Behind the scenes: Reporters who exposed Europe's COVID-19 spending

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The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) is connecting journalists with health experts and newsroom leaders through a webinar series on COVID-19. The series is part of our ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum — a project with our International Journalists’ Network (IJNet).

For many businesses, the novel coronavirus pandemic has been devastating. For some, however, the global health crisis presented an opportunity to make major profit. Since the severity of the virus became clear in early 2020, federal and local governments have spent millions of dollars purchasing items like personal protective equipment. 

Reporters Adriana Homolova and Dada Lyndell decided to track how the funds that European governments have dedicated to combating COVID-19 have been spent. They published their findings last month in an investigative report with Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), titled Europe's COVID-19 Spending Spree Unmasked.

In an ICFJ Global Health Crisis Reporting Forum webinar, Homolova and Lyndell sat down with ICFJ Director of Community Engagement Stella Roque to discuss the investigation’s findings and the state of data journalism today. They were joined by data journalist Rui Barros, who collaborated on the reporting. 

“In this story, we collected data from 36 countries and looked at their COVID-19 procurements. What we found was very different per country,” said Homolova. “Countries such as Portugal, Lithuania and Poland were publishing special overviews of the tenders, but in some of the countries in Europe there was virtually no data.”

From the data they were able to collect, Homolova and her team identified a variety of story angles to pursue, including transparency, variation in resource distribution across borders, and lack of competition in the market to purchase protective equipment.

“Normally, the government would go in a market and they would say, ‘We need this product,’ and then companies would come in and start competing for the government contracts, because these are quite huge contracts. Now, with the pandemic, the situation was reversed,” explained Homolova. “Companies had products like masks, and the government came in to compete for this product. This created a very weird dynamic in the market. We could see in the data [that] there were contracts going for millions of euros, without any competition, just directly ordered to one party.”

Barros said that when analyzing the data, reporters did not just focus on contracts with large companies. Some smaller companies have thrived in recent months, as well.

“Of course the big contracts are important, but there are important smallish or medium-sized contracts, too,” said Barros. “Actually, the company that got the third-most money was not a big group. They used to be a merchandising company, and they basically turned the business to masks and tests, because they had really good contacts in China.” 

Gaining access to data for the reporting was a consistent challenge during the investigation. While data was readily accessible in Portugal, for instance, this wasn’t the case in other countries. “What our media partners encountered in many countries is that FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] was suspended. So, even if you ask for the data they would not give it,” said Homolova.  "At the time, they said ‘This is an emergency situation,’ which it was, because nobody was really prepared. Now, I'm not sure if that still applies.”

There were no private databases to turn to in cases where information was not publicly available. Much of this data was considered sensitive and could affect future government negotiations, according to Homolova. 

[View past webinars and key quotes]

Among the reporters' findings were large sums of money spent to acquire medicines that were ineffective in fighting the virus. 

“We had a huge list of medicines that were bought, as [the Russian government said], due to COVID, and actually those medicines were really strange,” said Lyndell. “Our minister of health published guidelines for doctors on how to treat COVID, and they had many medicines that didn't have any proof that they actually work against [the virus]. All the hospitals started buying a lot of the medicines; they spent millions of euros on these medicines.”

With the data they were able to track down, the reporters created a series of interactive graphics tracking countries’ spending, who their suppliers are, and the array of contracts created in response to the pandemic. 

Homolova, Lyndell and Barros urged fellow reporters to explore other potential story angles within the data they analyzed, and to dig into data from other countries, too. 

“I'm sure we did not do all the stories that are possible to make with this data,” said Homolova. “So please, have a look at it and if you need any help [or] if you didn't understand, get in touch with us and we are here to help.”

 

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