India goes into lock-down to fight COVID-19: Is the cure worse than the disease?

Migrant workers and their family members lineup outside the Anand Vihar bus terminal in New Delhi on March 18 to leave for their villages during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown.

What social distancing? Desperate migrant workers struggling to return home after India suddenly goes into lock-down to fight COVID-19

Prime Minister Modi announced a nation-wide lockdown on 25 March barely giving millions of Indians four hours to prepare for it. It turned out to be the strictest and world’s largest lock-down – which is not surprising given the size of India’s population (1.3 billion).

At least one Indian op-ed writer in a leading national newspaper was optimistic that the draconian measure might work. Writing a few days before the hastily announced lock-down, he observed:

With traditional, non-state safety nets still mostly functional, India is better placed than the West to face up to pandemics.

The esteemed op-ed writer must have rued the words he wrote after the lock-down triggered panic-buying among those who could afford it and, even worse, a mass exodus of migrant workers from India’s mega-cities. Given that all forms of transport were also shut down, the enforced migration back to the villages often occurred on foot as struggling workers and their families – after having suddenly lost their livelihoods – sought the safety and sanctuary of family and friends – watch this video which depicts heart-wrenching scenes of migrants desperately seeking to return home. More than 20 migrants paid the ultimate price by dying during their perilous journey. This number is pretty close to the deaths recorded in India as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Paradoxically, the mass exodus simply heightened the risk of community-level transmission of COVID-19.

Modi offered an apology and tried to calm down a panicked nation, while authorities at all levels tried to cope with the awful, but unintended, consequences of India’s fight to vanquish COVID-19 by setting up soup kitchens and hastily erected quarantine facilities. A modest stimulus package geared towards the poor and vulnerable was also set up, but such efforts might be a case of too little, too late.

Could this potential human tragedy have been foreseen? Anyone familiar with the harsh structural realities of India’s socio-economic fabric could not have been sanguine about the consequences of a nation-wide lockdown.

India’s megacities rely heavily on migrant labour. They typically form a large part of India’s vast informal sector. They work as street vendors, cooks and cleaners. They toil away in small shops, factories and construction sites. For many of them, the ‘home’ in which they could engage in self-isolation might be a footpath, a floor in a work-place or a squalid, cramped room in an urban slum. Not surprisingly, a former Indian health secretary has observed:

Lockdown as a solution can be observed by the Indian middle class, which has regular salaries, a secure home space, and can afford the luxury of physical distancing.

As if to prove this point, one author from Delhi writes, with a huge dose of self-deprecation, how an upper-middle-class Indian twit would ‘quaff wine in comfort’ as he/she practices self-isolation and social distancing while the ‘poor are thrown to the wolves’. 

Does this mean that countries like India should simply forgo any attempt to engage in lock-downs and social distancing measures to cope with a public health crisis? Should one invoke the notion of ‘herd immunity’ to justify this laissez-faire approach even if it means the large-scale loss of life? Should one adopt Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s view that Indians like Brazilians have natural immunity or should one emulate the proclamation of the strongman of Belarus and seek to ‘die standing’ rather than engage in large-scale social and economic disruption to cope with a pandemic? Modi, of course, did none of this – but his government could have been much better prepared to reduce the adverse consequences of a national lock-down on the poor and vulnerable. The state of Kerala has led the way in this regard and other Indian states have much to learn from this experience.



Western democracies, ‘China envy’ and the coronavirus pandemic

Has China done better than affluent Western democracies ranging from the United States to Australia in tackling the coronavirus pandemic? Is there indeed a case for ‘China envy’? The latter thesis was propounded by intrepid New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In 2009,

… Friedman admitted to a large dose of China-envy in offering praise for an authoritarian system that could ignore democratic political chaos, identify problems and implement solutions with minimal fuss and opposition. In short, its authoritarian system was simply better, simpler and more effective.

This does not mean that Friedman wanted Western democracies to become like China. Instead, he wanted such democracies to function like China while retaining their core norms, institutions and values.

There is another, less charitable, interpretation of ‘China envy’. This represents a grudging acknowledgement by the West of China’s global dominance in the 21st century from a dirt-poor autarchy in the 1960s ravaged by Mao Zedong’s ideological obsessions. Like all grudging acknowledgements, such sentiments can easily turn into what Germans call ‘schadenfreude’ – a disreputable disposition in which one derives malicious pleasure out of the misfortune of others.

The current pandemic certainly originated in China prompting President Trump to describe it as ‘China virus’ with its intended racist overtones. Trump was also reflecting the dark side of American history when the government of the day promulgated the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Regardless of what one thinks about Trump’s attempt to pin the blame on China for creating a pandemic, the harsh reality is that the Chinese authorities initially mismanaged a public health crisis as they succumbed to the proclivity of authoritarian regimes to suppress bad news. Yet, since those initial missteps, China appears to have tackled the coronavirus epidemic with draconian measures that led to a freeze on economic and social activities for millions. In order to cope with a public health crisis, China was prepared to inflict the pain of an economic recession – a remarkable feat for a government that attaches primacy to economic growth. It was prepared to accept the collective wisdom of the scientific community that sharply curtailing human interaction is one of the most effective ways to reduce – and ultimately control – epidemics. This meant enduring – at least for the short run – a great deal of economic and social disruption.

Meanwhile, the Western world watched events unfold in China with a degree of complacency and indifference. The presumption was that coronavirus was a China-specific affair (it’s the outcome of their ‘disgusting wildlife market’ as one Australian politician intoned with the wisdom of a clown) and, even if did spread to the West, the implicit assumption was that affluent democratic societies could cope with it in their inimitable way, drawing on self-regulation and good collective behaviour rather than through brute enforcement.

Yet, the most recent developments suggest a much messier picture. As WHO has declared, the epicentre of the pandemic has shifted to Europe, with Italy – the home of Michael Angelo and Leonardo Da Vinci – being the worst affected. Like dominoes, many European countries are belatedly seeking to implement Chinese-style lockdown of its citizens. The cherished principle of freedom of movement across Europe has given way to closing of borders. The notion that self-regulation is effective has been seriously compromised. This is reflected, for example, in the abject failure in Australia to enforce limited public gathering among beachgoers determined to enjoy themselves in the midst of a public health crisis.

In the USA, a self-absorbed President is preoccupied with deflecting blame as the various levels of the government are also seeking to emulate the Chinese approach to dealing with a pandemic. China, in turn, is busy crafting a strategy of offering technical assistance and experience to beleaguered European nations and the rest of the world perhaps setting in motion a new global order in which American – and Western – leadership is conspicuously absent.