Mandatory coronavirus screening at airport arrivals from high-risk areas in China
Mandatory coronavirus screening at airport arrivals from high-risk areas in China

Dust has not settled and complete data is still not in but some trends are taking shape. It has to be said that these are early trends and there is a lot of water still to flow under the proverbial bridge. But the global experience of the last nearly four months with this novel coronavirus have definitely raised some questions of global governance and governance structures. We have come to realize, again, that these questions are important as they may affect our chances of survival.

Now, the first issue is what happened in China in general terms? Barring some arbitrary claims or conspiracy theories here and there, there is a general consensus that this novel coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China. Genesis and growth of this pandemic and Chinese response can be visualized in two phases. The first phase comprises outbreak of virus, its detection and yes, the attempts at ‘cover-up’. This phase roughly starts somewhere in late November, early December, 2019 and goes on till late January, early February, 2020. The second phase is continuing since then.

The first phase is marked by delay in acknowledging the threat and taking timely remedial action. It also comprises likely suppression of scientific evidence on the nature of the threat. In the first phase Communist Party of China did a shoddy job. It allowed people to travel domestically and internationally from Wuhan. It appears it was more worried about tourism, trade and share market than likely impact the contagion may have globally. There are some definite individually brilliant and courageous efforts by average Chinese citizens like that of Doctor Li Wenliang. He came out with dire warnings about the virus in December, 2019 itself but was hauled-up, prosecuted and forced to retract by the authorities for stating the truth. Tragically and ironically he died of coronavirus infection only. The time lost in this cover-up and saving-face has been very costly for everybody since. Expectedly, individually brilliant efforts cannot possibly cover for a systemic failure.

In the second phase China was required to control and contain the spread of the pandemic. Going by Chinese official numbers only in absence of free press, China has done a much better job in second half. Whole cities were put under strict curfew, make-shift hospitals were erected in record time and quarantine was strictly enforced leading to control in spread of this pandemic as of now. China appears to be easing some domestic restrictions imposed in the wake of this pandemic. As they claim to have some excess capacity in men and material now, China has also offered it to the outside world in tackling this pandemic. This second phase is also marked by massive surge in Public Relations and propaganda exercise through which powers-that-be in China want everybody, Chinese citizens included, to forget about their bungling of the crisis in the first phase and only remember their efficiency in controlling the full blown pandemic. The second phase of the pandemic is still going on and we cannot write a definite review as of now.

Now, a question arises that did this just happen in China or is there any pattern worth considering? Let’s accept in all fairness that viruses can originate anywhere. But the delay in freely accepting the scientific evidence, honestly reporting the evidence to the outside world and to your own citizens, shooting the messenger (like Dr Li Wenliang ); all are characteristics of an authoritarian regime with a top-down power structure. But again, this authoritarian power structure with its emphasis on community well-being as compared to individual rights, is good at enforcing curfews and quarantines and making hospitals in record time, thereby ultimately controlling the pandemic. In the midst of all the Chinese PR exercise and their genuine achievements, what we have to remember is that China cannot reassure the world that it will not suppress information detrimental to others in future. The reason for the same is that it is the design characteristic of a top-down authoritarian regime. Its strength is also its cardinal design flaw.

Now, other question to be considered is what went wrong in Europe and the USA? Some of the factors for high mortality and high spread of this virus have been cited as big increase in the baseline numbers before the extent of the pandemic was recognized in countries like Italy. Apart from such technical details, one glaring issue has been the initial tentativeness shown by the authorities in enforcing lockdowns. Freedom of movement being one of the fundamental liberties is not easy to curtail in western liberal democracies. Another reason may be under-estimation of the threat due to higher technological and social capability. Again one important reason for the lack of adequate social and political response may be very strong ideological emphasis on individual rights. This strong emphasis on individual rights and idea of ‘limited government’ has evolved through Europe’s long struggle against absolute monarchies and dictatorships. So far, post second world war, this slight distrust of government and treating individual rights as sacrosanct has kept large parts of western hemisphere in good stead. But again, this ideological strength of western democracies appears to be a weakness when dealing with an equal opportunity killer virus.

So, this begets a question? Is there a third way? Examples of South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore are relevant. These countries are close to mainland China and they had significant travel exposure to this virus. Still in some cases like Taiwan the pandemic did not spread much or in other cases pandemic was properly managed leading to significant reduction in loss of life. This relative success was achieved through technical inputs like rigorous testing; and curtailment of civil liberties like restriction on free movement and enforcement of lockdowns. The degree of acceptance of individual restrictions for the common good of the community also appears to be high and based on general consent. These countries are representative democracies with open press, so they also do not suffer the handicap of restricted flow of information as in China. Again these countries made a bargain for greater good of the community and more easily accepted curtailment of individual freedoms as compared to say, Italy or the USA. So this model appears to have its strengths in solving the problems of our globalized inter-connected world. The only limitation these examples have is that, unlike the rest of the developing world, these countries have generally high per capita income and high Human Development Index. They also have their unique cultural backgrounds, which, to an extent limits their usage as universal example.

At last we consider our experience in India. As on date of writing this piece official figure of infected persons is just above 1000, which may be seen as relatively low for our population. One critique of this low number is that we are testing way less. But the counter argument is that we are still not in stage-3, community spread (at least fully) of the pandemic and random testing may not be very useful. It has to be said that we tried to quarantine people coming back from the high-risk countries early and also public awareness for our size is high. More significantly India has decided for a national lockdown of 21 days to limit the pandemic in stage-2 only. This decision must have been taken keeping India’s population and health care infrastructure in mind. By and large general public is cooperating with the government in enforcing this lockdown. The magnitude of this decision may be understood when we consider the fact that large part of our labour force is still in informal sector and we are still a poor country. We also have a vibrant political opposition, free press and judiciary. So, if we can pull it off and control the pandemic, we would have shown that democracy and free press help in flow of information leading to enforcing public accountability, at an early stage of pandemic. We would have also shown that if there is public trust in the government, a general consensus can be achieved for even very painful decisions for achieving greater common good, even at the cost of curtailing individual freedoms to a degree.

If world is an inter-connected global village, then the spread of this virus has shown that poor governance any where is a threat everywhere. At appropriate time we all will have to exchange and compare notes and see what works and what does not. And when we do that our experience in India with this pandemic will weigh a lot. So you see, our success or failure in dealing with this is crucial for global governance.

The author is an IRS officer pursuing his master's in public policy from the University of Manchester

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