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COVID-19: Changing Dynamics, Emerging Lessons – OpEd

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As of April 14, 2020, there are 1.9 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 118,400 deaths. However, given that these numbers are based on clinically tested and reported cases and therefore many more are neither tested nor reported especially in developing countries, Australia’s Chief Health Officer believes that actual number are likely to be 10 times more.

COVID 19 has caused massive health havocs and at the same time, the scourge has also triggered several non-health challenges, and these include, among other things the changing relationships between leadership, state, political arrangements, economic ideology and wellbeing of people. For example, in the past months we have noticed how different leaders have responded differently to the crisis, producing different outcomes. At the same time, we have also witnessed how different political arrangements – democratic, autocratic, pseudo-democratic, populist etc. etc. – have handled the crisis differently and yielded different results. The crisis may have also exposed, once for all, the limitations if not the danger of neoliberalism, the dominant economic theory that believes free market is the pathway to ultimate nirvana. However, COVID 19 seems to have re-ignited the debate on state-market-citizen relationships. COVID 19 may have also laid grounds for major shifts in world order and international relations.

Leadership and COVID 19

Let us start with the relationship between quality of leadership and crisis management and begin with China where the virus first appeared. Initially, China kept the news of outbreak of the virus secret, presumably, under the directive of the President Xi Jinping. However, as the virus started to spiral out of control in Wuhan city, the epicentre and threatened rest of China, government moved in quickly and quarantined millions of people in their homes as preventive measure. This was a bold and organizationally an astounding task involving among other things, feeding millions while keeping them indoors. These draconian and yet socially sensitive measures did pay dividends – within a month, spread of the disease within Wuhan and across rest of China was halted. The quick turnaround did help re-establishing faith of China’s citizens in their system and more importantly, in their leader, Mr. Xi Jinping.

Other leaders that have shown similar mettle and made stringent restrictions and unlike China’s authoritarian frameworks, worked within democratic arrangements with similar success are Ms. Jacinta Arden of New Zealand, Ms. Mette Frederiksen of Denmark and Ms. Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. Some sub-national leaders such as Chief Ministers Momota Banerjee of West Bengal and Pinarayi Vijayan of Kerala respectively of India equally combined social isolation with SafetyNet measures revealing how qualities of firmness and empathy can earn trust of people and convince them to abide by the rules.

At the other spectrum of what a leadership ought not to be doing especially in a crisis such as this is Mr. Trump, the President of United States of America. Characterised by three menacing attributes – xenophobe, contempt and bravado his approach to COVID 19 has been up of what I call, the 4D phenomenon – Demonization (he invented a new term for the virus, ‘China Virus’ to use the term as an ammunition in his hegemonic geopolitical armoury), Denial (he laughed away the risks), then Delay (delayed and confused actions) and finally, Desperation (he plunged the entire country into a state of utter confusion, chaos and desperation) – resulting in virus’ rampant spread and exponential casualties, surpassing all other countries.

Another demonstrably pathetic case of leadership came from Mr. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, a handpicked puppet of Mr. Trump who according the Guardian, not only played down Covid-19’s threat but cynically sabotaged “quarantine measures imposed by nearly all of the country’s state governors” with the result that infections and deaths from the virus in Brazil are now spiralling out of control. (2)

Philippines President Duterte’s ‘shoot-to-kill’ the violators of social isolation is yet another extreme example of insensitive and poor leadership. According to Amnesty International, “The abusive methods used to punish those accused of breaching quarantine and the vast number of mass arrests that have been carried out to date, against mainly poor people, are further examples of the oppressive approach the government takes against those struggling with basic needs.”(3)

These examples reveal how differences in leaderships and their approaches to the crisis produced different outcomes reaffirming that qualities of vision, determination and empathy are key to fighting any crisis let alone a multidimensional crisis of the type that COVID 19 is.

Political/Administrative Frameworks and COVID 19

Available evidences suggest that successful handling of COVID 19 have occurred both under democratic as well as less democratic and even under autocratic political frameworks. The key enabling factors that contribute to success are holistic policies that going in tandem include both health prevention and livelihood support measures for those who face livelihood challenges because of the former and secondly, stringent, innovative, accountable, flexible and transparent implementation of these policies. In addition, and this is important, policies must consider not just the intended but also unintended outcomes and take measures accordingly. For example, while China put in place strict isolation measures and locked down millions in their homes, they also devised ways to supply food and other necessities to the marooned citizens at their doorsteps, while avoiding human contacts. Even garbage was cleared on time. At the same time, when China sensed that the number of infected COVD 19 cases would spike soon they mobilized forces and constructed a fully equipped functioning 1000-bed hospital within a week. This was no mean job which only goes on to show China’s incredible institutional capacity in foreseeing challenges and pre-empting appropriate measures, with utmost speed and efficiency.

Other countries have been less imaginative. For example, in densely populated countries such as India and Bangladesh where close to 30-35% of their population are poor and many live in cities as migrant workers and earn by the day and live by the day, social isolation orders came as virtual death warrants, forcing hundreds and thousands journeying back to the villages, making the idea of social distancing not just a mockery but a source of incredible miseries to the poor and the dispossessed. 

Also, in India, thanks to its decades long sectarian Hindutva policy that demonizes and marginalizes its minority Muslims – 200 million or 10% of the population -, where they are being treated as aliens in their own country, the advent of COVID 19 has made things only worse for them. For example, in recent times, some Muslims organized, albeit irresponsibly, a religious gathering at a place called, Nizamiddin, near Delhi, India’s capital, where some were detected with COVID 19 infection. India’s communally inspired activists and section of its media – both print and visual – exploited the misstep and went hysterical, blaming Muslims for the spread of the disease – an unproven claim- while ignoring similar Hindu religious gatherings (87% of India’s population are Hindus) that took place in other parts of India around the same time. The result of the media hype has been that in many villages of India where Muslims are in minority the majority Hindus are driving them out of their homes, blaming them – the Muslims – the carriers of the disease.

Whereas in Bangladesh, years of mix of personality cultism, centralization, politicisation of the public service and patronization of ruling party activists that characterizes country’s governing arrangements have since severely weakened the capacity of public institutions and dented transparency and accountability in public governance and thus it is no surprise that relief goods that the government allocated for the poor to tide over the social isolation period were hijacked with impunity by the local ruling party leaders.(4)

In sum, it is evident that visionary and inclusive policies implemented through efficient, accountable and transparent institutions have succeeded in combating the scourge of COVID 19 more effectively. While Bangladesh example suggests that corrupt and politicised institutions simply strengthen the hands of the corrupt, Indian example reveals that even in a democracy, populist and hate-based majoritarian sectarian politics can easily subvert institutions and put at risk the elements of equity and inclusion in policies.

Demise of neoliberalism?

If there is one message that COVID 19 has given quite loudly, it would be that neoliberalism, an ideology that for last few decades has put market ahead of the state and promoted consumerism and materialism as key components of economic policy and put these ahead of conservation and the idea that market works for the fittest where the deprived and the disadvantaged are left behind, may have reached its use-by date. 

The crisis has shown that countries that refused to succumb fully to the neoliberalism mantra and retained vital functions such as health services under state control did better than those that didn’t. It is also evident that countries with strong public institutions and dedicated wellbeing policies such as New Zealand have fared much better than those that bowed to neoliberalism and conceded to the market vital public utility functions and in the wake, weakened the capacity of the state to come to the aid of citizens at a time when they needed them most. Therefore, it is possible that “Neoliberalism, the dominant ideology of the past four decades has been in retreat, weakened by the global financial crisis: coronavirus could bury it.”(5)

Post COVID 19 period is sure to witness much re-thinking in defining the relationships between the state, the citizens and the market.

Economies

David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister of UK once called the World War 1, “a deluge, a convulsion of nature … bringing unheard of changes to the social and industrial fabric.” Likewise, COVID 19 is a “convulsion” which is triggering “unheard of changes” at multiple levels – economic, social and political. 

Without an exception, it is certain that COVID 19’s impact on world economies would be devastating. It would make each nation lot poorer and living standards of all, poor and rich, dwindle.  Rich are likely to be less wealthy and some may cease to remain rich and poor may become destitute. 

Terming the crisis “like no other” Chief of IMF warns that 170 of its 189 member states would experience negative growth.(6) Another projection suggests that more than half a billion would join a billion poor that already exists.(7)

In the ensuing economic downturn, Africa would be hardest hit, sub-Sahara would slid back to extreme poverty and South Asia, a growth powerhouse is also expected to descend from pre-pandemic projection of 6.3 % growth per annum to 1.8% to negative growth, meaning millions would be without jobs, food and shelter.(8)

US economy, world’s largest is faltering, people are losing their lives, their jobs – overall, the mood is one of despondency and hopelessness.

China, world’s largest supply chain economy is also reeling. Because of social isolation and due to dwindling demand of its products from abroad, many of its factories have been shut.  However, now that it has tackled the crisis reasonably successfully, has started to re-start its economic activities and in some cases, through introduction of new products that are currently in demand. 

Overall, the prognosis of world economy is not encouraging, we are indeed marching fast towards a major economic catastrophe which if not tackled proactively, strategically, collectively and innovatively would lead to mass despair, morphing into political infernos of mammoth proportions.

Furthermore, these economic shifts and changes are also bound to redefine the world order.

Changing world order

In its 2017 Report, World in 2050, Price Water House divided the world growth economies into two major groups, namely the G7 (5 European countries, US and Japan) and E 7, seven emerging economies, led by China, India and Indonesia. (9) 

E7 economies were projected to take over the G7 in 2050 where China would be at number 1, US at number 3 and share of 27 European countries combined would constitute a mere 10% of world GDP. 

However, COVID 19 has changed the validity of this projection somewhat though given China’s exceptional capacity to respond to crisis and adjust to changing conditions, its dominance of the world economy in post COVID 19 period is almost a certainty. It is conceivable that after a slow start, China’s economy would bounce back with new arrangements. 

G7 countries especially US where thanks to its over reliance on the market that has dwindled the capacity of state to direct and resurrect the economy coherently and co-ordinately, the task of recovery looks a little daunting and with Mr. Trump who according to Arundhuti Roy is “the effluent of a system that went wrong” at the White House cause for optimism for US to recover anytime soon is  a little bleak and more importantly, when and if US does recover there is little or no guarantee that it would be in No 1 position. 

Another important dimension that separates E7 from G7 countries is that while most G7 countries accumulated their wealth through colonisation, occupation, plunder and pillage of wealth of other nations, E7 countries especially China has done so through hard work, innovations and competitiveness and these are the qualities and nothing else would count in determining future economic supremacy in the world. 

COVID 19 has also revealed and sharpened global moral divide – during the crisis while some countries extended their helping hands to assist the sufferers in affected countries, others have tightened sanctions to deprive some of these countries of vital medical supplies to ensure that their dying die. 

These changes in economic prowess and moral divides are sure to redefine the post COVID 19 world order, in ways more than one. 

Lessons

Lessons that we derive from coronavirus crisis are many and most striking among these are that firstly, socially conscious and strategically thinking leaderships are key to addressing successfully and inclusively the fallouts of the crisis; secondly, market does play important role in economic growth but market’s capacity to respond to wellbeing needs of the citizens especially in times of crisis is rather limited, indicating that state must always retain control over vital services at all times especially for the disadvantaged groups.  

* (1) M. Adil Khan is Professor of Development Practice, School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia and former Senior Policy Manager of United Nations

2. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/12/covid-19-how-world-leaders-responded-to-the-crisis?fbclid=IwAR1TCw2fRmccw7NBgTPp67Si1pn499PqNKzJBx7apHzReSWey3xjEpeW3dk

3. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/philippines-president-duterte-shoot-to-kill-order-pandemic/

4. https://www.newagebd.net/article/104239/awami-league-leaders-embarrassed-as-relief-theft-continues

5.  Neoliberalism, the dominant ideology of the past four decades has been in retreat, weakened by the global financial crisis: coronavirus could bury it.

6. https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/09/imf-chief-flags-up-grim-global-economic-forecast-covid-19

7. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-pandemic-half-a-billion-people-into-poverty/

8. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2020/04/12/south-asia-must-act-now-to-lessen-covid-19-health-impacts

9. http://www.millennium-project.org/projects/workshops-on-future-of-worktechnology-2050-scenarios/?gclid=EAIaIQobChMIwMXg9Ljl6AIVkh0rCh1N1wuaEAAYASAAEgLfTvD_BwE


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