Corruption: The other pandemic

"It affects every nation, including ours. But there will be a time of reckoning."


Immediately after the declaration of a public health emergency nationwide and the subsequent ECQ imposition in the entire Luzon area and related health protocols in Visayas and Mindanao, strains of "Happy Days Are Here Again" were reportedly overheard in the usual corners populated by those who have made a living siphoning government funds to their own pockets or bank accounts, here and abroad. I thought this was much too much. Not under this administration.

At this time of pandemic, when all efforts should be focused on how we can fight this invisible enemy, arrest its spread and contain the damage on our people and the nation to hasten our getting back on our feet, how can we believe that there are still people, much less government officials, who simply cannot contain their greed and ramp up their nefarious deeds? Well, these fraudulent activities are happening all over the place.

In the United States, initial estimates of siphoned monies from the multi-trillion COVID-19 response package passed by the US Congress runs into the billions – a good part of which is from the unemployment benefits for close to 23 million workers. Members of the US Congress and senior aides have also been found to commit insider trading, off-loading stocks for travel companies, and investing in biotech companies during a time when they themselves were aware of the threat of the virus, but continued to reassure the American people. There were also criticisms about proposed relief packages to buttress the US economy that include specific mention of hotels and other "suppliers and service providers." This one sounds like what's happening with our OFW and travelers repatriation program.

Other countries have had their own share of such misdeeds. In Italy, the COVID-19 epicenter in Europe for sometime, an agricultural company won a contract to supply the government with face masks. In Hungary, the Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, appointed himself to personally oversee the outbreak response and is now pushing to extend an indefinite state of emergency and securing the power to make critical decisions without involving parliament. On the other hand, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić advised that due to the severe lack of ventilators he was “forced to acquire them from the semi-grey market, bypassing the government's procurement procedures. He has dared his critics to prosecute him for doing so.

There have also been reports of Russian oligarchs buying scarce ventilators, outfitting their homes with makeshift clinics, and arranging agreements with doctors to be on call to ensure that they can avoid seeking treatment in the state-owned hospitals that treat victims of the outbreak. Suppliers of ventilators reported that private buyers constituted as much as 30 percent of their recent sales. In Norway, some doctors are reported to be breaking the guidelines from the state medicines agency that has issued rationing on medicines that may help against COVID-19; they continue to write prescriptions for their friends and family members.

In Iran, reports of a “well-connected network” connected to the power circle is controlling the distribution and prices of items needed for the country’s response. In Uganda and Cameroon, there are also accounts of citizens evading quarantine by bribing officials which, of course, will inevitably lead to further disease spread. In Kenya, six million face masks ordered by Germany to protect health workers from the coronavirus went missing in the airport. Investigations are ongoing.

Indeed, corruption in the time of pandemic is happening worldwide. We were hoping the same would not happen with such brazenness and with such intensity as in the Philippines considering the tough and proven anti-corruption initiatives of President Duterte. Well, the Senate Committee of the Whole hearings last week confirmed that the whispers of corruption were true and this time in high places. Not just the pinching of some amounts for recipients of the social amelioration program (SAP) by local officials. Not the padding of the SAP recipients list. Not the selling of quarantine passes. Not the selling of donated food and medical supplies and equipment (although I am told this scheme continues to this day).

No, Sir. These are multi million transactions involving accreditation of suppliers, procurement of supplies and equipment, and related operations meant by these fraudsters to squeeze every ounce of possible kickback from each and every transaction.

Senator Panfilo Lacson angrily noted that billions may have been pocketed by the wrongdoers from the purchase of medical supplies and equipment from PPEs to swabbing materials to testing kits and testing laboratories. This is a claim corroborated by Senator Grace Poe who has earlier exposed the overpricing of the one million sets of PPEs bought by the DoH by as much as P1.4 billion.

Lacson specifically cited, in addition to the PPEs and swabbing materials, the purchase of nucleic acid extractors which he claimed were overpriced if compared with those bought by the private sector and NGOs. For example, the DOH spent $32 for each unit of a swabbing system, when this may be bought for $12 at cost from China, or a whopping difference of about 170 percent. Even the private-sector-led Project ARK was able to buy the upgraded Sansure (China) swabbing system (antibody rapid test kits) for US$18 to US$20, which is still US$12 less than the one purchased by the DoH.

Lacson's expose was reinforced by reports coming from the Cavite provincial government which emphatically advised that it was able to buy 300,000 test kits with the same brand and from the same source as the DoH for less than P351 million that the department paid. That overprice was only for the kits. If one includes the overprice for the purchase of a very specific brand of nucleid acid extractors which runs into millions of dollars per unit then you will know how these guys have been able to milk huge amounts from the billions allocated for the government's COVID-19 response program.

No less than House Senior Minority Leader Janet Garin, herself a former Health Secretary and co-defendant of current Secretary Francisco Duque III in the ongoing multi-billion Dengvaxia case, lamented the fact that favored suppliers have cornered much of the medical supply purchases of the DoH. She cited in particular the unholy participation of a couple with initials "V.E." in key purchases specifically ordered by DoH under a tailor made Terms of Reference (ToR). Apparently, Garin was reacting to Duque's earlier claim that it was not the department but the DBM Procurement Service (DBM PS) under a certain Usec Lao which was doing the buying. Well, Lao claimed they did not have any kind of leeway at all as they were being guided by the DoH indicated TOR. So much for finger pointing.

And these are just for starters, even as Senate Minority Leader

Frank Drilon grudgingly accepted the lowering of the price of the reimbursable testing package earlier imposed by the government health insurance agency, PhilHealth, by almost half from P8,125 per test to P4250. So, as Lacson admonished all concerned that they will not initiate any investigations on these contemptuous practices in deference to the ongoing efforts to combat the pandemic, he promised there will be a time for reckoning.

We not only hope but wholeheartedly support such a move to finally cut off these fraud networks from the scene once and for all.

Topics: Jonathan Dela Cruz , corruption , coronavirus disease 2019 , COVID-19
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