The coronavirus challenge: How have states and leaders fared so far?

April 10, 2020 1:51 PM

Having originated in the city of Wuhan in China last November, the epicentre of the virus moved to Europe within a couple of months.

coronavirus, coronavirus death, public health crisis, Wuhan, china, coronavirus test, SARS, European Union,latest news on coronavirus pandemicUnfortunately, as the coronavirus spreads its tentacles, the xenophobic narrative prevalent in many parts of the world is likely to be exacerbated. (Reuters photo)

By Bappaditya Mukherjee ,Rajan Kumar

As coronavirus cases continue to soar, political leaders across the world are under enormous pressure to contain the mind-boggling human toll of this public health crisis. Irrespective of the future course of action taken by India and other countries, the pandemic will present one of the toughest tests of state capacity and leadership since World War II. Based on the evidence of the policy responses of some countries, we can make some preliminary observations on the relative efficacy of different strategies and styles of leadership.

Having originated in the city of Wuhan in China last November, the epicentre of the virus moved to Europe within a couple of months. With very few exceptions, the entire world is now being seriously impacted by this virus. In some of the richest nations in the world, the rate of infections and casualties is going from bad to worse. Many of these countries, most notably the US, are very reluctant to impose a total lockdown, fearing the associated economic downfall. Their dithering has contributed to the rapid spread of infection amongst their population, bringing their much-vaunted public health systems to the brink of collapse.

In contrast, a strict lockdown seems to have stemmed the contagion in China. This has convinced developing countries like India to emulate China’s lockdown strategy as far as feasible, given local realities. Despite the economic and social dislocation that this has triggered, a lockdown and restriction on social gatherings seems to be the best available policy for breaking the chain of transmission of the coronavirus.

The Chinese leaders were the first to face the coronavirus test. Initially, complacency mixed with paranoia marked the response of the local authorities when the first batch of suspected cases began to appear in Wuhan in the last week of November. Having successfully contained the SARS outbreak in 2002, the Chinese state machinery became complacent, and its focus turned towards preventing public disruption in the affected areas. As the number of infections started to rise, local officials withheld information from the public and reprimanded health practitioners, such as Dr Li Wenliang, who raised the alarm.

It was not until December 31 that the Chinese government made the official notification of the outbreak to the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN agency that specializes in international public health. The number of infections kept mounting, and the casualties reached the low thousands by the middle of January. Chinese authorities were forced to institute a complete lockdown in Wuhan and fifteen other cities in Hubei province. Chinese Premier Xi Jinping had to step in to lead the emergency response as he recognized that this outbreak could quickly turn into an unmanageable domestic political crisis. Under the direction of the central leadership, various arms of the Chinese state rapidly escalated investment in temporary infrastructure for the coronavirus afflicted, allocated medical supplies and mobilized additional health workers. Two weeks ago, the government claimed that no new cases of coronavirus were being reported inside China. Although many in the international community remain sceptical of the veracity of the information coming from official Chinese sources, it appears that the outbreak has subsided in China’s worst-affected regions. The characteristic preference for opaqueness in Chinese officialdom, however, has come under severe criticism across the globe.

Unfortunately, as the coronavirus spreads its tentacles, the xenophobic narrative prevalent in many parts of the world is likely to be exacerbated. However, the rest of the international community must guard against lapsing into lazy xenophobia targeting Chinese cultural and culinary practices. The fact is that a deadly virus can originate in a variety of habitats and environments. Unless there is some evidence of wilful malpractice.. targeting individual governments like China for this phenomenon will set a dangerous precedent.

However, the Chinese leaders could have been more proactive in alerting other countries regarding the contagiousness and lethality of the virus. China’s decision to limit the access granted to experts from the WHO illustrates this problem. China may have been trying to safeguard its sovereignty, but in the process, the world lost valuable time to prepare itself for the coming onslaught.

Faced with growing international opprobrium, Premier Xi Jinping and other officials have had to devote considerable energy in protecting China’s image and contain the disruptive impact of the virus on Chinese trade and commerce. In the process, some government officials accused the US military of bringing the virus into Wuhan.

As the virus spread from China, Iran and Italy was among the first batch of countries to suffer. Not surprisingly, these governments were caught completely flat-footed. The staggering rate of infection and death toll in Italy revealed the vulnerability of the European Union (EU) as a coherent actor. Instead of coming to the rescue of Italy, other members of the EU shored up their own preparedness to combat the virus. Germany and the Netherlands rejected the proposal from Italy, Spain, Portugal and France to issue joint ‘corona-bonds’ as an economic stimulus. Fortunately for Italy and other countries struggling to cope with this crisis, China has mounted a massive global effort to supply ventilators, masks, protective dresses and coronavirus testing kits. This is seen as an attempt to restore credibility and build its image as a responsible member of the international community.

In the US, the first formal notification from the Chinese government came on January 3. But the reports of imminent danger were derided by the President’s political and media allies as equivalent to common flu that will run its course. This complacency and arrogance have cost the US dearly. The virus continued to spread silently, and the US has become the new hub of this pandemic. The number of cases reached nearly 40 per cent of all the global cases put together to date.

There was an inordinate delay in distributing testing kits across the US that led to undercounting of the scale of local transmission until the first week of March. Having lost two crucial months, President Trump wasted invaluable time and opportunity to contain the virus from the deadly transmission. As the crisis in the US became acute over the past month, Trump has struggled to fashion a coherent response. His contestation of uncomfortable facts as fake news and distrust of scientists and experts in making a bad situation worse. He and his Vice President Pence has unsuccessfully tried to shift blame and solidify their nativist base in an election year by accusing China with monikers like “Chinese virus” and Wuhan virus”.

There is growing evidence that the relationship of the Trump White House with the rest of the executive branch critical to coronavirus response has been dysfunctional for the last two months. These include the Health and Human Services (HHS) that oversees the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). For several weeks, Trump ignored officials like HHS Secretary Alex Azar, who was in favour of instituting strict restrictions on human mobility and contact. In an election year, Trump has been extremely sensitive to the prospect of an economic contraction brought about by a policy of social restriction.

Trump is unable to forge a domestic consensus needed to fight this pandemic. His preference for polarizing rhetoric and impulsive policies has kept American society divided and lowered his trustworthiness. This presents an insurmountable challenge for him going forward. Trump’s America First policies impose similar constraints at the international level. The US has retreated to a “go it alone” stance in responding to the pandemic. This is a disastrous development given the transborder nature of this problem. It also does not help that over the course of the Trump administration, a deep well of resentment has developed between the US and its traditional allies in Europe and Asia.

The prospect of international cooperation in combating this pandemic will be severely damaged if states are unable to figure out an efficient way to share, access and exchange medical resources with each other. In a worrying sign, interstate tensions are beginning to surface. Recently, German officials accused the US of ‘face mask piracy’ when the medical gear ordered from China for the Berlin police were confiscated in Bangkok and diverted to the US. The US is facing similar accusations from French officials as well. It has also been reported that the US has pressurized India to release antimalarial hydroxychloroquine drugs used to treat severely ill COVID 19 patients.

In India, the coronavirus entered due to International travel from Europe, the Gulf countries, and SouthEast Asia. Fortunately, Indian policymakers got sufficient lead time to observe the public health responses of their counterparts in a number of badly affected countries including China, South Korea, Italy, Iran and the US. With its inadequate public health infrastructure and paucity of protective gear for medical personnel, it was impossible to do extensive testing for suspected positive cases of the infection. As targeted lockdowns were ruled out as ineffective, the policy consensus evolved in favour of a national lockdown. Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the declaration in a televised broadcast on 24 March.

While the policy was sound, the sudden announcement of a universal lockdown laid bare India’s socio-economic cleavages. In one fell swoop, the vast underclass of India’s urban centres were deprived of their livelihood. While the salaried and self-employed middle class could withstand this disruption with the help of their extended families and personal savings, the lockdown imposed instant hardship on the daily wage-earning working class. In the absence of any meaningful social support in their moment of distress, a vast number of migrant workers in the cities panicked. This resulted in a mass exodus from the cities to rural communities. This massive internal displacement has exacerbated the fear of community transmission to rural India. The full extent of the damage will only be fully known in the next few weeks.

The Indian government should have anticipated the consequences of the sudden withdrawal of livelihood on the working poor. Given the low level of public trust in the state among the citizenry, it was essential to generate consent for the policy among the most vulnerable sections of the population. At a minimum, some welfare measures for the migrant workers prior to the lockdown may have reduced the scale of the migration problem. The reaction of the urban underclass was completely understandable. Absent any means of sustenance, they were left with no choice but to defy the lockdown and try to get back to their rural communities.

Based on this experience, lifting and easing the lockdown in the coming weeks will be the next big challenge for Indian authorities. Thankfully, the spread of the virus is not uniform all over the country, and different places are at different stages of virus transmission. It appears that the Modi government is veering towards empowering the state and local governments to contain the spread. If India can pull this off, it will be an extraordinary feat of cooperative federalism in a contentious multi-party system.

To sum up, the experience of a host of countries battling this virus suggests that an early lockdown was the most effective policy. As leaders worldwide struggle to juggle competing priorities, this strategy has been incredibly difficult to implement to the extent that is required. In populous, democratic societies like India a lengthy universal lockdown strategy will soon have to be abandoned in favour of targeted restrictions. A lesson that leaders across various political systems would have to re-learn is that in times of national emergency, voluntary consent of citizens is far more sustainable than coercion. Although this crisis seems to be reinforcing the functions of the nation-state, the scale of this problem is such that traditional conceptions of territoriality and sovereignty have to be replaced with the conception of a global community. The more states and leaders are unable to coordinate their actions, the lower their chances in meeting this collective challenge to humanity.

(Bappaditya Mukherjee holds a doctorate in international relations from the University of Maryland in the US and has previously taught International Relations at the State University of New York, Geneseo.

Rajan Kumar teaches in the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Views expressed are personal.)

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