Systemic weakness and democracy stand in the way of COVID-19 control
South Asia has still got low rates of the COVID-19 infection. But many say that this is because of the non-existence of proper testing facilities and also the tendency to hide facts.
All the states, including India, have been labeled as ‘hiders”. Critics are saying that they have no capacity to deal with the epidemic. Hiding facts is not necessary because the system is unable to produce the kind of quality data that can be taken for granted in the West. Deliberate hiding was what many accused China of. However, China is now out of danger.
The threats are not just to public health. Western experts have already hinted that they (the West) would be less capable of handling an epidemic than China because of the difference in the State system. China is authoritarian, while the West is democratic. China’s capacity to mobilize and organize society ensures extreme adherence and this was the key to its success. Such control is possible only in China. The situation in Europe has shown that “democracies” can’t handle epidemics well. The bottom line is that virus control is not within the capacity of all, no matter how developed they are. At this point, China has it and the West doesn’t.
Given such a global outlook, what should be the model for South Asian countries? It needs a model to survive the next crisis -economic, military or virus related.
Nothing like the present pandemic had happened since World War I. The Spanish flu pandemic had reportedly infected 1/3 of the global population. The death rate was around 2.5 % while the average flu epidemic death rate was 1%. Currently, the corona virus death rate is around 1.5%.
Globalization and South Asia
Globalization has meant both global anxiety and global cooperation. Since its coming into existence, globalization has had a positive impact, largely. But the COVID-19 epidemic shows that the downside can be deadly. Once wars were the only global events which caused large-scale deaths. Then with World Wars I and II, came pandemics and famines. Nowadays, it is the movement of people and services that creates vulnerability as no country is in isolation nor economically independent. It is not medical discoveries that matter but how public health is handled that matters.
People outside and within South Asia have not seen the peak. Therefore, things are still unclear. But the initial signs of mismanagement indicate weak control. Pakistan is not doing well as neighbor Iran is a hotspot and a border with China exists.
Critics say that, till date, political priorities rather than pandemic management dominate policy making. But within Pakistan, the performance of Sindh has been praised showing that level-headed tackling can reduce the damage significantly.
Bangladesh has banned most of the public gatherings centered around the birth centenary of its founder Sk. Mujibur Rahman in view of the corona virus threat. Given the political and financial investments made, this was a massive blow to the ruling party. It was going to carry out a major mobilization drive using the celebrations. However, mass gatherings in epidemic time can prove to be politically disastrous. The political flexibility that was shown by the government was a need of the times.
For a remittance-driven country with low investment in the health structure and surveillance system, it is difficult to control migrant workers arriving from hotspots, particularly Europe. There have been protests in quarantine camps and some of the returnees who were on “ home quarantine “ have flouted it openly.
While the infection detection is still very low, around a dozen, many think that undetected cases are more as migrants including those from China had been arriving for a while before any restrictions were put in place. For a country which has a poor record in managing public health issues, the dengue season will be a massive add-on. Already, a high number of dengue cases have been reported, more than last year at this time. That may overwhelm the already weak health structure.
Therefore, the scene doesn’t look good and hope is now being pinned on the weather – hot and humid conditions don’t encourage the virus – it is said. But science is still weak on this. While average resilience in South Asia is high, many are unaware of the implications. The case of a returnee worker who got married despite being on quarantine is an example. Authorities have cancelled his wedding reception but it exposes what is basically wrong. The system is far too lax to handle an epidemic effectively without causing massive damage.
Most people are already worried about the economic impact. The US$ 100 million from the World Bank to handle the crisis will have to be augmented by many more millions for getting the economy back on the track once the epidemic runs its course.
For the moment, everyone is holding his or her breath hoping that for some reason or other, things won’t be as bad as everyone fears.