Coronavirus pandemic also a clash between authoritarian and democratic models where China and India present two test cases

The speedy and transparent dissemination of information is critical in battling a pandemic, and India has so far shown alacrity in taking proactive steps and augmenting healthcare.

Sreemoy Talukdar March 13, 2020 08:43:18 IST
Coronavirus pandemic also a clash between authoritarian and democratic models where China and India present two test cases
  • The speedy and transparent dissemination of information is critical in battling a pandemic, and India has so far shown alacrity in taking proactive steps and augmenting healthcare.

  • The billion-plus population of India imposes stiffer challenges in prevention, detention and caregiving, but it has so far shown nimbleness and proactive attitude.

  • Up until now, New Delhi has airlifted 766 people — including 36 nationals from the US, Bangladesh, Myanmar — through three special flights out of China.

The coronavirus outbreak is not only a pestilence of pandemic proportions that has endangered millions and crashed the global economy, but it has also become a geopolitical football between the world’s superpower and its challenger. It has also brought into sharp focus the difference in approach of autocracies and democracies when faced with an existential threat.

Take, for instance, British think-tanker Jim O’Neill, the chair of Chatham House and former Goldman Sachs chief economist. Speaking at a CNBC programme on Wednesday, O’Neill, remarked: “Thank God this didn’t start in somewhere like India, because there’s absolutely no way that the quality of Indian governance could move to react in the way that the Chinese have done.”

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A woman wears a mask to mitigate the spread of coronavirus , at Red Fort in New Delhi, Thursday, 12 March, 2020. PTI

It is tempting to dismiss O’Neill’s comments as that of a corporate kingpin contemptuous of a slow-moving democracy and in awe of an authoritarian political system. However, we may miss the larger point here that O’Neill unwittingly makes — autocracies have control over the narrative, and they are quite nimble on their feet during a crisis, but the same system that imposes stiff social controls to achieve an objective also suppresses information and obfuscates to appear in control. And that, as the world (including China) is now discovering, involves a heavy trade-off.

Well may Beijing appear in control now of the deadly coronavirus , but it is worth keeping in mind that had it not been for its secretive ways, lack of transparency and initial missteps in mitigating the crisis, the world wouldn’t be fighting a pandemic. It wasn’t China’s fault that it was the source and epicentre of the virus, but it is guilty of a deadly crime.

In the initial stages of the outbreak when timely action could have mitigated and contained it, Beijing lied to its people, bullied the whistleblowers, suppressed and fudged data and downplayed the extent of the spread leading to COVID-19 becoming one of the deadliest pandemics known to man with well over a million affected worldwide already, thousand dead and we may not have yet scratched the surface.

The world knows about coronavirus whistleblower Li Wenliang who died from the virus after getting reprimanded and censured for spreading awareness about the deadly disease, but there’s also Ai Fen, director of the emergency at Wuhan Central hospital (the place to treat first patients of the outbreak) who told a Chinese magazine during an interview that the state bullied doctors to hide the truth.

“If I had known what was to happen, I would not have cared about the reprimand. I would have fucking talked about it to whoever, where ever I could,” she was quoted, as saying in the interview.

In contrast, bumbling, chaotic democracies such as India have transparency, and this transparency leads to a social contract between the administration and its people underwritten by trust — the most precious commodity in battling a fast, sweeping pandemic. But it’s not just a difference of approach. No one has probably broken it to O’Neill who seems to be carrying still the colonial burden, democracies can be efficient too. And a lot more responsible.

We may cite the example of South Korea, Taiwan or Singapore whose handling of the virus deserves praise but since O’Neill mentioned India, let’s see how New Delhi has gone about tackling the crisis. It may surprise the Chatham House chair to know that India has remained ahead of the curve till now in coping with COVID-19 . It evacuated hundreds of its citizens from locked-down areas in China and Iran.

Up until now, New Delhi has airlifted 766 people — including 36 nationals from the US, Bangladesh, Myanmar — through three special flights out of China. They were placed into a quarantine facility set up by the ITBP. India has also brought back 124 stranded nationals from a cruise quarantined off the Japanese coast. On Tuesday, Indian Air Force’s C-17 Globemaster evacuated 58 Indian nationals from virus-hit Iran. India has imposed unprecedented air restrictions for foreign travellers and suspended most visas to self-quarantine itself from the world.

In response to China’s request at the height of the crisis, India also sent via an IAF special flight 15 tons of medical assistance comprising masks, gloves and other emergency medical equipment on 26 February.

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India’s drastic imposition of travel limits has been accompanied by quarantine facilities within the border and an uptick of healthcare facilities. Tough measures have been implemented both at the central and state level to screen, identify and isolate those who are suspected to be suffering from the virus, upgrade testing facilities around the country and contact trace those who have tested positive.

Even though the number of positive coronavirus infections stands at 74 (among which 17 are foreign nationals) according to latest figures by Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, some Indian states such as Kerala have imposed lockdown measures while Delhi government has shut down schools, colleges and cinema halls till 31 March. On Wednesday, India also confirmed its first case of coronavirus -related death.

The speedy and transparent dissemination of information is critical in battling a pandemic, and India has so far shown alacrity in taking proactive steps and augmenting healthcare. O’Neill’s unkind jibe painted India as an inefficient laggard in healthcare, but he overlooks the fact that none of the deadly pandemics to have swept the world had originated in India.

The one that did, Nipah virus in 2018, was immediately identified, reported and data shared with World Health Organisation. The timely intervention restricted number of deaths to 17.

India’s billion-plus population imposes stiffer challenges in prevention, detention and caregiving, but it has so far shown nimbleness and proactive attitude. In contrast, China has tried to stay on top of the narrative, not the virus (at least in the initial stages).

O’Neill’s comments were not without context, however. China’s turnaround from the depths of despair has been impressive and has been made possible due to two conditions that are unique to the Chinese. Its authoritarian political system and the collectivist attitude of its population. Despite being kept in the dark and lied to by the administration, Chinese people got over their initial stage of shock and rage and joined the government in cooperating with excruciatingly tough public health measures.

As scientist Nicholas A Christakis points out in the thread referred to above, Chinese people essentially became the tip of government’s spear in battling the disease borne out of collectivist culture and nationalist sentiment. This combination is difficult to reproduce elsewhere. In China’s case, the turnaround was impressive. A WHO fact-finding mission visited China at the peak of the epidemic to gauge the situation and came out with a report on 28 February.

The report, prepared by scientists, unequivocally states that “China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic… This decline in COVID-19 cases across China is real.”

The report further noted that “China has rolled out perhaps the most ambitious, agile, and aggressive disease containment effort in history.” The scale and efficacy of its response drew grudging admiration from the world and unbridled praise from WHO.

Yet it’s important to remember that the coronavirus outbreak turned deadly precisely because China tried to cover up the truth and ended up fanning a pandemic. As Washington Post notes in a report, “since January 20, China’s leadership has launched an unprecedented national campaign to contain the novel coronavirus . This enormously costly drive seems to be paying off, and reported new cases in China have dwindled. But China, along with the rest of the world, is paying a huge price for these initial delays.”

Notably, China has since been trying furiously to weave a tapestry of narratives — the latest of which is a claim that China wasn’t the source of the virus, Chinese Communist Party leadership has shown the world how to tackle a crisis.

These narratives are spurious. As scientists writing in New England Journal of Medicine have pointed out, genetic evidence and epidemiological information point to the fact that a bat-origin virus infecting unidentified animal species sold in China’s live-animal markets was likely responsible for the outbreak.

There’s a reason for China to float these narratives, however. Autocracies run on a construct of infallibility, and it is crucial for Xi Jinping to appear in control or else the social contract between the CCP and Chinese people — based on economic prosperity and well-being — will collapse. The attempt by Xi to appear as an omnipresent, omniscient leader arises from this need to maintain the contract. To quote Bill Bishop in Sinocism, “Victory in the people’s war over the virus may be the ‘wartime experience’ Xi has lacked to fully elevate him past Deng to at least equal standing with Mao Zedong. I will guess it will be the achievement that finally gets him the full ‘People’s Leader’ mantle.”

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