As coronavirus cases cross six hundred thousand worldwide (latest data from Johns Hopkins University pegs the figure till Saturday afternoon at 601,478), the World Health Organisation (WHO) made a poignant observation this week. During a recent news briefing, WHO executive director Mike Ryan said India must lead the fight against the pandemic because its status as one of the world’s largest and densely populated countries places on it a huge responsibility to shape the human battle against the novel coronavirus.
WHO has so far been congratulatory of India’s tactics and strategy, calling it “robust”, applauding its past records of eradicating through targeted public intervention two “silent killers” in polio and smallpox, and approving of the billion-strong nation’s stringent lockdown measures and suspension of transport services to be of an “unprecedented scale” and reflective of India’s “resolve to prevent the spread of the pandemic".
Yet, for all of WHO’s focus and stress on India as the final frontier of humanity’s battle against the virulent virus, there is insufficient understanding of what is truly at stake as India gears up to tackle the pandemic (Saturday’s figures show there are 873 active cases in India along with 19 deaths and 78 cured). Not just the spread of a virus, India is also fighting a moral and sociopolitical battle because the coronavirus pandemic is as much a global public health crisis as an ideological clash against an amoral, unscrupulous superpower.
China’s role as the source of the public health crisis, its obfuscation, data suppression and lies that led to the pandemic, its weaponising of clout in global supply chains over critical medical equipment to further its geopolitical agenda and its rising influence even as US falters in response, bring us to the brink of a world order shaped increasingly by “Beijing’s irresponsible hegemony”.
As ORF president Samir Saran writes, “China delayed notifying the WHO and in permitting it to inspect the situation in Wuhan, released vital genetic information to the international community a full week after it was isolated; and allowed millions of individuals from Wuhan to leave the city unscreened, many of whom then travelled the world. Countries which received much of that traffic are now grappling with more deaths than they can handle.”
As the largest, most chaotic democracy in the world, whose every move is under scrutiny both at home and abroad, where public policies made in Parliament are open to challenge in judiciary, where implementation is done largely through persuasion, not coercion, India’s fight against the virus assumes a different dimension. If India succeeds in this battle, it will show to the world that a chaotic democracy can fight and survive a grim public health emergency without needing to intimidate and bully its citizens, weld shut their doors or cut deep trenches on roads to stop traffic.
India’s leadership in the crisis — so far it has shown itself to be up to the task — will chart a new course in human history and show to the world that democracy isn’t a fanciful political system for only the rich nations. It isn’t at odds with developing economies, and it is not necessary to trade liberty and freedom for safety and prosperity of citizens. As the developed world and the world’s incumbent superpower bungle its response to coronavirus, the imperfect, rambunctious and seemingly unworkable democracy of India is acting as the bulwark against a rising tide of authoritarianism and retreat of democracy.
China knows this and be it during the Doklam standoff or the current crisis, it has tried to build a narrative as the superior force powered by a more efficient and organised political system.
— Tanvi Madan (@tanvi_madan) March 24, 2020
Beneath China’s superiority complex (as with such conditions, in general) lies an insecurity that if India manages to flatten the viral curve and avoid an apocalypse, Beijing’s authoritarian model will lose its appeal, and that may lead to internal questions about the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party that compels obedience from people on the assumption that democracy is a faulty system. India’s success, in other words, may mean China’s failure. And Beijing is aware of this dialectic.
As former foreign secretary and an old China hand Vijay Gokhale writes, “The Chinese public, from time to time, disparages or mocks our democracy. When they do so, it is from fear. The fear that if democratic India can deliver, the rule of the Communist Party can be challenged. India, not western democracies, is the real existential threat.”
Gokhale calls India’s response so far as “comprehensive and leader-driven”. It is hard to argue otherwise, notwithstanding the coverage of western media, which seems unable to tide over its ideological bias against India’s ruling dispensation in its comments or reports.
For instance, The Atlantic calls India’s response “too late”, draconian and ineffective and falls into the familiar trope of a “Hindu nationalist government” making life miserable for Muslims. In reality, India has taken consistently proactive steps to help limit the spread of the virus, with the consequence that India’s active COVID-19 cases (according to Johns Hopkins University, an independent data tracker) stands at 906 (confirmed), with 803 active cases, 83 recoveries and 20 deaths. According to official figures released by India’s health ministry, India has 873 active cases, 79 recoveries and 19 deaths.
More importantly, it is impossible for a government in a democracy to suppress, deny or hide data the way China had done at the height of its war against the pandemic (read about China’s lies here). It stands to reason, therefore, that India has so far been able to delay its transition from stage 2 to stage 3 (where local transmissions and community outbreaks take place). The Indian government holds, in concurrence with top ICMR scientist Raman R Gangakhedkar, that there’s isn’t enough evidence to support the claim that India has reached stage 3.
While the country’s battle-readiness will be tested when that stage eventually arrives, it should be acknowledged that in delaying this transition India has so far done reasonably well, given the creaky state of its public healthcare system. This is no small an achievement and it has been made possible due to clear-headed leadership and an ability to take bold decisions early.
The first positive case was announced on 30 January and by early February India started airlifting its nationals and some citizens of other countries out of Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak. India announced suspension of all visas (except diplomatic and employment/project visas) by 12 March and hold in abeyance visa-free travel for OCI card holders.
Within the next few days, India extended its ban on arriving international passengers, preventing even Indian passport holders residing in the United Kingdom, Turkey and whole of Europe to arrive in India till the end of March. This was clearly a far-sighted move, considering the fact that Europe’s emergence as the pandemic’s new epicenter was still a few days away.
This proactiveness was witnessed throughout, with India banning all international flights to India from 22 March to 29 March and later extending that ban till mid-April. Next to be banned were all domestic flights and then New Delhi shut all rail and road travel for a comprehensive travel restriction.
Eventually, this was followed by a 21-day lockdown starting Wednesday, the audacity of which stunned international observers.
Still digesting the scale of India's nationwide lockdown. Largest quarantine in human history (1.3bn people) and a massive live experiment. India has just 519 infections.
— Edward Luce (@EdwardGLuce) March 24, 2020
Mainstream western media has also found it difficult to come to terms with the fact that while the world’s superpower was taking it easy and Europe was dithering from taking tough steps on travel and lifestyle habits, India had been busy educating its masses on the dangers of the pandemic.
Recounting her experience of travelling to India for 11 days during the early onset of outbreak, a US-based correspondent writes, “I found it striking that the country of more than 1 billion people, which has not yet seen the scale of COVID-19 that the US is experiencing, seemed to be doing far more to monitor its citizens and educate people about the risk of the virus and ways to protect against it.” She also wrote about her experience after returning to the US and found it to be lacking in urgency.
The US, incidentally, is now leading the world in coronavirus cases. According to a study by Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington’s School of Medicine as many as 2,300 patients could be dying in the US every day by April. Washington has imposed a lockdown, but many feel that the Donald Trump administration was late in taking the decision.
This brings to light a little-discussed truth in western media circles. India lacks infrastructure and a robust public health welfare system, and perhaps it is this reality that compelled Indian authorities to strike hard and early to minimise the impact. This isn’t a moment to celebrate or relax, however. Because a grimmer battle lies ahead.
Updated Date: Mar 29, 2020 17:51:06 IST