Uncategorized

In the lockdown, a breath of fresh air

An urgent warning comes from a Harvard University study (bit.ly/3dthqiv), which establishes a correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and Covid-19 mortality. The study finds that people living in polluted cities are more likely to have compromised respiratory, cardiac and other systems — and, therefore, are more vulnerable to Covid-19.

 Air Pollution, COVID19, Mortality, Respiratory, Cardiac, Blue Skies, Lockdown
Getty

One of the few positive spin-offs of the ongoing nationwide lockdown to combat Covid-19 has been a dramatic reduction in air pollution. Recent Nasa data reveals that air pollution in north India has dropped to a 20-year low. In Delhi, the levels of harmful microscopic particulate matter, PM 2.5, plunged after the lockdown began — falling from 91 mg per cubic metre (mg/m3) on March 20, to 26 mg/m3on March 27.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) released by vehicles and power plants also saw a significant fall of 71% during the period. The air in Delhi is now clear, the skies are blue, and we can hear birdsong again on the boulevards.

Unfortunately, these are but temporary gains, and should not distract us from the dangers of air pollution.

An urgent warning comes from a Harvard University study (bit.ly/3dthqiv), which establishes a correlation between long-term exposure to air pollution and Covid-19 mortality. The study finds that people living in polluted cities are more likely to have compromised respiratory, cardiac and other systems — and, therefore, are more vulnerable to Covid-19.

We should be very worried because India has 21of the 30 most polluted cities in the world. Air quality in some of our cities is 10 times over the safe limits recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and, as per some estimates, air pollution claims more than one million lives each year.

Therefore, even as India flattens the infection curve, addressing the air pollution problem should continue to be a high priority for all policymakers. Today’s cerulean skies remind us that clean air and the right to breathe must be available to all citizens. And if India were to achieve this, there will be huge collateral benefits. We would not only become much more globally competitive, but we could also be well on our way to exceeding our climate ambitions outlined in the 2015 Paris Agreement.

There are many ways in which an economic revival package can get India to this Green Frontier. For instance, new investments could be directed towards renewable energy, with larger allocations and subsidies to initiatives like the National Solar Mission. We could adhere to deadlines for the Bharat Stage 4 standards and accelerate timelines and infrastructure investments for electric vehicle (EV) adoption.

Large electric battery factories could be established to enable localised energy storage solutions. Bailouts and incentives to the auto, aviation and construction sectors could encourage green transitions and clean air ambitions. The Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) in the residential sector could be enforced and a 2011policy relating to energy efficiency in MSME clusters could be integrated with the fiscal support to this sector.

Global experience suggests that crises create political opportunities for embracing change. After the 2008 global financial crisis, China spent nearly a third of its $568 billion stimulus towards projects that addressed environmental goals. China has since become a global leader in solar, wind and hydropower markets.

Britain and Germany also undertook green transformations post 2008 crisis. Similarly, India could use this Covid-19 crisis to undertake a far-reaching green revival.

We will find support. After the Covid-19 pandemic, there is a renewed focus on mega black and white swan shocks that can lead to immense loss of lives and destroy trillions of dollars of economic output. It is now much easier to convince policymakers, bankers and investors that awarming climate may well be the single-biggest macro shock the world will have to face. Green revival packages are bound to emerge around the world and global finance will inevitably align to this endeavour.

India is already the third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Even optimistic predictions suggest that our emissions will nearly double in the next decade or so. A green revival package could be designed to ensure that India’s post-Covid economic resurgence becomes a key contributor in mitigating global emissions. It must be branded as the single-most important initiative for the world to meet and exceed Paris Agreement goals.

This will also give India more leverage in influencing the global financial community, and compel them to more pragmatically price risk, transparently rate creditworthiness, and bring down regulatory barriers that restrict the flow of capital to green projects in the developing world.

The battle for clean air requires structural reforms across multiple sectors, institutions and processes.

Public and private funds need to be redirected to green investments.

While temporary reductions in noxious emissions are certainly a huge relief, they are not the panacea for a country that has the onerous task of becoming the first $5 trillion economy in a carbon-constrained world. And, we must do this without gasping for breath.


This commentary originally appeared in Economic Times.

Gated globalisation and fragmented supply chains

The hyper-globalisation processes that built China’s industrial might also caused enormous political churn.

 COVID, pandemic, globalisation, supply chain, covid19, BRI, EU,
Getty

For decades, the West, led by US strategic thinking, bet that full-on engagement with Beijing would alter the opaque nature of Chinese politics, making it more liberal and open. The onset of the Covid19 pandemic should ensure a quick burial to this belief. The free and open liberal world order has run into the great political wall of China with deleterious consequences. Not only did the intense engagement with China fail to alter its politics, but many liberal democracies have also adopted Chinese-style industrial planning policies. The irony of today’s geopolitical moment is that Western taxpayers underwrote China’s bid for global influence. Successive US administrations, egged on by Big Business and Big Finance, played a crucial role in bringing China into the global community, culminating in Bill Clinton’s decision to welcome China into the World Trade Organisation (WTO) system.

Building Its Appetite

The subsequent outsourcing of manufacturing and industrial capabilities from the West to China allowed Beijing to ‘bide its time’ as it strategically built its influence through control over global supply chains. Because of the enormous financial returns accruing from labour arbitrage, governments turned a blind eye, as China used this economic dependence to flex its political muscle, first in Asia and now, through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), into the very heart of the European Union (EU).

The hyper-globalisation processes that were steadily building up China’s industrial might were simultaneously causing enormous social and political churn among the Western working and middle classes. Shorn of the decent wages afforded by manufacturing jobs — and increasingly alienated from the financial and technology elite — those left behind turned against globalisation.

The hyper-globalisation processes that were steadily building up China’s industrial might were simultaneously causing enormous social and political churn among the Western working and middle classes

The current global pause induced by Covid19 offers us a moment to reflect on what was, and to examine the contours of, what may well be Pax Sinica. Two large projects define China’s recent emergence. The first, reminiscent of Pax Britannia and Pax Americana, is the much-discussed BRI. China’s outward expansion through the construction of new supply chains and trade routes has been designed to serve its economic interests by capturing the flow of raw materials from Asia and Africa and, thereafter, supplying finished products to the world. And just as the British packaged their imperial design as a show of benevolence — think of the argument that the railways in India were built to benefit Indians — so, too, is China selling its political proposition as a new pathway for global growth, solidarity and development.

The second aspect of its expansion relates to technology, and its concerted effort to control and leverage the global data economy for itself. By globalising its technological prowess — from building next-generation communications infrastructure and digital platforms to offering surveillance tools to authoritarian governments — Beijing is well-positioned to script future administrations and regimes around development, finance, and even war and conflict. And it does this even as it isolates its own people from external flows of information and technology. Some argue that Pax Americana was no different. Like Beijing, the US leveraged its pole position in the global economy, its military and industrial strengths, and its technological supremacy to build a world order that responded to its interests. There is, however, no equivalence between the two. US society was largely open —individuals, communities and nations from around the world could engage, convince or petition its institutions; write in its media; and, often, participate in its politics. Its hegemony was constrained by a democratic society and conditioned by its electoral cycles.

US society was largely open —individuals, communities and nations from around the world could engage, convince or petition its institutions; write in its media; and, often, participate in its politics. Its hegemony was constrained by a democratic society and conditioned by its electoral cycles

Recipe’s Old, Mistrust’s New

It was these characteristics that encouraged nations to place some degree of faith in multilateral institutions, which were largely underwritten by the US. It also encouraged countries to participate in the free flow of goods, finance and labour; to move towards open borders, markets and societies; and, indeed, to embrace USled globalisation at the turn of the last century.

Few will be able to navigate the dark labyrinth of Chinese politics, much less claim to influence its communist party. It is worth recalling that at the peak of its might, the US withdrew from Vietnam because intense media scrutiny dramatically undermined public support for the war at home. Will images of damage to the livelihood and ecology along the Mekong convince the Communist Party of China (CPC) to abandon its damming projects upstream? Will the thousands of deaths caused by Covid-19 within China make it more transparent?

Therefore, the next globalisation era, increasingly underwritten by Beijing, may well be less free and less open than before. To balance China’s global ambitions, nations may opt to trade with geographies and nations where political trust exists, thereby fragmenting supply chains. Governments will ‘gate-keep’ flows of goods, services, finance and labour when national strategic interests are at stake. Indeed, we should be ready for a new phase of ‘gated globalisation’. Even as the recovery and progress of the post-Covid-19 world will be worse for it.


This commentary originally appeared in The Economic Times.

Order at the gates: globalisation, techphobia and the world order

World Order, Nivedita, Russia, BRICS, G7, Valdai Club, Putin, Moscow, World Disorder, UN, SCO, multipolar, leaderless, unemployment, inequality, globalisation
Getty

The publication of this commentary marks the beginning of online collaboration between Valdai Club, Russia as part of its Think Tank project and the Observer Research Foundation, India. This is the first in a series of planned exchanges between the two organizations on bilateral and global matters. Stay tuned for more commentaries, videos and webinars in the days ahead.


Nearly three decades ago, Francis Fukuyama argued that the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union and the universalisation of liberalism would mark an end to the historical struggle over ideology and political models. His thesis was, by his own recent admission, overly optimistic. The resurgence of strong identities and nationalist leaders has given rise to the politics of resentment and tribalism. Coupled with new shifts in the global balance of power and disruptive technological and industrial processes, it’s clear that a new world is upon us. The onset of the novel coronavirus at the turn of this decade has accelerated many of the processes that were a compelling change and has compressed timelines for governments, businesses, and communities to make crucial decisions about the future.

Perhaps the most significant of these shifts is the unmistakeable demise of Pax-Americana. The COVID19 outbreak is the first global challenge that has witnessed the complete absence of American leadership. It has also thrown into sharp relief the social and governance vulnerabilities of the West more broadly. Even the EU has struggled to equitably distribute resources between its member states amidst this pandemic with many now openly expressing their reliance on China — a result of expediency and naivety. The divisions — between North and South Europe over economics, and Western and Eastern Europe over values — seems likely to widen. The weakened transatlantic core of the international liberal order is likely to slip further in relevance in the post-COVID world.

Even so, it is not immediately obvious that any new leadership will take charge in the future. China, which by most estimates is a leading contender, has drawn the ire of the international community for several interrelated reasons, beginning with its missteps in containing the virus. Despite efforts to launder its own image through the WHO and the provision of public health goods to various regions, its efforts to sow discord among EU member states and its muscularity in dealing with Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea littorals is not winning it any friends. The documented racism towards its African diaspora has added to the list of nations and communities that are re-evaluating their dependence and relationship with the middle kingdom.

Most nations are struggling to adjust to the fast changing and evolving balance of power equations between China and the western hemisphere. East Asian democracies, which have arguably responded most effectively to the outbreak, have watched these goings on with anxiety. It is clear that they will continue to play one against the other and carve for themselves room to manoeuvre. Russia, which was amongst the first to limit travel to and from China, is now being threatened by an outbreak in its own cities. It will nonetheless continue to bolster Beijing’s agenda as long as it undermines what Moscow has always believed to be, a fundamentally undemocratic world order managed under US hegemony. It would be interesting to see how Russia — under its presidency — steers the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to respond to the series of disruptions that the world is grappling with.

Russia, which was amongst the first to limit travel to and from China, is now being threatened by an outbreak in its own cities. It will nonetheless continue to bolster Beijing’s agenda as long as it undermines what Moscow has always believed to be, a fundamentally undemocratic world order managed under US hegemony

These interrelated disruptions in various geographies also dovetail into another broader trend: The return of the strong state and the normalisation of nationalist leadership. The coronavirus outbreak will act as a catalyst for this process. Some governments will use emergency and national security powers to consolidate power, as Hungary’s Orban already has. Others may use this as an excuse to blame and undermine international institutions — the preferred bogeyman of the Trump Administration. And many will enjoy the popular support of their citizens as they do so.

The most obvious impact of these developments will be the end of globalization as we know it. Most states will aggressively move to reduce interdependence, especially with those regions where political trust is limited. Japan’s efforts to incentivise its industry to diversify supply chains away from China through a stimulus package is indicative of this. But the ripple effect of these decisions will be felt across geographies — from the Gulf states, who are struggling to maintain supply of oil and manage flows of labour; to the ASEAN, which will see enormous disruptions to its trade flows that are deeply intertwined with both China and the US.

Indeed, a shift from a global village of relatively deeply integrated communities to a form of “gated globalisation” based on political and economic familiarity appears inevitable. The digitisation of the global economy will only accelerate this process and, perhaps, technology tools may well aid in this. As governments take advantage of digital and surveillance tools to combat the COVID19 outbreak — in societies both liberal and illiberal — a new ‘techphobia” will begin to affect foreign technology platforms and businesses. With nearly all social, economic, and strategic interactions moving to the virtual and digital realm, states will race to “encode” their political values and technology standards into the algorithms and infrastructure that will govern our societies. This will certainly be a competitive process which will give birth to a persistent “code war”.

With nearly all social, economic, and strategic interactions moving to the virtual and digital realm, states will race to “encode” their political values and technology standards into the algorithms and infrastructure that will govern our societies. This will certainly be a competitive process which will give birth to a persistent “code war”

Most worryingly, the international community’s ability and willingness to tackle collective challenges through global efforts will be irredeemably harmed. From the G20 to the UNSC, few international institutions have proved capable of responding to the pandemic with any level of speed or efficacy. Other institutions, like the WHO, have been subject to political capture and manipulation, adding to the waning global trust in these bodies. There is a dangerous fragility now to global co-operation — with uncertain implications for future challenges of this scale. What will this mean, for instance, when climate change begins to redraw coastal lines, cause food shortages, exacerbate inequality and strain national resources like never before? If the global response to the COVID19 outbreak is any indication, it will be every nation for itself, with many suffering horrible consequences as a result.

The coronavirus may have heralded the sudden onset of what Ian Bremmer calls a “G-Zero” world — one that is at once multipolar, leaderless, and likely besieged by renewed geopolitical conflict. It will be a world where the West has lost its “moral” authority and one that Beijing seeks to reshape through its muscular and expansive Belt and Road Initiative; one where the Kremlin will see an opportunity to expand its geopolitical ambitions in East Europe, West Asia and the Arctic; and one where nations without geopolitical or geoeconomics prowess will have to “pick sides”, either by constraint or compulsion.

The coronavirus has certainly shone a torch on a world disorder, one where most communities are likely to be plagued by poverty, conflict, unemployment and inequality, while great powers either look away or cast their material resources towards their own populations and self-interest

The coronavirus has certainly shone a torch on a world disorder, one where most communities are likely to be plagued by poverty, conflict, unemployment and inequality, while great powers either look away or cast their material resources towards their own populations and self-interest. Plurilateral efforts such as at the G20, G7, the BRICS, the OSCE and the SCO, among others, may become the only viable venues where key global actors coordinate and convene with purpose, and will be the arenas where actors who are unable to engage in meaningful conversations can speak through proxies. Will these become the norm builders for “gated globalization” or can we find it within us to repurpose, resuscitate and radically reform the UN as it turns 75 to help shape a common future?

Great Wall for China? Shaping China’s (mis)behaviour

Mitigating the adverse impact of Beijing’s crude ambition while simultaneously absorbing Chinese capital is a tough balancing act. Before making policy choices, India must rapidly improve its ability to monitor the full extent of economic exposure to China.

 China, Beijing, balancing act, economic exposure, ambition, digital globalisation, Chinese investments, 5G, Made in China 2025, Digital Silk Route, Doklam, Asian Century, economic behaviour

To essentially prevent Chinese capital from taking over distressed businesses, India amended foreign direct investment (FDI) rules on Saturday to mandate government approval for all investments from ‘border’ countries. This is undoubtedly a critical crossroad in the India-China relationship. But it cannot be understood in isolation from other consequential bilateral shifts. These changes first began meaningfully in May 2017, when India objected to China’s efforts to reshape the Asian continent using the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

For decades, India and China were imagined by many as the future co-guarantors of the ‘Asian Century’. This changed in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, when China saw an opportunity to cement its leadership by establishing either a multi- or bipolar world while shaping a firmly unipolar Asia. India fully internalised this reality only after Beijing repeatedly ignored Delhi’s call to ‘multilateralise’ BRI, and mounted an offensive in Doklam, on the Bhutan-China frontier and perilously close to the ‘Chicken’s Neck’ corridor that links India’s Northeast to the rest of the country.

The coronavirus pandemic has finally compelled India to respond to its geo-economic realities. Still, much work remains. The current FDI restriction is a blunt instrument that is just as likely to harm Indian economic interests even as it seeks to protect them. China is the world’s second-largest economy, and as a March Brookings India paper, ‘Following the Money: China Inc’s Growing Stake in India-China Relations,’ by Anant Krishnan estimates, it has invested at least $8 billion in the Indian economy over the past six years.

If India is to make its way to a $10 trillion economy by the early 2030s, it may find it difficult to do so without a more robust trade and investment relationship with China. However, there are two aspects to China’s economic behaviour that India must not ignore. The first is Beijing’s efforts to ‘weaponise’ interdependence. Ever since China became central to global supply chains, it has used perverse industrial tools to climb the value chain, exacerbate trade imbalances and undermine global competition.

The second is China’s effort to shape the future of digital globalisation. It is exporting its propositions through the ‘Digital Silk Route’ and monopolising strategic industrial technology through the ‘Made in China 2025’ initiative.

Mitigating the adverse impact of Beijing’s crude ambition while simultaneously absorbing Chinese capital is a tough balancing act. Before making policy choices, India must rapidly improve its ability to monitor the full extent of economic exposure to China. As Krishnan’s study demonstrates, official figures do not shed light on Chinese investments through subsidiaries or other commercial instruments. It should not appear that India is lazily blocking Chinese investment largely because China has blocked market access to Indian companies in pharmaceuticals, dairy products and IT services.

India will have to identify the sectors that implicate its national and economic security. There is no granularity to the current FDI restrictions. Not all Chinese investments are national security threats. China’s investments in the automobiles industry, for instance, is less likely to be a security risk than those in India’s technology sector, whether it is infrastructure like 5G or in software and its applications.

Finally, New Delhi will have to develop new legal and institutional tools. Even the US and EU member states have not relied on such extensive FDI restrictions, despite Beijing’s aggressive acquisitions in their sensitive sectors. Instead, both are employing a combination of sectoral legal tools, such as data protection laws or revised mergers and acquisitions rules, and institutional bodies, like the US Committee on Foreign Investment. Without the appropriate legal and regulatory sanction, India might expose itself to reciprocal measures.

This is also part of a broader trend defining globalisation: the era of free and open trade may be at an end. The future may be characterised by ‘gated’ globalisation, where economic relationships will have to be underpinned by political trust. India stands to gain from this. Its political familiarity with large trading blocs like the US, EU and Japan make it a far more secure economic partner than China.

If this moment is inevitable, India must also work with its partners to shape and influence China’s economic behaviour.


This commentary originally appeared in The Economic Times.

Health Policy belongs to the national security domain and different stakeholders must engage

Samir Saran, President, ORF was interviewed by Oxford Political Review in the backdrop of the Indian government’s decision to enforce a complete lockdown, India’s capacities and challenges, and its potential role in the global fight against COVID19.

Covid, Covid19, Health Security Domain, Think Tanks, HCQ, Debate, Political Economy, state capacity, story, Indian Economy, WHO, Smart Lockdown, Digital Platforms, geopolitics, infodemic
Getty

Oxford Political Review: While the strict lockdown demonstrates the Modi government’s determination to control the virus from spreading, is India prepared to handle the pandemic and the massive economic disruption in making?

Samir Saran: Few nations are truly prepared for a pandemic of this nature and scale. India does possess some advantages in terms of the state’s decades of experience when it comes to fighting communicable diseases and natural disasters. But it also has the challenge of responding to this pandemic while continuing to battle legacy health challenges. Its health systems are likely to be overwhelmed unless it is able to moderate the surge of COVID19 and this has motivated the stringent lockdown.

The economic disruptions, on the other hand, will be far harder to manage. While India’s public distribution system may mitigate against severe harm to life and livelihood, the pandemic will hit its vast informal economy the hardest. It remains to be seen whether India can use this opportunity to rectify many of the institutional and administrative limitations that have hobbled this sector for the past seven decades. India now has digitalisation as an ally and it may well be a very powerful policy instrument to respond to a complex Indian economy.

As we enter the next phase of the lockdown, it is apparent that the government is attempting to balance health and life concerns and the economy. It is expected that some sectors including agriculture and manufacturing may be able to restore operations, albeit with limited capacity and under strict safety protocols. This attempt to put together a ‘smart lockdown’ model is something useful for India and other countries as the length of the combat with this pandemic may be considerable.

OPR: In a recent article, you termed the present crisis as an ‘infodemic’ in light of how information itself and information networks affected the discourse on COVID-19. In this context, how do you assess the response of global institutions like the World Health Organization?

SS: It is an unfortunate truth that the WHO’s actions in the early weeks of the outbreak contributed to the ‘infodemic’. Its early recommendations against travel bans and its delay in declaring Covid19 a global public health emergency contributed to many nations acting late and relying on incomplete information. This proved fatal to thousands around the world. The WHO failed both in its advisory role, in failing to alert the world on time, and in its technical role when it continued to amplify China’s assessments on the cause, location, and virality of the outbreak.

The WHO has named and shamed governments including China in earlier instances. This time, by soft peddling the China narrative, the WHO leadership has lost credibility. The organisation is important, and as the Indian Prime Minister mentioned, at the virtual G-20 summit, the WHO needs both strengthening and reform.

OPR: Where does India position itself in the ongoing blame-game between the US and China? As an emerging power with global ambitions, would it be prudent to keep out of these debates with global ramifications. Do you feel that it is high time that India too should contribute to the international opinion on whether any accountability needs to be fixed or not?   

SS: Unlike both the US and China, India is not inclined to see every global challenge from a zero-sum perspective. Delhi is unlikely to dive into shrill conversations about what the virus should be called but there is no equivalence between the US and China on this issue. China concealed facts, their intentions were less than honest, and they must be called out.

That being said, India should certainly not “keep out of the debate”. The real question, after all, is not about semantics, but about China’s growing clout in international organisations—especially the UN and its numerous agencies—and whether this compromises the independence and integrity of these institutions.

The takeaway for India is that it must recalibrate its approach towards global institutions in the decade ahead. Delhi must build its own presence within them and lead coalitions that can advance its own interests as well as limit the ability of other powers to manipulate them. This requires the deployment of both financial and diplomatic resources, which, so far, New Delhi has either been unable or unwilling to do.

OPR: How exactly could COVID-19-driven disruptions alter India’s engagement with her immediate neighbourhood as well as her standing on a global level? On the regional level, India’s assistance to Maldives has been appreciated, but easing the ban on the export of the hydroxychloroquine after President Trump’s tweet is seen as a sign of giving in to the American pressure. Having a large manpower of trained paramedical stuff, a major producer of generic drugs, and consisting of strong logistical capacities covering the expanse of the Indo-Pacific region, what stops India from taking the lead in the global fight against COVID-19?

SS: The Trump incident is best seen for what it is—one more erratic idiosyncrasy of his presidency and the media’s willingness to sensationalise it in both geographies. India would likely have exported HCQ to the US and any other country in need in any case. India has sufficient surpluses and capacity and has been the largest actor in the HCQ supply chain for many years.

Separating the signal from the noise would reveal that India has been one of the few nations willing to show global leadership. Delhi was quick to reach out to SAARC and the G20 in order to help coordinate regional and global responses to the pandemic. India has helped repatriate citizens from around the world as the crisis broke out and has delivered public goods to nations worldwide.

Delhi should use this moment to focus on the challenges at home, to define its own role in the world, and to assess who its actual friends and partners are. For me, how New Delhi is able to steer the Indian population and the Indian economy over the next six to 12 months will be its defining moment. If India gets it right, the world will stand up and take notice. If we get it wrong, others will write our story.

OPR: Besides shaping debates and potential interventions in the domains of foreign policy and economy, Observer Research Foundation (ORF) also runs a Public Health Initiative. Alongside the ongoing efforts by the Indian government as well as the leading industrialists, could think tanks like ORF also a play a role in aiding India’s efforts in addressing the present crisis?

SS: ORF has responded very rapidly to this pandemic as a policy think tank. Through our COVID19 tracker, we are identifying the spread of this disease here in India, and around the world, with accurate and real-time information. We are producing a daily curation of essays and articles from experts in public health, finance, geopolitics and other areas to provide a full assessment of the impact of this pandemic as well as predictions for the future. And we hope to leverage ORF’s digital platforms to inform the public about the different aspects of this crisis.

Think tanks, especially in the emerging world, must shoulder the responsibility of augmenting state capacity; certainly during this pandemic but also in less turbulent times. We remain honest arbiters of a wide spectrum of analyses from across the world in an era where misinformation sprints many miles. Institutions like ours must bring together other institutions and experts who can provide multidisciplinary perspectives and solutions to those who are receptive.

A few years ago, we at ORF argued that health policy belongs to the National Security Domain and that many actors and experts with different perspectives and areas of expertise—including in diplomacy, economics, and technology—must engage with it. This pandemic is forcing many to do exactly this.

Coexisting with #Covid19: Saving lives and the economy

Covid, Covid-19, Coronavirus, Indian Economy, Lockdown, reopening, locking down, timeframe, skillful development, global economy, information, infrastructure, communities

Experts at India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare published a paper on 9 April, 2020, looking at 41 sentinel sites across the country. It revealed that of the 5,911 severe acute respiratory illness (SARI) patients tested since 15 February, 1.8% have tested positive for Covid19. Of those who had tested positive, 39.2% did not report international travel or any history of contact with a known patient—clearly indicating that at least parts of India are likely in the stage of community transmission. By itself, this is neither unusual nor surprising—it is indeed the nature of pandemics to take root in communities over time.

A total of 179,374 samples from 164,773 individuals have been tested as of 11 April, 2020. Just around 7,703 individuals have been confirmed Covid19 positive. India is testing just over 17,000 samples per day, which is inadequate given the vastness of the country and the current spread covering almost half the districts. This means that the true scale of spread remains unknown and most areas remain potential breakout zones. The spurts that we are witnessing in cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Jaipur, Indore, and Ahmedabad are cause for deep concern.

India is testing just over 17,000 samples per day, which is inadequate given the vastness of the country and the current spread covering almost half the districts.

Despite efforts over the past few weeks to give it a boost, India’s healthcare delivery capacity remains limited. According to the Government, an order for 49,000 ventilators has been placed in view of the low numbers that exist within the system, but it is unclear by when they will arrive and be distributed among the special centres created for Covid19 patients. The Government has acknowledged the need for “rapidly ramping up” the number of Corona-testing facilities, Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), Isolation Beds, ICU beds, ventilators, and other essential equipment. This only serves to highlight the fact that the current levels of healthcare facilities will not stand a chance of coping with a sudden and huge surge. Hence, a national lockdown was, and remains, the only option since any widespread community breakout will overwhelm medical infrastructure.

A national lockdown was, and remains, the only option since any widespread community breakout will overwhelm medical infrastructure.

If we go by what has been officially stated, more than half of India’s districts are yet to record a single case of Covid19. But the virus may have made its way to many of these districts. Whether or not this is true will only be known through increased testing, which has not happened and is something that needs to be rectified with alacrity.

India has no doubt responded strongly and decisively to the crisis by opting for a countrywide lockdown. According to the Oxford Covid19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) database’s Stringency Index, on 25 March, India was the sixth country to opt for a complete lockdown and achieve a stringency index score of 100.

Yet, the fact remains that the lockdown is a blunt instrument. A country like India cannot afford to indefinitely extend it across regions when a clear assessment of the risk of community spread is impossible for lack of information.

The fact remains that the lockdown is a blunt instrument. A country like India cannot afford to indefinitely extend it across regions when a clear assessment of the risk of community spread is impossible for lack of information.

The lockdown, as we have it now, has virtually brought the national economy to a grinding halt. This hurts the informal workforce, micro businesses, and unorganised labour the most and is bound to have long-lasting implications. The use of a nation-wide lockdown, instead of a fine-grained approach, was a forced hand because of the impossibility of conducting local level assessments of the spread. The cost of not testing smartly or widely enough—whatever the reason—is unfortunately being borne disproportionately by daily wagers and vulnerable groups.

We can only hope that the experts the Government is consulting have briefed the political leadership of the lessons learnt—nationally and globally—over the past months. And that in the next week or two, we will not be blinded by lack of information or intent, or be limited by tentativeness of action. One must make it clear that full marks need to be given for the stringent 21-day lockdown: It was the need of the hour.

However, as of now we have failed to capitalise on the time advantage the lockdown has given us. We need to think on our feet, tap into every resource possible, and formulate an exit strategy rather than make the poor pay for an overburdened system’s lack of agility. We also need to prevent value destruction on account of unimaginative policy.

This is the moment to embrace talent from outside the confines of Government and infuse economic policy with ideas to reignite the Indian economy and tell the world that the India Story is far from over. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must seize the moment.

Various assessments of the post-pandemic world suggest that there is a real threat of gains in poverty reduction being reversed on account of Covid19’s impact on the global economy. India would not remain untouched if this were to happen. We need to act now to mitigate the impact of the blow even if we cannot avoid it entirely.

Various assessments of the post-pandemic world suggest that there is a real threat of gains in poverty reduction being reversed on account of Covid19’s impact on the global economy. India would not remain untouched if this were to happen. 

India is an outlier in terms of the scale and extent of the lockdown. Over the next fortnight, we should aggressively try and map the spread of the virus using methods such as countrywide sample testing or pooled testing. It is encouraging that States like Maharashtra are currently considering such strategies. We need to come up with a blueprint for a staggered approach to get us out of the unsustainable country-level total lockdown.

India cannot be a country in suspended animation waiting for a miracle to happen. For, a miracle won’t happen, no matter how hard we pray for it. That is not how killer viruses run their course. That is definitely not how the Covid19 pandemic is playing out globally. A pragmatic and scientific approach is the only way out of this seemingly impossible maze; that’s how you win a game of Chinese Checkers.

Three stark comparisons have emerged in the past two weeks. Statistically, despite its limited health infrastructure, India has done better than most others—especially advanced nations in Europe and America with fabled health services—in terms of infections, hospital admissions, ICU crowding, and fatalities.

Second, India has witnessed strong cooperation between the Union Government and State Governments (health is a State List subject, a fact often forgotten or unknown to commentators) and there has been bipartisan support for the measures initiated by the Prime Minister. In other democracies, bitter partisan politics over Covid19 have been on display.

Third, India is the only large economy where a lockdown has been accompanied by the near shutting of the national economy, resulting in an unprecedented disruption in jobs, productivity, and revenue.

If prevention is the primary tool India has adopted, then a blanket lockdown cannot be the only instrument we use. Tech and data-driven mapping of senior citizens and those people suffering from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) has to be extensively conducted. Everything from Aadhar and municipal data to digitised hospital records need to be scanned to figure out exactly who must stay home—and will need to be assisted in this regard—and who can be permitted to return to a less-restrictive, soft-lockdown work environment. Community health workers must be deployed for aggressive mapping of villages and urban settlements for the invisible elderly and chronically ill – finding those who do not exist in any current electronic health record is key. Of course, this has to be a ‘privacy sensitive’ exercise.

We have seen skillful deployment of the lockdown by all, but this policy hammer has not been accompanied by a sharp economic respite. Experts from India and abroad seem to converge on the idea that spending is necessary and that money deployed must reach its intended goal within a specified timeframe. These goals must include lifeline protections, support for supply chains and demand stimulation, and wealth protection. While the central government must focus on the macro instruments and agencies, its energy must now also be directed towards protecting capital. The state governments must partner with specialised institutions to respond to local challenges that are contextual and individual and, in such instances, community programmes must be implemented.

We have seen skillful deployment of the lockdown by all, but this policy hammer has not been accompanied by a sharp economic respite. Experts from India and abroad seem to converge on the idea that spending is necessary and that money deployed must reach its intended goal within a specified timeframe.

It could be argued, and correctly so, that human lives matter more than the economy which can be rebuilt. While this sentiment may sustain popular support for strong measures to control and rollback the pandemic, it will not obviate the need to address serious concerns linked to the economy which sustains livelihoods and, hence, life itself.

This is why a staggered exit from the lockdown, accompanied by stepped-up testing to cover every district, is necessary. A containment policy has been drafted and is already being implemented by several states after identifying ‘hot spots’. There is across-the-board agreement on what must not be done—namely, resumption of inter-State travel by plane, train, or bus.

What we need now is an agreement on what can be done. This list must include immediate resumption of agricultural activity (harvesting cannot wait for too long); restarting of certain micro, medium, and small enterprises so that the impact on jobs and income disruption is minimal; and resumption of basic economic activities like reviving stalled supply lines and retail services to ensure the looming crisis of essential goods is avoided while ‘social distancing’ remains in place. In the next stage, resumption of other activities like construction and reopening of some commercial and trading entities can be considered. Industries must then begin to operate under a special safety protocol which will ensure protection.

If the challenge of shutting down India was huge, the challenge of reopening India will be bigger. But India cannot, and must not, remain shut down for longer than what it takes to get its act together. Lives matter; so does the economy. Let’s not force ourselves into a corner where we have to make a false choice.

The new world disorder

COVID pandemic has exposed the fragility of global society and governance — and pointed to the way forward.

World Order, Shashi Tharoor, Samir Saran, SAARC, G20, Indian Imperative, Coronavirus, Pandemic, Indian Leadership
Getty

It is unfortunate that the coronavirus pandemic should have plagued the international community at its weakest moment, where national politics and economic parochialism are upending the idea of “one global village”. As Professor Sridhar Venkatapuram correctly notes, we take issue with the current state of the international order in our book, The New World Disorder & the Indian Imperative. It is not the values and norms that it ostensibly professes that we take objection to, but the means through which they have been devised, exercised and often betrayed.

Among the many crises of global governance we document, two, in particular, stand out in regard to this new pandemic. First, the waning legitimacy of international institutions. The WHO’s response to the outbreak, with its indulgence of the official Chinese line for far too long, is an important case in point. Many of our global institutions and their agencies suffer from politicisation, manipulation and a lack of representation, independent leadership and purpose. The second crisis relates to national sovereignty, and its resurgence amidst the wave of nationalism sweeping the world.

Headlines from around the world bear testament to these symptoms. The Trump administration’s “America First” instinct has seen it attempt to source a vaccine for the American people alone from Germany, to cancel pharmaceutical imports from China and to stymie global consensus on the response by insisting on the divisive “Wuhan virus” formula at the G-7 and, currently, at the UN Security Council. Beijing, meanwhile, has got away with letting the virus loose, handling it initially in an opaque manner, and manipulating the institutional architecture that should have responded to it. It is now attempting to play saviour by supplying emergency medical equipment to the world and emergency medical teams to Italy. Experience suggests that nations will pay for this help with silence on China’s misdemeanours. Even the EU has struggled to support its member states in their worst public health emergency in modern history.

We can only look on with disappointment as the thesis of our book plays out in real-time, with such fatal consequences. Our sweeping critique of global governance should not lead to the mistaken conclusion that it is a futile enterprise. Here, we’d like to engage with Professor Venkatapuram’s criticism that our book does not “go into how the global order creates and distributes health risks like COVID19”. It is, in fact, the recognition of the interdependence and shared resilience — and fragility — of our global society that prompted us to undertake this exercise. Had global governance been working effectively, the world would have identified the coronavirus as soon as it emerged; sounded a global alarm earlier about its dangers; and publicised the best practices that should have been adopted by all countries to prevent or limit its spread. That this did not happen is a damning indictment of the state of our new world disorder.

Had global governance been working effectively, the world would have identified the coronavirus as soon as it emerged; sounded a global alarm earlier about its dangers

As our book demonstrates, the coronavirus is far from the first global bug to have bitten us, nor will it be the last. In 2001, we learnt that anger and malice in Afghanistan could take down skyscrapers in New York. The year 2008 saw dormant financial malpractices in the US rapidly metastasise into a global financial crisis. In 2016, Russia tried to register itself in the voter rolls for the US elections. It is clear to us that the sheer complexity and immeasurability of our interdependence requires more global governance, not less.

This perspective also informs the subtext of our book, “the Indian imperative”. The coronavirus outbreak has drawn attention to what these imperatives are in the decades ahead. The first, is providing for our people. India’s vast, mostly undocumented and migrant informal workforce, is already suffering the heaviest damage from the economic fallout. Professions that are predominantly underpaid and unprotected will be collaterals. We remain hopeful that the Indian government and its society will see in this crisis an opportunity to resolve the many socio-economic inequities that plague our country.

This leads us to the second imperative: To use these domestic experiences and policy lessons to shape India’s international engagement. The pandemic has accentuated the governance challenges confronting most emerging economies. Responding to their needs presents India the opportunity to be a very different type of power. The source of the US’ power was its vast geopolitical network of military and diplomatic alliances and economic institutions. China’s rise, on the other hand, was facilitated by its geo-economic power and control over supply chains and trade. As we argue in our book, India will likely be the world’s first development power- with its rise being linked to its ability to provide governance solutions to the development needs of millions from Asia and Africa.

It is also incumbent on India to reboot the ethic of global cooperation. The world is slipping into spheres of influence of exclusive arrangements, limiting our ability to respond effectively to global challenges. India’s early outreach to the SAARC community and its proactive role in the G20 demonstrates that it remains adept at navigating ideological-political diversity comfortably, something it needs to do at home too.

India’s early outreach to the SAARC community and its proactive role in the G20 demonstrates that it remains adept at navigating ideological-political diversity comfortably, something it needs to do at home too.

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. When the current pandemic is over, the globe must learn lessons about what happened, and how international systems and institutions can be strengthened and radically reformed in order to forestall its recurrence.

Many will find in this pandemic an opportunity to close themselves off to the international community. India must defy such impulses. If anything, Indian leadership in these times — and a new resolve for global governance — may be just the vaccine that the international community needs to navigate a new decade.

#Covid19: Dr WHO gets prescription wrong

COVID19, Pandemic, Coronavirus, Tedros, Behaviour, SARS Epidemic, WHO, COVID, World Order, Western Democracies

Comparisons, as the proverb goes, are odious. Hence comparing the raging outbreak of Covid19 with any other pandemic of recent times is best avoided. Yet, it is difficult to track the pandemonium unleashed by Covid19 without recalling how the SARS epidemic of 2002-03 had let loose fear, concern and death in a similar manner. Then, like now, China was slow to acknowledge the epidemic domestically and failed to inform the global community about its possible spread.

There was one crucial difference however: the reaction of the World Health Organization. During the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, WHO was quick to recommend travel restrictions and criticise China for delaying the submission of vital information that would have limited the global spread of SARS.

Even as it was celebrating the successful eradication of SARS after a fierce eight-month battle, WHO warned that the world would not remain free from other novel forms of the coronavirus. The then Director-General of WHO, Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, implored the international community to investigate possible animal reservoirs that could be a source for future outbreaks and better study the movement of the virus to humans. China’s wet markets were specifically identified as a likely environment for the virus to incubate and jump from animals to humans.

The mutable nature of the virus, coupled with China’s rapid urbanisation, proximity to exotic animals and refusal to tackle illegal wildlife trade and commerce were together termed a ‘time bomb’ by a research paper in 2007. As late as December 2015, the coronavirus family of diseases was selected to be included in a list of priorities requiring urgent research and development. It was earmarked as a primary contender for emerging diseases likely to cause a major epidemic—an assessment which was reiterated in WHO’s 2018 annual review of prioritised diseases.

It is surprising, then, that when a pneumonia-like virus was detected in Wuhan in late-December 2019, the WHO, armed with data and years of subsequent research about the SARS outbreak, reacted as sluggishly as it did. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, better known as Dr Tedros, the DG of WHO, applauded China’s “commitment to transparency” in the early days of the epidemic in January, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. The WHO then denied evidence of human to human transmission of the novel coronavirus, barely a day after the first case was announced outside China. This is despite the fact that Taiwan, whose exclusion from the WHO deserves an article in itself, had warned the body of this as early as December.

While Beijing informed the WHO on December 31, there are expert estimates that the virus had spread to humans as far back as October. Even after being told, the WHO showed no urgency to send an investigative team, careful not to displease the Chinese government. A joint WHO-Chinese team went to Wuhan only in mid-February and wrote a report with decidedly Chinese characteristics.

Covid19 continued to exhibit characteristics of a pandemic, spreading rapidly around the world. Not only did Dr Tedros and his team fail to declare a public health emergency, they urged the international community to not spread fear and stigma by imposing travel restrictions

Meanwhile, Covid19 continued to exhibit characteristics of a pandemic, spreading rapidly around the world. Not only did Dr Tedros and his team fail to declare a public health emergency, they urged the international community to not spread fear and stigma by imposing travel restrictions. The global health body even criticised early travel restrictions by the US as being excessive and unnecessary. Following the WHO’s advice, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) suggested that the probability of virus infecting the EU was low, likely delaying more robust border controls by European states.

These early missteps by the global health body have proved fatal to thousands around the world and will likely adversely affect the lives of millions who now confront a prolonged tragedy and an economic slowdown. Part of the problem can be traced to the WHO’s long-simmering organisational challenges. It is chronically underfunded and has come under repeated scrutiny for its unwieldy bureaucracy and opaque regional offices. Indeed, the WHO’s response to Ebola was similarly criticised by the international community.

But that is not the only problem. It is equally clear that shaping the international health response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is one more front in the shifting sands of global power. This is not a first in the WHO’s history. In the 1950s and ’60s, the WHO found itself manoeuvring between the Soviet led Communist bloc and the US. Later, through the 1990s and early-2000s, the WHO was embroiled in a ‘North-South’ debate over pharmaceuticals, intellectual property rights and access to medicine.

It is equally clear that shaping the international health response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus is one more front in the shifting sands of global power 

China’s growing clout in international organisations is creating new fault lines in global politics, and the WHO has been an early frontline victim. Remember, the WHO, then led by Margret Chan, was one of the first international institutions to have signed an MoU with China to advance health priorities under the contested Belt and Road Initiative. Chan, a Chinese-Canadian, has strong links to the Mainland. Her successor, the Ethiopian politician Tedros, was also seen as a Chinese-backed candidate, a view that recent weeks have only reinforced.

Although the outbreak of the novel coronavirus may bear many resemblances to the 2002-03 SARS epidemic, China’s response and that of the international community do not. During the SARS epidemic of 2002-03, the WHO had strongly criticised China’s opaque data practices and delayed efforts at international cooperation. Subsequently China fired its Health Minister and the Mayor of Beijing in a rare public admission of the early errors it had made.

At that time, China officially disclosed over 1,800 infections and nearly 80 deaths. Today, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 persons and killed over 3,000 individuals in China alone. Yet, China has not only attempted to censor all official accounts of its early failings but has also employed an overt global disinformation campaign, trying to pinpoint the source of the outbreak as the US or Europe.

The WHO’s overt deference to China’s interests despite this behaviour should be an immediate warning sign to democracies around the world. Over the past decade, Beijing has steadily filled the vacuum in international institutions resulting from the Western democracies, especially the US, cutting funding and participation in these institutions. India has lost battles to China as well—most recently withdrawing its nominee for the Food and Agricultural Organization facing inevitable defeat at the hands of China’s candidate.  It is an irony of our times that the world’s most potent authoritarian state heads over a quarter of all specialised agencies in the UN, ostensibly the centrepiece of the international liberal order.

The WHO’s overt deference to China’s interests despite this behaviour should be an immediate warning sign to democracies around the world. Over the past decade, Beijing has steadily filled the vacuum in international institutions resulting from the Western democracies, especially the US, cutting funding and participation in these institutions

Belatedly, the free world has begun to hit back. The recent victory of the Singaporean candidate in elections to appoint the new director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization was a setback to Chinese attempts to capture a prized regulatory and norm-setting institution. Will the WHO be the next battleground? To prevent #ViralGlobalisation it must.

 

#Covid19: Made in China pandemic

WHO, Medicines, Pandemic, COVID, Coronavirus, WTO, World Order, Economic System, Geoeoconomics
Getty

Ever since he assumed the post of General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, Xi Jinping has repeatedly announced the Middle Kingdom’s intention to occupy a position of global influence by the middle of the century. Over the past eight years, China has steadily manouevered itself into leadership positions in international institutions, has deepened its stranglehold over global supply chains and has animated old and new geopolitical conflicts. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan and China’s domestic and international response to this pandemic has forced the world to confront the grim realities of Chinese leadership.

Research indicates that had China taken proactive measures to contain and suppress the pandemic earlier in December 2019, the number of #Covid19 cases could have been mitigated by up to 95 per cent. We now know that the opposite happened: local authorities in China suppressed information about the outbreak, even destroying proof of the virus sometime in December. Official censors scrubbed social media posts from medical professionals warning of a new “SARS-like” disease. And as late as mid-January, Chinese authorities denied evidence of any community transmission, allowing the lunar new year celebrations to proceed despite having known about it for at least a month.

As a political regime centred around the absolute inviolability of the Communist Party, China’s domestic reaction should surprise nobody. In many ways, the CPC’s international response reflected the idiosyncrasies of its domestic politics. China delayed notifying the WHO and in permitting it to inspect the situation in Wuhan; released vital genetic information to the international community a full week after it was isolated; and allowed millions of individuals from Wuhan to leave the city unscreened, many of whom then travelled the world. Countries which received much of that traffic are now grappling with more deaths than they can handle.

We know that China was certainly aware of the scale of the health crisis: in the early days of the outbreak, General Secretary Xi was conspicuously missing from state media reports, despite claiming to have addressed the Party about the outbreak in early-January. This would have happened only because of the uncertainty surrounding China’s efforts to contain the virus.  He was made the focal point of the response after his ‘Ides of March’ visit to Wuhan when the CPC was confident that it had the situation under control.

On cue, China’s international response changed gears. The prevailing theme that now dominates Beijing’s state-controlled media is one of China “buying time” for the international community to react—a claim that attempts to deflect attention from the CPC’s and the Chinese State’s failings. Laughably, Chinese officials now appear to be engaged in an authorized and concerted misinformation campaign, with several diplomats and even the MFA spokesperson ludicrously claiming that the US Army was responsible for smuggling the ‘Virus’ into Wuhan.

Beijing’s industrial prowess and control over critical supply chains, including medical supplies, have also added a geo-economic element to the pandemic. It has raced to be seen as providing public goods when other powers are faltering. Like the proverbial Fifth Horseman who is hard to please, past experience informs us, however, that aid and largesse from China is highly contingent on limiting criticism of China and refraining from trying to hold it accountable, leave alone answerable for its many sins of omission and commission. The Belt and Road formula has gone viral – literally.

Beijing’s industrial prowess and control over critical supply chains, including medical supplies, have also added a geo-economic element to the pandemic. It has raced to be seen as providing public goods when other powers are faltering.

To put this in context of the Covid19 outbreak, China’s ambassador to the Philippines threatened to retaliate by cutting imports if Manila did not lift its travel ban in early-February, despite an overwhelming global consensus that restricting travel would contain the spread of the virus. In March, a Xinhua editorial loudly hinted that China may withhold life-saving medical supply chain ingredients from the US amidst the deadly outbreak should political tensions rise.

Barely three months into a new decade, the international community is now confronted by a prolonged public health emergency whose contours and impact are not even vaguely known at the moment. An equally paralysing and fearful consequence is the global economic slowdown as a direct result of China’s irresponsible domestic and international behaviour. A less than inspiring response to the outbreak in the US and much of Europe will likely whitewash China’s offences against the international community in the short term, but the long term implications will last.

After China’s entry into the WTO, scholars asked whether China would be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. While the answer has been definitely negative for some time now, China remains well-positioned to claim leadership over the forces of globalisation and the norms and institutions to manage a new wave of connectivity. The right question to ask now is: Can China be a responsible hegemon?

After China’s entry into the WTO, scholars asked whether China would be a “responsible stakeholder” in the international system. While the answer has been definitely negative for some time now, China remains well-positioned to claim leadership over the forces of globalisation and the norms and institutions to manage a new wave of connectivity.

The US was confronted with this question as well in the aftermath of World War II and the Cold War. The international order Washington built and sustained with its allies was certainly not equitable or just. But it was organised around the basis that the common interests of the American people were dependent on the well-being of the international community. It could be argued that the US too was a hegemon and the world lived under American hegemony. Yet it was an accountable hegemon, constrained by American democratic traditions and open to corrective pressure at home and abroad. Its democracy in the words of some was allowed to be penetrated by others including foreign interests and its policies were shaped and sometimes gamed by external actors who could lobby the Congress, engage with its media and be part of the academic and research ecosystems.

China’s global interests, like its domestic interests, stem from a primal survival instinct: preserving the legitimacy, upholding the authority and ensuring the continuity of the omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent Communist Party. The global outbreak of the made in China novel coronavirus irrefutably demonstrates that the CPC is more than willing to endanger the health of the international community to promote Beijing’s irresponsible hegemony.

As the world irrevocably drifts towards isolationism as an instrument of survival and the Iron Curtain makes a reappearance rebranded as ‘Lockdown’, there couldn’t be a more dismal and grim start to a decade that will increasingly be defined by China’s amoral leadership.

An old scourge in a new, uncertain age

Uncertainties will mutate for a long time.

 covid, covid-19, coronavirus, Pandemic, WHO, Health, Xi Jinping
Getty

Having dawdled for weeks, the WHO has finally declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. Given that it is too soon to assess how well global institutions and governments have responded to the emerging public health challenge, that discussion is best left for another day. For the moment, three facets of COVID-19 merit comment.

First, we are witnessing what can be described as an “infodemic.” Thanks to social media platforms and an attention-hungry mainstream media, there is an overflow of (mis)information about COVID-19. For many, it can be hard to determine what is true and what is false since exaggeration is the new normal. The relatively restrained public discourse over HIV when it first made its appearance stands out in sharp contrast.

Second, the COVID-19 outbreak proves again that history tends to repeat itself. This is not the first time a killer virus has traveled along connected networks. Nor is it the first time that travelers have carried a virus. Colonial settlers carried gonorrhea, smallpox, and other diseases to the New World. Ships carried plague-infested rodents to foreign shores. Given China’s central role in the global economy and the outward flow of its tourists and labor through the Belt and Road Initiative, what would have once been a local epidemic, like the 2003 SARS outbreak, is now a global health crisis.

Third, COVID-19 has added a twist to emerging political realities. Will China reconsider its ruler-for-life decision or has Chinese President Xi Jinping demonstrated the benefit of opting for a reliable authoritarian system? Will American elections be altered by the national outbreak response and its seemingly significant economic implications? Will the EU be forced to rethink its immigration policy? As China provides aid to Italy and other affected countries, will we see a red dawn of another hue? These uncertainties will mutate for a long time even after the macabre march of the virus has been contained, if not halted.


This commentary originally appeared in Council of Councils — The Council on Foreign Relations.