and deteriorating hospital facilities. The exodus of doctors has escalated in the last two years, according to an investigative report. Nigerian doctors are leaving the country to pursue professional and material fulfillment in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Public hospitals, which serve the majority of the population, are at the centre of the crisis.

The consequences of the failure to develop the country’s health system are glaring in this time of the coronavirus.  There is no excuse for neglecting the health system.  COVID-19 is an opportunity for the Buhari administration to improve the country’s health system in an unprecedented way.

The suggestion by theSocio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) that the Federal Government should “encourage state governors to commit some parts of their security votes to provide additional resources towards strengthening the health systems within their states” makes a lot of sense.

Last year, SERAP had drawn attention to the abuse of security votes: “Available evidence would seem to suggest that many of the tiers of government in Nigeria have used security votes as a conduit for grand corruption rather than spending the funds to improve and enhance national security and ensure full protection of Nigerians’ rights to life, physical integrity, and liberty.”

The organisation had quoted a former governor of Kano State, Musa Kwankwaso, who it said “once described security votes as ‘another way of stealing public funds’.” It also said: “The current security realities in the country would seem to suggest massive political use, mismanagement or stealing of security votes by many governments.”

COVID-19 is another matter. Alhaji Mohammed said, “The only money we will be able to account for is whatever money we receive from the federal government.” There should be no room for corruption in the fight against the coronavirus. The anti-corruption agencies should be ready to prosecute opportunists who see the coronavirus crisis as a corruption opportunity.

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