COVID-19: As risk of cover-up increases, transparency matters more than ever

During crises like the outbreak of a deadly virus, the risk of cover-up and corruption in healthcare is exacerbated by dramatically increased pressure on the system.

During crises like the outbreak of a deadly virus, the risk of cover-up and corruption in healthcare is exacerbated by dramatically increased pressure on the system.  However, it must be remembered that the sole aim of any healthcare system is to save lives and there is no excuse for officials to engage in any other agenda.  Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade, reports

The COVID-19 pandemic demands swift global action as well as transparency.  In order to be trusted so that people will follow health advisory, governments need to be open, honest and transparent.  They have to demonstrate competence, and need to show they actually care about the people they are supposed to serve.  

Being transparent and putting out clear, accurate information are important to allay people’s fears and calm the markets amid the outbreak.  When they can be sure they are getting accurate information and advice, they will have no reason to panic.

At the time of writing, the virus has spread to 200 countries, over one million people have been infected and tens of thousand have died.  A growing number of countries have imposed lockdowns while others limit socializing, restrict travel, and close schools, offices, and recreational spaces.  Disruption, uncertainty and distraction contribute to an environment in which corrupt actors can take advantage of the crisis for their own benefit. 

It is essential that transparency, openness and integrity are maintained and extended across the healthcare sector.  Corruption often thrives during times of crisis, particularly when institutions and oversight are weak, and public trust is low.  

Transparency International, the global coalition against corruption, has recommended several critical anti-corruption measures, including the open publication of research into vaccines and treatments, the protection of whistleblowers in health systems and ensuring equal access to life-saving treatment. 

According to Natalie Rhodes, Transparency International, there are concerns that health professionals are being muzzled on speaking out about the realities of COVID-19.  For example, the Chinese government silenced whistle-blower Dr Li Wenliang’s early warnings and in the US, vice president Mike Pence announced he will be controlling all messaging on COVID-19 from health officials.  

Cover-ups underpin low levels of trust in governments, consequently weakening the impact of government-led health interventions.  Therefore, it is crucial that governments behave in an open and transparent manner in order to maintain trust from their citizens.

Also, it does not help the situation that president Donald Trump is peddling false information in an obvious attempt to gain political points.  He has contradicted government scientists to downplay the threat, suggested the imminent availability of a vaccine and, in his televised Oval Office speech, delivered inaccurate policy pronouncements, among others.

According to Rhodes, COVID-19 is affecting manufacturing processes.  Drug manufacturers in China, India and other countries are scaling back production of prescription medicines, including antibiotics, as well as key ingredients for other drugs.  And yet, despite the shortages of these important medicines, the US Food and Drug Administration stated that they will not release the drug names and claimed this is confidential commercial information.  

This lack of transparency is particularly frustrating for doctors and patients who rely on these critical medicines.  Also, without transparent information about which drugs may experience shortages, health systems have no way of preparing other solutions, such as finding alternative manufacturers.  In times of crisis, rather than protecting corporate interests, governments should make drug shortage information publicly available.

Rhodes added that there should be more transparency of clinical trial data.  The development of COVID-19 medicines and vaccines is critical, as is the publication of results from clinical trials to show what is effective, and equally important, what is not, so that researchers can learn from existing studies and not lose time chasing scientific dead ends.  

The development of drugs and a vaccine should be a transparent and collaborative effort, not a secret competition between private companies or even national governments.

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