Wearing of masks by Biden and Harris hopefully signals social reform starting from the top
The rule is applicable to all, even though the person is a resident of Bengaluru.
By Kala S Sridhar & Vishal R
The US is gearing up to identify various strains of the virus to control the pandemic. With the new Joe Biden administration, there is hope and expectation at the beginning of the new decade. Biden, during his first call with Prime Minister Narendra Modi a few days after taking over as President, underscored the need to protect democratic institutions and norms around the world.
The pandemic, which came on top of a pre-existing global recession, complicated the already evolving geopolitical relationships. There is speculation globally as to how and which all countries may support the US and for what all reasons. Can India teach the US on Covid-19 management?
If yes, how? Why India? Although differences lead to learning, there are commonalities between India and the US that lead to credibility of the learning. Both are the two largest democracies in the world, facing challenges on their polity recently. A second commonality is the nature of federal polity where the local government is at the bottom of the governmental hierarchy.
Covid-19 is an urban phenomenon spreading rapidly in cities, given their population density. At the time of writing, the US had 27.1 million cases, accounting for 8% of its population, with 465,000 deaths. India has managed with a caseload of 10.8 million, amounting to less than 1% of its population, with 155,000 deaths. Even if the cases due to the virus in India were underreported, Covid-19 cases account for possibly 2% of its population, although the prevalence of Covid-19 antibodies is much higher.
The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of the US despite its global stature and world-class research institutions; the sheer scale of the problem there teaches the lessons to learn from Covid-19 management in India, where certain actions have led to not only flattening the curve, but also depressing it.
As is known, during the initial stages of the pandemic, India resorted to locking down its cities, even restricted the movement of people outside their houses, let alone allowing their inter-district or inter-state movement, and closed a number of public activities. India also adopted testing, quarantining, contact tracing and selective hospitalisation gradually.
Nonetheless, given the number of migrant and informal workers, the lockdown pushed them out of their jobs. They became the face of the crisis, even while the lockdown strategy itself was well-intended.
Such a strategy of lockdown is deemed to be more appropriate for a developed country like the US, where migrant workers are few and informality nearly absent. Unfortunately, the US did not resort to any conscious strategy to tackle the pandemic, given its indicative nature of governance. The lack of proactive policies with regard to the pandemic is quite striking given the concern for lives in the US, a country pioneering in evidence-based decision-making, buttressed by its science and technology breakthroughs in world-class institutions.
Second, although the US initially restricted schools/colleges, and work from home continues for firms and higher educational institutions even today, other restrictions similar to what Europe or Asia tried—restricting restaurant hours, or banning the conduct of social functions—did not happen.
There is sufficient evidence that, in the US, the pandemic spread rapidly in family-related events and functions, not so much in public crowds.
We need to admit that the US is an extremely free society, where citizens abhor the idea of ‘restrictions’ on activity. Just like India reformed economically and became a net lender on the global stage post its rapid economic growth in the past decades, the time has come for the US to socially reform democratically. This is needed to enable the US to come out of its vulnerability particularly to the virus, by being more prudent and having a sense of public responsibility rather than unmitigated individualism. The wearing of masks by Biden and Kamala Harris hopefully signals social reform starting from the top.
Authors are, respectively, professor, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru, and an IAS officer, Government of Karnataka. Views are personal