Healthcare workers check passengers entering Herat city. Photo: Ministry of Public Health
According to the Ministry of Health of Afghanistan COVID-19 could kill more than one hundred thousand people in Afghanistan as more than 80% of the people are at risk of contracting the virus. To fight the pandemic, the World Bank announced a $100 million grant to Afghanistan to stop the spread of the disease. They payments are being fast-tracked to enable the Government of Afghanistan to make an emergency response. A statement issued by the Bank stated that the fund will be used to “support infected people, at-risk populations, medical and emergency personnel as well as service providers, medical and testing facilities, and national health agencies.” Following this the Ministry of Finance recently announced an allocation of 6.6 billion Afghanis ($87 million) to fight the spread of COVID-19 out of which each Province will be given one million dollars (on average) discretionary funds.
While provision of discretionary funds and emergency procurement are required to prevent the spread of COVID19, they also create vulnerability to corruption. Afghanistan’s public sector suffers from the prevalence of impunity and weak controls and therefore is considered one of the most corrupt in the world. Corruption, misuse of funds, procurement and delivery of low-quality equipment and supplies could put the lives of doctors, nurses, medical staff, and patients at risk and could help the virus spread to a catastrophic level. A recent report indicates that the Ministry of Health procured hand sanitizers and supplied them to a hospital designated to fight COVID-19. The hand sanitizers were later found to have no alcohol content and therefore had to be disposed of.
In addition, weak management, lack of responsiveness, and weak health infrastructure could jeopardize service delivery to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to treat patients. Corruption in service delivery could result in hospitals and health centers running out of essential supplies and medicine. Mismanagement and lack of capacity could result in equipment not being used and the waste of essential supplies such as testing kits. Reports indicate that there is only a total of 12 ventilators across the country some of which are not even installed and are therefore not being used. Therefore, it is critical to monitor the delivery of essential supplies, equipment, and service to the most needed areas.
The government must take steps to fight corruption to prevent the crisis from going completely out of hand. The government must put access to information and accountability to the forefront of the fight against COVID-19 to ensure scarce resources are used wisely and in a transparent and accountable manner. Some governments are using COVID-19 as an excuse to silence those who ask for essential information. The Afghan Government cannot afford to do this. The government should disclose the available procurement data to the public on a proactive basis to enable citizens and civil society to monitor procurement and spending. Proactive disclosure of information is more important than ever before. The government must make it a requirement for all provincial and central offices involved in service delivery and emergency procurement to proactively publish data on their websites and come up with mechanisms on how to share information with the public on regular basis. We can learn from the Ukrainian example where they have developed an online tool to “show all the COVID-19 related emergency procurement, and includes information such as the name of items, the price per item, terms, supplier, etc.” The government should also facilitate civil society monitoring.
Civil society should make use of the data provided by the government to analyze the data so as to hold the government accountable. Citizens and civil society can even develop their own datasets, if they are not provided by the government ,by extracting procurement data from contracts and by making access to information requests. Open contracting tips here are very useful to begin with. Civil society can also check government responses and preparedness by monitoring the availability of essential supplies and by carrying out surveys to collect data.
Fighting corruption may take a backseat during an emergency such as COVID-19 but in the case of Afghanistan, ignoring corruption could prove to be catastrophic.