“One virus (COVID-19) has destroyed the world. We had never seen or heard about such a crisis ever before. This is definitely unimaginable for mankind. This was unprecedented. But humanity will not accept defeat from this virus. We have to not only protect ourselves but also move forward”, asserted the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address to the nation on May 12, 2020.[i] This statement broadly echoes the sentiments of the leaders around the world. Protect, fight and then move forward.
The life after corona is not going to be easy. The world has all of sudden come to a standstill. The future looks gloomy and uncertain. The COVID crisis is all set to redefine the way we used to look at the liberal democracy and its values, nation-state, world order, health governance, economy, city, urban conglomerations, natural resource management and people to people interaction.
Countries, seemingly having no other options to deal with the COVID menace, have mostly opted for lockdown in the whole national territory or part thereof. No social or economic activities are permitted, except for essential ones, that too with certain restrictions. The pitfalls of the ‘lockdowns’ will haunt us for the years to come—in all terms, be it economic, social, behavioural, psychological or political.
Many fear that the battle against COVID-19 has also led to the spread of ‘pandemic police state’ in liberal democracies. In some countries, it has been more obtrusive and in others less pronounced. In India, a democratic nation, the 21-day lockdown saw the police forces’ highhandedness in effecting crowd control. Police first response in dealing with law and order problems was lathi (heavy stick) charge, a colonial era weapon used to control crowd.[ii] Recently, the Bombay High Court sought the Maharashtra state government’s response on the alleged police brutality against the residents of Mumbai while enforcing the coronavirus lockdown.[iii]
A law firm in Australia, Sydney Criminal Lawyers, in one of its blogs entitled, The Police State Is Here, Thanks To Coronavirus, fears that with the new set of rules and regulations each passing day providing more powers to police, increased police presence conducting community patrols and random checks and deployment of tracking technology, a palpable police state is imminent.[iv] In their paper entitled, Pandemic Police States, Christopher J. Coyne and Yuliya Yatsyshina from George Mason University, USA, narrate:
As the range of government responses illustrate, one implication of COVID-19 is the rise of police states which, in the name of protecting public health, limit the basic rights and freedoms of citizens and impose, often harsh, punishments on those who fail to obey state dictates…The activities of pandemic police states highlight the contest between individual social power and state political power. Expansions in political power to address public health crises come at the expense of individual rights and freedoms. This political power can be used for good but can also be used to predate private people.[v]
In addition to the rise of pandemic police state, the fear that such crisis can be orchestrated to benefit the interest of political elites, does exist too. Naomi Klein, author of the book The Shock Doctrine, explains more broadly and institutionally, through the concept of disaster capitalism and shock doctrine how the governments respond to large scale crises such as COVID. She elaborates:
The “shock doctrine” is the political strategy of using large-scale crises to push through policies that systematically deepen inequality, enrich elites, and undercut everyone else. In moments of crisis, people tend to focus on the daily emergencies of surviving that crisis, whatever it is, and tend to put too much trust in those in power. We take our eyes off the ball a little bit in moments of crisis.[vi]
In her article entitled, Coronavirus and the police state, Lizzie O’Shea, a lawyer and author of the book Future Histories, says that in the time of crises, it is critical to “find space to talk about how authority should be held to account, because otherwise the society we are trying to save may not be the society we end up with after this is over.”[vii]
The COVID-19 has impeded the economic activities, the lifeblood of global modernisation project. The halt in productive power may lead to an estimated loss of about 10% in the global GDP.[viii] The renowned geostrategic thinker H. J. Mackinder had underlined the importance of productive power way back in 1919. In his book Democratic Ideals and Reality, he pointed out, “Productive power, in short, is a far more important element of reality in relation to modern civilization than is accumulated wealth.”[ix] That is truer today than ever before, with more production, trade integration and all-pervasive globalisation. Economy plays pivotal role in the security dynamics of a nation-state. Notwithstanding its security threat matrix, a nation’s ability to pursue its core national interests hinges on its economic strength. In the Introduction to his book, The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers, Paul Kennedy observes, “The history of the rise and later fall of the leading countries in the Great Power system since the advance of western Europe in the sixteenth century…shows a very significant correlation over the longer term between productive and revenue-raising capacities on the one hand and military strength on the other.”[x]
Rampant pandemics strike at the core of economy—its functionality, which in turn can reverse the course of national progress. The economic loss will prove to be more brutal in the developing and underdeveloped countries, due to structural deficiency, inefficient public management, prevalence of mass poverty and lack of social security net. India, a developing country, has suffered a major setback in its growth trajectory due to COVID-19. The overall economic loss in India is estimated to be more than 8% of its GDP.[xi] One recent report suggest that the unemployment rate in India has jumped to more than 27 per cent in the week ended 3 May 2020 causing job loss for about 121 million people due to the imposition of elongated pan-India lockdown in the aftermath of COVID-19.[xii] These are certainly going to reinforce the vicious cycle of poverty, coupled with economic fluctuations and shocks. If the aftermath of COVID-19 is not managed effectively by the government, it may lead to large scale protests, socio-political unrests and political instability. Social security net needs to be enhanced to financially support the people who are now rendered jobless (both in formal and informal sectors) due to COVID-19.
Keeping in view that the nations are caught in trouble due to COVID, regional and international cooperation will be pivotal in dealing with the crisis. Concerted efforts at global level are the key in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the first response did not come from the international system but from the affected countries, in the form of uncoordinated closing of borders, snapping the supply chain etc. “Despite the unprecedented benefits globalization has unlocked, global governance structures such as the G7 and G20 will have trouble making a case against nationalism unless they can safeguard the interests of all countries. But there is one more layer on the way from global to national, which could offer a tool for cooperation. Regional integration projects around the world could help countries jointly meet the challenges of COVID-19,” points out Anastasia Kalinina, Head of Regional Agenda - Eurasia, World Economic Forum Geneva.[xiii]
Taking the regional spirit forward, Prime Minister Modi reached out to the member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), which then mutually decided to create regional level COVID-19 Emergency Fund to combat the COVID crises.[xiv] PM Modi said, “It is clear that we have to work together. We can respond best by – Coming together not growing apart; Collaboration not confusion; Preparation not panic.”[xv] This kind of initiative may ‘revitalise’ SAARC, which has been falling apart due to turf war among the member states, especially between India and Pakistan, and enhance the regional response to the crisis.
The US-led unipolar world order seems to be tattering, with the US looking inwards to manage the unprecedented COVID crisis on its soil and threatening the World Health Organisation (WHO) that the US would stop its funding. In May 2020, in a letter addressed to the WHO, the US President Donald Trump had warned, “The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China…[and] if the World Health Organization does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership in the organization.”[xvi] In July 2020, the US has begun the process to formally withdraw from the WHO.[xvii]
Experts around the world are found engaged in imagining a new world order, emerging from the alleged failure of the existing one. Happymon Jacob who teaches national security at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, observes, “The contemporary global order, whatever remains of the institutions created by the victors of World War II, was a hegemonic exercise meant to deal with isolated political and military crises and not serve humanity at large. COVID-19 has exposed this as well as the worst nativist tendencies of the global leadership in the face of a major crisis.”[xviii] He further adds, “The global institutional architecture of the 1940s cannot help humanity face the challenges of the 2020s. Nothing less than a new social contract between states and the international system can save our future.”[xix]
Fearing the world disorder that may emerge, a dose of caution came from Shashi Tharoor and Samir Saran, the authors of a recently published book, entitled The New World Disorder and the Indian Imperative. They say, “The coronavirus epidemic is a devastating reminder of the consequences of disorder. It is also a timely memo to sovereign states that the re-assertion of sovereignty must not imply an abandonment of global responsibilities…Many will find in this pandemic an opportunity to close themselves off to the international community. India must defy such impulses.”[xx] Looking for an enhanced global role for India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has pitched for a world reorder. In his address to the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) countries on May 4, 2020, he appealed, “COVID-19 has shown us the limitations of the existing international system. In the post-COVID world, we need a new template of globalization, based on fairness, equality, and humanity. We need international institutions that are more representative of today’s world. We need to promote human welfare, and not focus on economic growth alone. India has long championed such initiatives.”[xxi] Of course, one has to wait and watch how the events unfold post-COVID.
Pandemics are a reality now and sadly we have to learn to live with them. What we need is to put in place an effective ‘germ governance’. Since pandemics in nature are often borderless, the germ governance need to be strengthened at both the levels—vertical (national) as well as horizontal (international). Germ governance, writes David P. Fidler in his article, Germs, governance and public health in the wake of SARS, “concerns how societies, both within and beyond national borders, structure their responses to pathogenic challenges…The global nature of the microbial threat requires that governance address the borderless challenges presented by infectious diseases.”[xxii]
Over and above the germ governance, to prevent and recover fast from the future pandemics, we need to create and boost the resilience through redesigning our economic structures, rebuilding our cities and promoting nature based solutions. In her message on Earth Day (April 22, 2020), the UN Climate Chief expressed, “With this restart, a window of hope and opportunity opens…an opportunity for nations to green their recovery packages and shape the 21st century economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, safe and more resilient.”[xxiii] The message is clear: build back better!
In her article, How to build back better after COVID-19, María Mendiluce, Interim CEO, We Mean Business coalition, calls for ‘longer-term economic stimulus to be screened through the lens of climate and resilience’. She points out:
As governments develop longer-term economic stimulus packages to combat the crisis, they must be designed around the core principle of building a stronger economy that ensures the long-term health and wellbeing of citizens, job creation, tackling climate change once and for all, and building a more resilient and inclusive society…These stimulus packages should incentivize the rapid deployment of existing climate solutions and spur the development and demonstration of zero-carbon technologies to accelerate the growth of an inclusive, resilient net-zero carbon economy by 2050 at the latest.[xxiv]
What is encouraging is that the call for ‘build back better’ is getting louder day by day.[xxv] Post-COVID will be the time for ‘recovery, rehabilitation and reconstruction’. Since many countries including India did not have in place an effective Pre-Disaster Recovery Plan with special reference to the COVID-19, post-disaster recovery is certainly going to be a Herculean task. According to the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR):
Recovery is the most complex of the disaster management functions…An inclusive and comprehensive disaster recovery framework serves as an agreed way forward to simplify the recovery process thereby maintaining or even improving development trajectories while ensuring adherence to Build Back Better principles. Recovery is most successful when the wide-ranging needs of communities, organizations, and individuals are addressed in the coordinated manner that recovery frameworks enable.[xxvi]
Clearly, for a holistic and inclusive recovery process, at the national level a strong and visionary leadership who can effectively lead the post-COVID recovery processes and at the global level, equally important is that the world communities must come together to forge a strong partnership to recover from this crisis and find ways to prevent its recurrence. Finally, we need to build upon the opportunities thrown out by the COVID crisis. Emilio Granados Franco, head of Global Risks and Geopolitical Agenda at the World Economic Forum, encapsulates it lucidly:
The crisis has exposed weaknesses, but it has also illuminated strengths. There is a newfound understanding and appreciation for essential public services, most notably health. Consumption and mobility habits have changed dramatically — a sign of adaptability toward a more sustainable model — while technology has potentially revolutionized learning, working, producing and caring. We must draw on these strengths to build back a better world.[xxvii]
This is an opinion piece by Sandeep Kumar Dubey, Program Manager, Hanns Seidel Foundation, India.
[x] Paul Kennedy, The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers, William Collins, UK, 2017, p. xvi
[xxv] https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikescott/2020/05/20/we-must-build-back-better-to-boost-resilience-business-leaders-say/#48c7c05d5b40; https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/building-back-better-why-we-must-think-next-generation