The 1990s, after the collapse of Communism, was an era of optimism marked by the expansion of liberal democracies and values and a confident prediction of the world being flat. However, this euphoria was shortlived. The financial crisis of 2008 and the following years provided enough reasons for the rise of nationalistic politics even in pluralistic nations like the UK and the USA. But this new nationalism and its basic propositions are getting unsettled as a result of the exponential and global spread of coronavirus.
While many countries have closed their borders in order to curb the infection, there is also a realisation of the need for collective efforts to tackle the pandemic. “Increased global effort,” observed David Miliband “in containing the present crisis and conceivably the future ones, is the most important lesson from the crisis. The global pandemic has shown the limits of the politics of anger,” unleashed by the rise of nationalistic politics. This global effort has been largely weakened with President Trump announcing withdrawal of American funding to WHO following a large number of deaths in the US.
This is part of Trump’s strategy to blame others to cover up his own failures. He blamed his predecessor, Barack Obama, for the maladies in the US. He threatened to desert his NATO allies and abandon NAFTA. His isolationist rhetoric was popular in the red states. Despite WHO’s warning on 30 January 2020, both he and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro dismissed the virus as common flu. Rather than admit his failure to put in place effective measures to combat the spread of the virus, he directed his anger against WHO for alleging that information had been concealed and for the lack of proper initiatives.
His outburst against China increased, forgetting that he himself had praised China on 26 January for its transparency and efficient steps in fighting the virus. The US at present has the highest number of infected and deaths in the global tally of over two million cases. No proper US leadership is expected according to Yuval Noah Harari, though the world looks towards WHO for coordinating a long-term solution as it did in dealing with Zika, Ebola and HIV spreads. It is also encouraging that many other advanced nations are collaborating with one another but the fact remains that the absence of the US in terms of not providing leadership is hurting and halting the process of finding a cure.
In the debate as to whether democracies or nondemocracies have combated the crisis better, the record is mixed. The performance of Germany, South Korea and Taiwan has been impressive. Iran’s failure is shameful. India’s response, in spite of the criticisms regarding its handling of migrant labour, has earned praise both within and outside. A global crisis demands a global response. It is vital to think beyond the nation state. A crisis of this magnitude reinforces Daniel Bell’s observation of the nation state as being too small for big things and too big for small things.
The present health emergency has economic implications. Massive inequality exists both within and between nations. The challenges of reconstruction will be different in developed nations from those of the global south. The financial support that the former can provide to its citizens, as exemplified by the US and Canada, is much higher than what is possible in the LDCs. The developed countries would readjust more quickly because of the availability of frontier technology and a great deal of automation even when working from home. In Europe, there is one doctor for 300 people as compared to 70,000 in Africa.
The latter also has a large informal sector without guarantees of employment, sickness etc. There are multiple inadequacies like scarce ventilators and minimal healthcare especially in rural areas. The African debt is just 3 per cent of the world GDP and this has to be written off as the remittance to the continent is three times of that amount. Ian Goldin points out that in China and Europe, the Corona crisis precedes an economic crisis. It is just the opposite in the developing countries as the lockdown has resulted in an alarming and unprecedented economic decline and governmental action has been grossly inadequate in meeting the economic challenges.
The choice between lives and livelihood is a hard one for the poor people and poor countries. However, as Martin Wolf has pointed out, it is not containment versus the economy but containment and the economy. A global response becomes all the more imperative. The world needs a new Marshall Plan not only to tide over the present crisis but also for meaningful contribution in the reconstruction of the LDCs. This international dimension is of utmost importance as the weaker non-convertible currencies have seen a devaluation by 15 to 20 per cent and is expected to fall further.
Moreover, in the Indian context there has been a drop of $110 billion in remittances and this is expected to be 22 per cent. Last year India clocked the highest ever remittances, which amounted to $554 billion. A drop of 25 per cent in that would deliver a severe blow to many families for whom it is a lifeline. Many migrant workers stare at severe resource crunch. The reduced supply of cash will affect education, nutrition and health of their families, a fact that has been underlined by the World Bank. In the background of this grim reality the problem of child labour could get worse.
In many countries there is a realisation of the imperative need for a universal health scheme. In the USA, where medical care essentially belongs to the private sector, massive protests compelled the hospitals to open their doors even to the non-insured. In Spain, all private hospitals have been brought under state control. The existing PPP model in India has proved to be grossly inadequate in dealing with the crisis. The Ayushman Bharat scheme on the PPP model has a budget of Rs 6400 crore, which in actual terms means 70 per cent of the medical care being taken care of by the private sector.
Many private medical centres in India have shut their doors, refusing to treat corona patients. On the contrary government hospitals are doing substantial work. Furthermore, private hospitals are located mainly in cities and towns, while rural India depends on government facilities. In Andhra Pradesh, 58 hospitals in 13 districts have been taken over by the government. The spectacular success of Kerala in containing the virus is largely due to the fact that it has an extensive public health service. Niti Aayog has identified Kerala as Number One state in terms of access to healthcare, whereas UP is the last.
Kerala tops the list when it comes to mass literacy, while UP is at the bottom. With regard to poverty alleviation Kerala’s record is spectacular as it has the lowest rate at 1.07 per cent. The state had tackled the earlier health crisis like the NIPA, and Bihar too tackled the encephalitis outbreak during the litchi season effectively with the help of the government. The lockdown in India has also resulted in blue skies, cleaner air, a cleaner Ganga and Jamuna, and clear visibility of the Himalayan peaks from Jalandhar. There is no discharge of effluents from closed factories and this has led to a cleaner environment with crops growing better because of the availability of cleaner subsoil water.
These would be surely important considerations in future policy framework as climate change will receive increased attention. As part of the process of acting locally and thinking globally the time has come to redefine the idea of progress by incorporating the lessons derived from the current pandemic. In India we can think in terms of a national project of wide pavements and cycle paths which would help improve both health and environment.
(The writer is former Professor of Political Science, Delhi University)