All over the world there is increasing concern over the misuse of special difficult conditions created by Covid-19 pandemic by corrupt and authoritarian elements in various countries and societies. To counter this and to ensure a need and evidence based, honest response, many citizen groups and independent experts have called for increasing transparency and accountability in various aspects of Covid response, ranging from procurement of essential equipments to the allocations for stimulus packages, development of vaccines and imposition of various restrictions.
Various chapters of Transparency International have been vocal about the possibility of increase of corruption under the cover of responding quickly to emergency conditions. In particular the U.K. chapter of this international organization has come out with its call for giving more attention to anti-corruption measures in various Covid related activities and to improving the transparency of these activities, programs and their related procurements. The possibility of misuse of subsidy or support packages by business interests has also been highlighted by this organization which has called for a cautious approach and monitoring. The need for according protection to whistleblowers has also been emphasized.
NEMEXIS, an organization based in Germany has also joined this call for protection of providing protection to whistleblowers after an international survey by this organization revealed that whistleblowers who opposed corruption and wrongdoing in Covid response were victimized or suffered harm in about 15 countries.
In UK the prestigious medical journal BMJ has become a rallying point for concerned doctors, scientists, patients and citizens after its Executive Editor Kamran Abbasi wrote a blistering editorial on the crying need for grater transparency and correctives in Covid response. His editorial ( dated 13 November) stated, “ The first step is full disclosure of competing interests for government, politicians, scientific advisers and appointees, such as the heads of tests and trace, diagnostic test procurers and vaccine delivery. The next step is full transparency about decision making systems, processes and knowing who is accountable for what.” Abbasi added that clear, open and advance publication of the scientific basis of policy, procurements and wonder drugs is a fundamental requirement.
Joining the debate initiated by Abbasi, Dr. Eshani M. King (of Evidence Based Research in Immunology and Health, Gloucestershire, UK ) went a step further to demand a system in which scientific advice is truly free of powerful narrow interests with a narrow selfish motive. Dr. King wrote ( BMJ , November 17), “ It seems that only the extrication of science from industry by introduction of independent sources of funding for scientific research institutions, perhaps by levying a brand new tax on industry, will allow the nation’s best scientists and independent voices and put an end to the suppression of good science, together with the mistrust and conflict it generates.”
Theodore F. Schrecker, Professor of Global Health Policy was another senior participant in the debate generated by the BMJ editorial. In his response he criticized the Covid response in the strongest terms and then used even stronger words for the wider system which makes this possible. He wrote, “ What a pity that our illegal institutions offer (only) few defenses against the malfeasances of what is in essence an elective monarchy.”
Such concerns expressed by many citizens groups, eminent experts and senior, experienced health personnel testify to the need for greater transparency and accountability even in developed countries with relatively better systems for debating the various technical and scientific aspects of Covid response. Clearly the need for such transparency is even higher in developing countries which were known to have very high levels of corruption in the health systems as well in the wider political economic and political systems much before the advent of Covid-19. India too is obviously one such country . Hence the need for transparency in Covid response here is very high. At the same time India is known to have a strong base of transparency activism which grew and gathered strength with the Right to Information movement and legislation in India. At least the law-established infrastructure of RTI commissions exists all over the country, even though these have been less strong and active in recent times. Hence India has the base strength of trying to ensure better transparency and accountability in Covid response , a task of critical importance in present times which should be taken forward on the basis of urgency.
The writer is an independent journalist, author and former co-ordinator of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. He has written several books and booklets on RTI.