PUNE: Time will tell if COVID-19 defines the remainder of the 21st century. History may not hold the answers because disruption on a global scale has not been witnessed before, not even during the two world wars of the 20th century. COVID-19 transcends all barriers, geographical, physical, social and cultural. It has become personal to every individual on this planet.
How and why it began will engage scientific and medical professionals for years. Each government and society will need to “feel’’ their way to finding a solution that fits. There are examples, good and bad — China, Italy, Singapore and South Korea. But India is none of these countries.
WHO executive director Michael J. Ryan has said that the future of COVID-19 to a greater extent, will be determined by what happens in densely populated large countries. But it is more than just that. How India tackles this public health crisis will not just determine the future of COVID-19, it will reshape our world.
In the past 30 years and more and especially after 1992, China’s spectacular rise has shaped our world more than any other development. Its technocrat-governed, state-owned enterprises driven, export-oriented manufacturing model powered by a disciplined workforce, has been the world’s envy. As it created wealth, it also spun myths about the superiority of its governance model, mainly to convince its own population why the communist model is better than other political systems, and later to the rest of the world. It came to be labelled as the ‘BEIJING CONSENSUS’.
To be fair, others added and admitted in propagating the superiority of the Chinese system. Those who prospered from China’s rise, extolled the virtues of clear policy making, workforce efficiency and ease of doing business. They were unmindful, some wilfully that China’s labour laws, banking systems, property rights and legal means were non-democratic, even draconian and illegal in their own countries. These businesses preached the virtues of the China system to their governments. The Tiananmen incident of 1989 became a footnote in world history, and human rights, simply an occasional point to be made by western leaders to their own population, as a token gesture of moral superiority.
The guardians of democracy — the world’s media — also played their part well. To be posted as a correspondent in China in the 1990s and 2000s was tantamount to a one-way ticket to success and glory. To be sure, there were some who wrote about the problems too but until a couple of years ago, it was well known in media circles in China that it was preferable to cohabit with the foreign ministry. To be invited to tea by the Chinese official spokesperson was as avoidable as COVID-19.
COVID-19 has dispelled the myths around the Beijing consensus. Try as the Chinese authorities might to showcase their system as having efficiently tackled a national emergency, even the remotest nation on earth has learned about their failure. This time it will not be so simple to white wash. After all it has adversely impacted the last person on earth.
Where does India come into this play? And why should it matter to the rest of the world? The easy answer is that we are one-sixth of humanity and our inability to prevail over COVID-19 would have global implications. But beyond this easy answer, is there a deeper meaning in the current global state-of-play? COVID-19 is not merely a medical war; it is a conflict of ideas.
We are a democracy. Every five years we elect our leaders. National policy is made in Parliament after open debate. It can be freely criticised and also legally challenged. And for years on end, it has been regarded as an imperfect system when juxtaposed with China’s. It has suited the Chinese. It becomes easier for them to explain to their people when a neighbour as big, as populous, as underdeveloped as them, is unable to match China’s economic progress; that choosing one’s leaders may not be a better option. 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 ideological threat. How we handle this crisis will determine our place in the world of the future.
The government response has been comprehensive and leader-driven. A central task force has been set up and COVID-19 has been declared a notified disaster in order to help states get access to funds. Travel advisories are in force; all movement domestically is being constrained. The prime minister’s call for a “Janata curfew” saw a national response. In our fight against COVID-19, all institutions of the state have begun working in tandem and it is being done in the full glare of our media and our citizens. Far from hiding the enormity of the challenge, we are open. Even as we prepare to fully engage, discussion is being encouraged on how we should deal with the economic consequences of COVID-19. Media is in the frontline of this battle, not as “embedded correspondents’’, but as full partners in a democracy in reporting facts and in counselling the people.
We have a long and painful battle ahead. It calls for sustained leadership (through persuasion and not coercion) but equally it calls upon all citizens to follow. It is for this reason that all citizens must heed the advice of the government and join the fight unconditionally. For what is at stake is not merely our own health and economic well-being, but the very future of India in the world.
If we prevail in this fight, we will show to the rest of the world, that imperfect as it may be, democracy is the better method of delivering results in the face of an international crisis. And that it works with all its faults and imperfections. And that it can thrive even in countries where there are large and poor populations, as much as it does in the richer and less populated parts of the world. When 1.3 billion Indians can prove this by our deeds and actions, we will gain the world’s respect and we will emerge as a global leader. We could put to rest those who say democracy is a luxury for the richer part of the world. We can become a democratic model that is different from the western model, but as efficient and we can face the other 1.3 billion and say that this is an alternative available to them.
After COVID-19 is over and done with, the world may yet go back to doing business with China albeit differently, because its global manufacturing capacity will be needed for recovery and growth, but the world will have learned a lesson. Bold decisions on attracting foreign companies to India as well as a rethink of our stand on multilateral trading arrangements may be one way to bring back our economy and convince the world of our centrality in not only fighting the crisis but also rebuilding post-crisis.
China will put on its humanitarian face using its business icons and its markets to repair the damage in the West, while reaching deep into its pockets to buy support in Africa, Asia and elsewhere. Those who call them out may be pressured and possibly punished. They expect this from the West. But if we speak out it will be different. For that reason alone, our voice will be important. Chinese reactions will be predictable, talk of third world and Asian solidarity will be mixed with hints, and even some action that they have the capacity to disrupt our economic recovery. They will act against us in multilateral bodies and activate the expected pressure points in the region. We have been down this road in recent times and faced their ire. We may have to do so again, but we will earn the world’s respect and demonstrate that we are ready for global leadership.
(The author retired recently as India’s Foreign Secretary. Views are personal)