COVID-19: Averting a Compliance Crisis?

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Crises tend to accentuate both the heroes and villains among us. While we honor the dogged heroism of hospital personnel and other essential service workers, and all who make sacrifices to help contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, it’s worth staying alert to the certainty that there are some who will exploit the pandemic for private gain. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Working Group on Bribery has warned that bribery and corruption, unsurprisingly, “have the potential to undermine the global response to tackle the crisis.”

Worldwide, we see shortages of medical equipment, an anxious scramble for reliable vaccines and effective forms of treatment, and massive disruption of global markets and supply chains. Amid this uncertainty, business and government leaders have had to take extraordinary measures to ensure continuity of operations and to meet evolving demands. It’s easy to imagine that the urgency with which public funds are being allocated and disbursed may deprioritize normal safeguards against kickbacks, corruption and outright fraud.

Even those companies that generally work hard to project the right message and play by the rules are likely to find themselves tempted to relax their standards as they work to stay agile while reducing costs. Intense competition for access to public coffers may create a high-pressure environment in which companies seek to excuse corruption as a necessary evil: a cynically touted “cost of doing business.” Enforcement agencies in the United States, however, have made it clear that even though the pandemic has affected their investigative capacities, “the rules [still] very much apply.” Sooner or later, as the agencies’ pipelines open up, the use of public funds will come under more scrutiny, and today’s misconduct will become tomorrow’s enforcement actions.

But the importance of corporate responsibility extends beyond any immediate or distant threat of prosecution. Even under more normal conditions, bribery weakens governance at all levels, with devastating consequences for individuals and communities. Criminal enterprises capitalize on the resulting fragility, threatening both local well-being and global security. Known by the company they keep, businesses should steer clear of this global underworld and its illicit agenda.

The COVID-19 pandemic has placed new and enormous demands on governments, industries and communities. Our collective response will largely determine the condition in which our societies and economies emerge from the crisis. It will be one of the great tests of governmental transparency and corporate ethical responsibility. Whatever the current pressures and exigencies, we know that corruption magnifies every problem and makes every solution more intractable.

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