With the explosive spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) hospitals, healthcare providers and all citizens are finding a shortage of goods and services and employees are under increased pressure to preserve and excel in their current roles.
Unfortunately, in this time of crisis corruption is thriving and some aim to profit from others’ misfortune and push companies to the brink to maintain profits.
Around the world, countries are reporting shortages in both medicines and medical supplies due to COVID-19. All of these factors put additional strain on already fragile procurement processes and increases the risk that suppliers, knowing that government and individuals have little choice but to pay, demand higher prices.
In these challenging times having open and transparent contracting processes in place helps mitigate these risks. With nowhere to hide, corrupt actors are unable to practice price gouging and must charge governments and individuals reasonable prices.
The stockpiling of supplies such as masks, gloves, and hand sanitizers are also contributing to shortages in medical supplies. In attempts to profit from public panic, some traders have been inflating prices for ordinary consumers.
After pressure from the Department of Justice, Amazon has implemented an effort to remove tens of thousands of deals from merchants that it said attempted to price-gouge customers. The world’s largest online retailer has faced scrutiny over the health-related offers on its platform, and earlier this week, Italy launched a probe into surging prices around the internet for sanitizing gels and hygiene masks. At the same time, Italy battles the biggest outbreak in Europe.
There are lessons to be learned in health-sector Corruption elsewhere from prior epidemics such as Ebola and SARS where procurement and contracting wrongdoing led to deadly consequences. In prior epidemics, Corruption compromised containment efforts, when corrupt actors used petty bribes and other favors to avoid quarantines, roadblocks, and safe body collection procedures. Even ventilators and other medical oxygen-related equipment have been the subject of bribes and kickbacks, sometimes leading to the tragic deaths of patients. These examples demonstrate the worst case of what can happen without resilient anti-corruption policies.
In the first federal action against fraud involving the coronavirus outbreak, the DOJ obtained a temporary restraining order against a website selling a bogus vaccine.
The DOJ said Sunday, March 21st, that operators of the website “coronavirusmedicalkit.com” were engaging in an alleged wire fraud scheme to profit from the confusion and fear surrounding COVID-19.
The website claimed to offer customers access to the World Health Organization (WHO) vaccine kits in exchange for a shipping charge of $4.95. There are currently no legitimate COVID-19 vaccines, and the WHO is not distributing any such vaccine.
Besides compliance issues with third party business practices with goods and services, companies are experiencing enormous business pressure. Many companies have salespeople who cannot travel due to precautions taken, canceled flights, or, worse, quarantines. They cannot visit customers or partners, leading to slower sales. Global supply chains are disrupted, with shortages of parts and products. Company events and conferences are being canceled, resulting in fewer opportunities to build relationships with customers and market products. Customer demand for company products may be falling, and companies may be declining to make revenue projections during this time of uncertainty about the spread and effects of the coronavirus.
These disruptions can increase the pressure on salespeople to meet their sales targets. Salespeople may feel additional pressure now, when sales may be sluggish, and again when business gets back to normal, and they want to make up for the time lost. That pressure can lead some people to make the wrong choices—to engage in bribery or other misconduct—to generate business. Besides, the heightened emphasis on business priorities due to the losses from the coronavirus can push anti-corruption compliance further down on the priority list.
If/when the DOJ and SEC discover bribery or Corruption, they assuredly will not be accepting a “coronavirus defense” from companies. Compliance officers should be aware of situations like the coronavirus that could raise corruption risks and try to guard against them. Compliance officers should refer explicitly to the disruption caused by the coronavirus and emphasize that the company is committed to complying with anti-corruption laws. The communications must be to the employees who need to see them, such as salespeople who interact with customers, or “gatekeeper” functions like finance who review financial transactions.
Most importantly, senior executives and the board, if appropriate, need to make sure that the business pressures resulting from the coronavirus do not overshadow the company’s commitment to compliance and that values and ethics are maintained.