“The pandemic can be a catalyst for decolonisation in Africa”, by David Mwambari

The Western “brand” is suffering from what many see as a “slow and haphazard” response by Western governments to the COVID-19 outbreak. As the epicentre of the pandemic moved from China to Europe and now to the US, the weakness of Western neoliberal and neo-colonial systems has come to the fore.

As African countries started cancelling flights from former colonial countries and putting their citizens under quarantine, the myth of Western invincibility fell apart, alongside its corollary that only the Global South is susceptible to infectious epidemics. Indeed, it was perhaps the Western hubris and delusion of grandeur that initially made many governments in Europe and North America not take the outbreak of COVID-19 seriously.

In this unprecedented historical moment, many fear for the future. Africans do, too, but while they will certainly also go through a tough period, they should see this crisis as an opportunity to fast track the process of decolonialisation.

This first has to happen on a rhetorical level.

The idea that Africa is a continent of disease and death has to be challenged, especially now that the West itself is suffering from major outbreaks and alarming death tolls.

This is a trite view about the continent informed by colonial, missionary and unethical humanitarian lenses that reduces an entire continent of 54 countries to a malicious or ignorant single story. Surely, there are undeniable weaknesses in many sectors of African states and economies, including healthcare, but that does not mean there is no infrastructure or services, no preparedness, resilience, creativity, local knowledge or innovation that are utilised in normal times and times of emergencies.

The COVID-19 crisis is fast disrupting this colonial perspective that healthcare systems in Africa are the only ones always overwhelmed by outbreaks. COVID-19 has shown that austerity measures and lack of investment anywhere in the world cripple healthcare systems.

In many ways, the pandemic presents an opportunity for African peoples to see themselves differently, and the world to consider the African continent as a partner in finding solutions to complex problems such as COVID-19. 

And Africans already are seeing themselves differently and are readily challenging the tired old tropes amid the pandemic. But the work on decolonialisation should not stop at rhetoric only.

While this new crisis might be another challenging moment for African peoples, after the epidemic is over, the continent will have the chance to become more autonomous and self-reliant, as the West focuses on its own survival. It will have the opportunity to wean itself off of exploitative neo-colonial relations.

This will be the time to lay the foundations of economic reforms that prioritise African markets, innovation and local manufacturing and end the “resource curse”. A major overhaul is needed across the continent to transition economies from relying on the extraction and sale of raw materials to the West (and East – ie, China), and into building up local industries that utilise local resources and turn them into value-added products for export.

This should happen in parallel to renegotiating various trade agreements with foreign entities, which aim to extract African resources and make African markets dependent on foreign imports.

At the same time, other trade arrangements within and outside the continent should be fast-tracked. For instance, this will be a great time to start implementing Africa Free Trade Area agreements (AFCFTA), an idea first proposed by pan-Africanist leaders who dreamt of a continent that would first trade within its own borders and not give priority to its former colonial countries.

 A strengthened continental trade will allow the African Union, or African regional blocks to assert their agency more globally.

This will also be the best time to start cracking down on capital flight and tax evasion by local monopolies and foreign corporations which rob Africans societies of billions of dollars every year. If implemented properly, taxation and the repatriation of illicit gains can provide the needed funding for economic overhauls across the continent.

This process has to go hand-in-hand with putting a stop to African dependence on foreign “development” loans, which have forced governments into austerity for decades, as well as aid and charity, which have curbed local efforts to develop social services.

Foreign funding should be gradually substituted with national funding drawn from taxation, repatriation of funds and new higher-value exports.

It will also mean that African countries will have to stop importing foreign “saviours” to help solve African problems. The continent has enough local talent and educated experts at home and in the diaspora to tackle challenges in a variety of fields and they would do it better than foreigners, because unlike them, they actually know very well the local context and specificities.

This would allow African countries not only to use local expertise but also to develop it and eventually export it. In this sense, it is important to open up intra-African cooperation, especially in the context of the current pandemic. West African countries have built important knowledge on dealing with the Ebola outbreaks that can help others on the continent improve their national responses to COVID-19.

With an economic overhaul and a local talent focus, African countries can then proceed to develop their social sector. Improving healthcare should be a top priority, as should be the stimulated growth of local pharmaceutical industries and biotechnology.

Just as Western governments are now realising the mistake they have made in outsourcing production of everything to China – from masks to ventilators – African governments too should make sure that their nations are self-sufficient in key industries essential to national security, safety and health.

Education and innovation should also be on top of the agenda. African governments should increase investment in the education sector and continue to expand innovation initiatives that have sprung across the continent.

All this is part of a decolonialisation process that is long overdue. In fact, the African people have long been ready to embark on it, but they have been waiting for their political elites who have lagged behind.

But perhaps now that Western hospitals are no longer able to take in and treat African leaders and their assets stashed away in Western banks may be at risk amid the global downturn, they too may finally come on board.

Indeed, there are already a few positive signs. We have recently seen the African Union mobilise resources to confront COVID-19. African leaders are speaking with one voice, and in a recent teleconference have expressed the need to be united in finding solutions for the pandemic. Such initiatives are encouraging in a crisis that has seen many countries in the West react selfishly and refused cooperation with others.

We are living a historical moment which could engender a sense of reawakening and assertiveness among Africans that could guide us through the difficult journey our ancestors started in the 20th century. Indeed, decolonisation may well be fast-tracked because of the threat of a pathogen. 

15 Apr 2020

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/pandemic-catalyst-decolonisation-africa-200415150535786.html?fbclid=IwAR1bh3EqcaU0BowLcDE5U–92ACR43B0_uB4NcXyz5SFuskp6kL1ijB5diA


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Mwambari: Lecturer of African Security at the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London.

“The Only Treatment for Coronavirus Is Solidarity”, by Jedediah Britton-Purdy

A pandemic makes the slogan of solidarity literal: an injury to one is an injury to all. That’s why a pandemic also heightens the frantic wish to withdraw oneself from the web of interdependence and ride it out alone.

The new coronavirus makes vivid the logic of a world that combines a material reality of intense interdependence with moral and political systems that leave people to look out for themselves. Because we are linked — at work, on the bus and subway, at school, at the grocery store, with the Fresh Direct delivery system — we are contagious, and vulnerable. Because we are morally isolated, told to look out for ourselves and our own, we are becoming survivalists house by house, apartment by apartment, stocking enough that’s canned and frozen, grabbing enough cold meds and disinfectant, to cut ties and go out on our own.

The scramble reveals a class system in which a mark of relative status is the power to withdraw. If you have wealth or a salary from an institution that values you, and enough space at home, you might be able to pull off the essentially absurd trick of isolating yourself for a few months by drawing down the global web of commodities on display at Costco and Trader Joe’s. But for the 50 percent of the country that has no savings and lives paycheck to paycheck, or in small apartments with little food storage, or has to hustle every day to find work, this is simply impossible. People will be out every day, on the subways, at the gas stations, choosing between epidemiological prudence and economic survival, because they have no choice but to make that choice.And as long as this is true — as long as many of us are out there every day, mixing it up to get by — there is reason to think very few of us will be safe. Extrapolating from the little we know about the virus, the number of carriers will continue to grow. As long as our moral and political isolation drives us back into the marketplace, our material interdependence makes nearly everyone vulnerable.

“Wash your hands” is good advice but also a poignant reminder that this is not the sort of problem that personal responsibility can solve. Epidemiology is a political problem. It’s not hard to sketch the steps that would ease our cruel situation: a work stoppage, massive income support (unemployment payments with some universal basic income in the mix), a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures and evictions. Treatment for coronavirus and potentially related symptoms should be free and comprehensive, no questions asked (about immigration status, for instance), so that no one goes untreated because of fear or poverty. This is all, in the most straightforward sense, good for everyone. It is also how people look out for one another’s vulnerability and need when they see one another’s problems as their own.

Survivalism is so palpably desperate and elite-only that a pandemic also makes clear that we need the state if we are going to survive. Trump’s clumsy cycling through his repertoire — Everything’s fine! It’s foreign! We are taking strong action! — shows once again that he has no real idea of how to use the state, except as a showman’s platform and a bank account for grift. His class of late-capitalist oligarchs are too decadent, too thoroughly the products of their own stupid and selfish ethos, to have any instinct for what to do in a crisis like this one. But sharper minds will have plenty of ideas, many of them bad for many people.

There are three basic scenarios for this crisis and future, deadlier ones. First is the current US trend, which is more or less privatist, with some public-health involvement in testing and behavior guidelines. The wealthy withdraw, the middle and professional classes self-isolate as much as they can but remain vulnerable, and working and poor people get sick and die.

Even in our often-cruel society, this is a recipe for political backlash, issuing in the second possibility, disaster nationalism. Coronavirus resembles an accelerated version of the climate crisis in that, by highlighting our vulnerability and interdependence, it gives a political advantage to those who can take care of us — enough of us, anyway, or certain of us. If not in this epidemic, then in the next one, Trump’s “foreign virus” may find a successor in nationalism that takes real material steps to protect “our” people while excluding, shipping out, or otherwise getting rid of the rest. Something like this is probably the default setting of politics in an unstable, threatening world where most state power works on the national level, posing a constant invitation to ethno-nationalism.

The third direction is solidaristic. An injury to one actually is an injury to all; it doesn’t just sound good to say so. Even national-level responses to global ecological and epidemiological crises are stopgap mitigation. In this world, every country needs every other country to have a green energy system and infrastructure, an economy focused on health and social reproduction rather than precarious racing for the next gig. We need standing armies of green infrastructure workers and nurses more than we need the standing armies we have; and we need everyone to have them. The lesson of the climate crisis, that we can afford public abundance but the effort to have universal private abundance will kill us all, carries over to pandemic: we can afford truly public health, but if everyone is driven to try to stay healthy alone, it won’t work, and trying will kill a lot of us.

Is it impossible, too much to ask? It’s worth remembering that our alone-together world of individualist ethics and material interdependence didn’t just happen. It takes a vast and intricate infrastructure to keep us all running in one another’s service, and in the ultimate service of return to capital: from highways to credit markets to the global trade regime. The fact that these interwoven systems are tanking financial markets around the world at the prospect that people might need to spend a few months sitting at home rather than hurrying around exchanging money shows how finely calibrated they are to profit, and how totally lacking in resilience to shifts in human need.

The hands and minds that built up this order are not powerless to make one that puts health first, at every level: of individuals, communities, the land, and the globe. That is a different, deeper resilience, though to get there requires a political fight over the value of life itself, whether we are here to make profits or to help one another live.

Published in Jacobin, 13 March 2020

https://jacobinmag.com/2020/03/coronavirus-donald-trump-solidarity-profits

Jedediah Britton-Purdy teaches law at Columbia University. His most recent book is This Land Is Our Land: The Struggle for a New Commonwealth.

“For the global development community, COVID-19 poses big questions”, by Raj Kumar

A new term has gained immediate currency during the COVID-19 crisis: “contactless delivery.” It’s the idea that food and supply deliveries can be left at your door without interacting with a delivery person and risking viral spread.

One development organization is trying to capitalize on this new thinking with “contactless aid delivery.” This Turkey-based nonprofit group, NeedsMap, has developed an interactive map where those in need can request support and donors can send supplies and money — all online and without any physical interaction.

This idea — an adaptation of a model that the group has been running successfully for several years to support Syrian refugees in Turkey — is a sign of the times. Global development professionals are scrambling to understand how the COVID-19 pandemic will change — in ways small and large, transient and permanent — how they do their work.

Based on conversations with aid workers, development professionals, and global leaders, here are some of the big questions they’re asking.

Could development professionals lose their jobs?

In many ways, the global development industry — including global health, humanitarian, and sustainability work — is shielded from the immediate economic impact of the pandemic. Ours is not the restaurant or tourism industries. But there will be secondary effects.

Nonprofits may see additional fundraising around their COVID-19 response but diminished annual giving. Foreign aid budgets could slip. Some implementing organizations could grow, but others might shrink.

Those who have felt the immediate impact include Peace Corps volunteers who were returned home and fired. So too the many consultants who populate this industry and are seeing projects cut short, delayed, or canceled. Global development is in some ways a kind of gig economy, with expert consultants hopping from assignment to assignment. That makes a high proportion of this industry’s professionals susceptible to a downturn.

How can an industry so based around travel function?

For better or worse, global development work is synonymous with travel. There are field visits, missions, official delegations, conferences, and short- and long-term overseas consultancies. “Where have you been recently?” is a common question during small talk in the hallways of international organizations.

Those days have come to an abrupt halt for all but the most essential front-line humanitarians. It’s not clear when travel — especially international travel — might become an option again. It could be months, and some say even longer, before travel habits return to normal. And they may never; reduced travel, especially with climate pressures and financial challenges in the wake of the pandemic, could become the new normal for aid work.

There’s an enormous opportunity here. Perhaps the long-standing trend toward localization will be sped up inexorably. Perhaps the recent move to humanitarian cash transfers and direct aid will be stepped up. Perhaps virtual events and meetings will finally catch on as a true alternative to the innumerable convenings that get scheduled each year — although inclusion issues could be exacerbated for those without high-bandwidth connections.

For now, international organizations are scrambling to employ local professionals and secure local partners. Chiefs of party and project team leaders may, for example, end up running their projects remotely, directing a team on the ground. Down the road, travel — already a marker of value and social status — may become a scarcer commodity, rarely approved. As a consequence, the global development conference circuit may never be the same. For a community of professionals who see travel as essential to their work but who are also sensitive to the elitist and neocolonial undertones to all the shuttling around, this would be a mixed bag and a major cultural and operational shift.

Will this lead to winners and losers among NGOs and implementers?

A major disruptive event like COVID-19 can shake up business in ways that are hard to predict. But some contours are already coming into focus. And the bottom line is that large incumbents seem best positioned to weather this storm.

Major international NGOs have the financial cushion, donor base, global scale, and network of local professionals and partners to be in the pole position. While they will certainly face operational challenges, big INGOs can get to work on the COVID-19 response quickly, raise funds for that work, and help institutional funders hit the ground running.

The same goes for the big for-profit implementing partners. Their scale and infrastructure is an attractive asset to bilateral and multilateral donors who have no time to waste.

Leading national NGOs and implementing partners in the global south are also well positioned. They have the relationships and credibility to be hot commodities at a time when travel is so heavily restricted.

So who might lose out? Other than highly specialized niche players, essentially everyone else. Midsize international NGOs and contractors, along with small businesses, will have a hard time. There are set-asides meant to help them compete in many cases, but not in a crisis. Start-ups and social innovators have been a hot ticket of late, but they don’t have what institutional donors are looking for right now.

According to two well-placed sources, project work not related to COVID-19 is likely to be extended — in the case of USAID, under emergency orders — again benefitting the largest organizations that hold these contracts and grants. This is not to say large international players won’t face hardships. But in this crisis, it seems better to be big than small.

Can vertical programs survive?

The tension between vertical programs and holistic approaches has been around for two decades. It’s likely to be heightened in the wake of this pandemic.

Vertical programs exist in part because of political imperatives. Constituencies with political muscle build around issues — HIV, malaria — and cause funding to flow. Depending on how destabilizing and sustained the crisis, it’s possible those political imperatives could shift and publics could begin prioritizing systemic change instead.

Much depends on how the crisis plays out. Will health systems throughout the global south fail? Will critical systemic programs like CEPI and Gavi continue to show their value?

The World Health Organization made 2020 the year of the health care worker, and it was prescient. We are reminded every day of the heroism and criticality of these professionals. Every vertical program relies on them, including community health workers. With this pandemic, that’s becoming ever clearer: The public will experience the health care worker gap in a new, more visible way. Perhaps health care workers will become the first systemic cause that has the political salience of a vertical program.

Will we see reduced political support for foreign aid?

Shortly after the U.S. government’s $2 trillion stimulus bill was passed, Fox News reported on “questionable spending” that had been approved. Referring to a Devex story outlining global development investments that were included, Fox News called this spending “unrelated to the pandemic.” Much mainstream Western media has done little to draw a connection between global investments, for example in health systems, and the situation their readers are facing at home. While those linkages might seem obvious to a global development audience, there remains a possibility that increasing border closures, populism, and authoritarianism could lead to arguments against foreign aid — even at a time when its value is so clear.

Then there’s the real potential of a recession, including a deep and sustained one. Budget pressures already exist in most major donor countries, as their populations age and pension and health care costs mount. A significant recession could further politicize foreign aid and reverse what has been a long-term positive trend over two decades.

Will other key development and health priorities suffer?

The COVID-19 crisis is so severe and pervasive that it has already drowned out all other global development issues. Some leaders are trying to tie their areas of focus to pandemics. Others are trying to wait out the crisis before going back to their advocacy and fundraising.

It seems likely that the pandemic will negatively impact other priorities in at least two ways. Social distancing and infection prevention protocols will likely inhibit certain kinds of aid work, including mass drug distribution, which is key to reducing neglected tropical diseases. And the crisis response will drown out advocacy and fundraising appeals for other global challenges.

How will funders change due to this crisis?

Civil society association CIVICUS is asking funders to be flexible. Help their grantees through this challenging time, they say. The Ford Foundation, among others, has taken that tack.

But flexibility is just one short-term implication of this crisis for funders. Some funders are caught in an uncomfortable feeling of irrelevance as they try to stick to their knitting. Others risk pivoting so hard that their core areas of focus suffer.

One development leader questioned how well some government donors were prepared for any of this. It is “shocking” how behind they are on basics like telework, unable to download video conferencing software to government laptops, for example.

There has long been a tension between the need for nimble, agile funding and government procurement processes and traditional philanthropy cultures. This crisis may bring that tension to a head, raising a new level of accountability for major funders as COVID-19 potentially upends much of the global south. Fingers may get pointed this year in a way they haven’t before. This is especially the case if China rises to the occasion, providing makeshift hospitals and medical equipment while Western donors can only manage suspended debt payments.

How will advocacy efforts change due to the crisis?

There’s a kind of power vacuum in the global development community today. There’s a sense of “leaderlessness and rudderlessness,” as one insider put it. So much attention has been placed on the West so far that it’s not even clear at this point what advocates are calling for when it comes to the poorest countries and most vulnerable people.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa has called for a $100 billion relief package for its member states. Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed declared that donors should put up $150 billion. Whatever the figure, it’s striking how little the potential needs of the global south have figured in the debates in London, Brussels, and Washington.

One bright spot, according to a leading advocate, is that organizations are more willing to share their data than ever before. There’s a new ethos around data collaboration that might just stick after this crisis ebbs.

How might models of economic development change?

The COVID-19 crisis might not be just a temporary shock. Already it’s calling into question some of the core ideas that development strategies are based on.

For one thing, much of the developing world relies on the export of natural resources, including oil, minerals, and agricultural products. A steep recession and trade disruptions have dramatically dropped the value of these exports, hitting government tax revenues and economies across the global south.

For another, development strategies often call for low-skilled manufacturing as a pathway to prosperity. But this pandemic is causing rich countries to rethink their manufacturing strategy. Many political leaders are saying they want to onshore manufacturing — for everything from medicines to face masks — to ensure supply chains remain uninterrupted in crises like this one.

Then there’s the role of migration in economic development. With travel bans going up, what will happen to migration patterns and remittances over the mid-to-long term? And if there’s a prolonged economic recession — or worse — in rich countries, that could cause existing remittance payments to decline.

And let’s not forget that for many countries in the global south, travel and tourism are a major source of economic growth. Those elements of their development strategy might need a complete rethink in the wake of this pandemic.

Some see a green lining to this pandemic crisis: Perhaps when it’s over, we can adopt development strategies that better take into account the realities of an overarching climate crisis. Even as this short-term pandemic raises big questions for the global development community, it brings the importance of long-term climate change into stark relief.

01 April 2020, https://www.devex.com/news/for-the-global-development-community-covid-19-poses-big-questions-96899

Raj Kumar

Raj Kumar is the Founding President and Editor-in-Chief at Devex, the media platform for the global development community. He is a media leader and former humanitarian council chair for the World Economic Forum and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His work has led him to more than 50 countries, where he has had the honor to meet many of the aid workers and development professionals who make up the Devex community. He is the author of the book “The Business of Changing the World,” a go-to primer on the ideas, people, and technology disrupting the aid industry.

“Vietnam Winning New War Against Invisible Enemy”, by Jomo Kwame Sundaram and Anis Chowdhury

Vietnam, just south of coastal China, is the 15th most populous country in the world with 97 million people. According to its Ministry of Health (MoH), as of 13 April, there were 262 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 144 recovering or discharged from hospitals, and no deaths.

Poor country, early action

With officials acting quickly to trace and test contacts, as well as quarantine and treat the infected, Vietnam contained the first wave of infections in January. Following a second wave of 41 new cases, Vietnam imposed a national isolation order on 31 March. The country has already conducted more than 121,000 tests, with more than 75,000 people in quarantine or isolation.

After more than a dozen people, linked to Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi, tested positive, authorities have been tracing contacts, advised more than 10,000 people who were at the hospital since March 12 to get tested, and locked down a nearby rural hamlet for 14 days.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute noted “Vietnam’s experience demonstrates how, by focusing on early risk assessment, effective communication and government-citizen cooperation, an under-resourced country with a precarious healthcare system can manage the pandemic. In facing an indefinite unknown, decisive leadership, accurate information and community solidarity empower people to protect themselves—and each other.”

The influential World Economic Forum, the Financial Times and others laud Vietnam as a low cost Covid-19 success story to be emulated by poor countries with limited resources.

Containing infection, Vietnam-style

While much more resource constrained, some key features of Vietnam’s response are similar to other much lauded East Asian responses, with its infection rates significantly lower than even Taiwan’s. For many other developing countries struggling to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, key aspects of its response are very relevant.

Early action

Having experienced the SARS1, avian flu and other recent epidemics, Vietnam acted early and pro-actively in response to the COVID-19 threat. When only 27 Covid-19 cases had been detected in Wuhan City in mid-December 2019, Vietnam’s MoH issued prevention guidelines, including close monitoring of border areas and other steps to prevent infection of its population.

When China officially confirmed the first death due to the novel coronavirus on 11 January, Vietnam quickly tightened health checks at all borders and airports. Visitors’ body temperatures are checked on arrival; anyone with symptoms, such as cough, fever, chest pain or breathing difficulties, is quickly isolated for testing, and strictly monitored at medical facilities, while recent contacts are traced for follow up action.

Other tough measures followed, including closing schools, rationing surgical masks, cancelling some flights, and restricting entry to most foreigners. They have been imposed unevenly, as needed, rather than as blanket, across-the-board measures. The government has asked all citizens to make online health declarations, and regularly texts updates nationwide.

Selective quarantine

Vietnam was the first country after China to seal off a large residential area. After cases were traced to workers returning from Wuhan, it imposed a 21-day quarantine on 13 February in part of Vinh Phuc province, north of Hanoi, where more than 10,000 people live.

The government also ordered that all arrivals in the country be quarantined, while those who arrived after 8 March are required to undergo medical evaluation. Two communes were put under lockdown on 9 March after a British tourist with the virus visited them.

Affordable effective testing

Vietnam developed a fast, efficient and affordable test kit within a month. Many countries have already shown interest in the kit which uses a WHO-approved technique. Rapid development of the kit followed extensive urgent consultations with a wide range of scientists coordinated by the Ministry of Science and Technology.

Rather than mass testing, key to wealthier South Korea’s response, Vietnam has focused on isolating the infected, and tracking down their ‘primary’ (direct) and ‘secondary’ (next-level indirect) contacts in order to trace and test those more likely to be infected.

Concerned about stigmatization, Vietnam refers to infected persons by their case numbers. Exceptionally, the communist party government published the identity and itinerary of a prominent figure who had tested positive. When local businesses were reportedly ostracizing foreigners, the prime minister spoke out against such discrimination.

Social mobilization

Medical students as well as retired doctors and nurses have been mobilized. According to Tran DacPhu, a senior adviser to Vietnam’s Emergency Operation Centre, “We have to mobilise all of society to the best of our capability to fight the outbreak together, and it’s important to find the cases early and isolate them”.

A fund-raising campaign to buy medical and protective equipment for doctors, nurses, police and soldiers in close contact with patients, and for those quarantined, was launched on 19 March. By 5 April, more than 2.1 million appeals had been texted, with a considerable sum raised for the relatively poor society.

Transparency

The MoH’s online portal immediately publicizes each new case to all major news outlets and the general public, with details including location, mode of infection and action taken. Information is broadcast by television and via social media, including texts to all handphones.

Different ministries have jointly developed an ‘app’, reputedly very easy to use, allowingusers to: submit health and travel information to get tested; know ‘hotspots’ where new cases have recently been detected; and get up-to-date information regarding ‘best practices’ in Vietnam and the world.

Vietnam’s response has earned a high level of trust among its citizens. About 62% of Vietnamese surveyed, in the single largest global public opinion study on COVID-19, think the Government is doing ‘right’, compared to the global average of around 40%.

Solidarity

While some rich countries act selfishly, Vietnam is following in the steps of Cuba and China in demonstrating humanitarian solidarity in the face of the Covid-19 threat to humanity.

It has shipped 450,000 protective suits to the US for healthcare professionals, and donated 550,000 masks to five European countries. Vietnam has also donated protective clothing, medical masks, testing equipment and kits – worth over US$300,000 – to Cambodia and Laos, and testing kits to Indonesia.

Emphasizing the importance of social solidarity, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has described Vietnam’s efforts to contain the virus as the “spring general offensive of 2020”, referring to the crucial 1968 Tet Offensive by ‘Viet Cong’ guerrillas during its last war.

14 April 2020, IPS http://www.ipsnews.net/2020/04/vietnam-winning-new-war-invisible-enemy/

Jomo Kwame Sundaram. Economist. Member of the Scientific Advisory Committee (SAC) of UNESCO´s Management of Social Transformations (MOST) Programme. He holds the Tun Hussein Onn Chair in International Studies at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies. He served as the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development in the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) during 2005–2012, and then as Assistant Director-General and Coordinator for Economic and Social Development at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome during 2012–2015.

 Anis Chowdhury. Economist.  Director of Macroeconomic Policy and Development Division (July 2012-Aug. 2014) and Director of Statistics Division (Sept. 2014-May 2015) at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN-ESCAP). He also worked in the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA). Founding managing editor of the Journal of the Asia Pacific Economy.

“The Thing That Determines a Country’s Resistance to the Coronavirus”, by Francis Fukuyama

When the coronavirus pandemic now sweeping the world was localized in China in January, many people argued that China’s authoritarian system was blocking the flow of information about the seriousness of the situation. The case of Li Wenliang, a physician who was punished for blowing the whistle early on and who subsequently died from the disease, was seen as emblematic of authoritarian dysfunction.

The situation now looks less rosy for democratic government. Europe faces a larger disease burden than China, with Italy alone exceeding the number of deaths officially reported in China, despite having one-twentieth the population. It turns out that the leaders of many democracies felt similar pressures to downplay the dangers of the epidemic, whether to avoid injuring the economy or to protect their personal interests. This was true not just of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro or Mexico’s Lopez Obrador, but also of President Donald Trump, who until mid-March kept insisting that the U.S. had the disease under control and that the epidemic would disappear shortly. This explains why the U.S. lost two months in preparing for the onslaught, creating persistent shortages of testing kits and medical supplies. China, meanwhile, is reporting a leveling-off of new cases. Chinese students in Britain have reportedly been astonished at the lax approach taken by Boris Johnson’s government.

When the pandemic subsides, I suspect that we will have to discard simple dichotomies. The major dividing line in effective crisis response will not place autocracies on one side and democracies on the other. Rather, there will be some high-performing autocracies, and some with disastrous outcomes. There will be a similar, though likely smaller, variance in outcomes among democracies. The crucial determinant in performance will not be the type of regime, but the state’s capacity and, above all, trust in government.

All political systems need to delegate discretionary authority to executive branches, especially during times of crisis. No set of preexisting laws or rules can ever anticipate all of the novel and rapidly changing situations that countries will face. The capacity of people at the top, and their judgment, determine whether outcomes are good or bad.

And in making that delegation of authority to the executive, trust is the single most important commodity that will determine the fate of a society. In a democracy no less than in a dictatorship, citizens have to believe that the executive knows what it is doing. And trust, unfortunately, is exactly what is missing in America today.

It is a popular misconception that liberal democracies necessarily have weak governments because they have to respect popular choice and legal procedure. All modern governments have developed a powerful executive branch, because no society can survive without one. They need a strong, effective, modern state that can concentrate and deploy power when necessary to protect the community, keep public order, and provide essential public services.

What distinguishes a liberal democracy from an authoritarian regime is that it balances state power with institutions of constraint—that is, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. The exact point of balance between the principal institution of power, the executive branch, and the primary constraining institutions (the courts and legislature) differs from one democracy to another, and also differs over time.

This is no less true of the United States than of any other liberal democracy, despite its having a political culture that breeds intense distrust of concentrated state power and sacralized law and democracy. The U.S. Constitution was written against the backdrop of the weakness of the Articles of Confederation. Alexander Hamilton, an ardent advocate of what, in “Federalist No. 70,” he called “energy in the executive,” understood perfectly well the need for strong legal and democratic constraints on executive power. But Hamilton also argued that neither the Court nor Congress would be able to act decisively in times of national danger. These dangers would arise in times of war or domestic insurrection, but they could also arise from novel causes, such as the global pandemic that we are facing now. The kinds of authority granted to the executive would differ depending on circumstances; what was appropriate during peacetime was not necessarily what would prevail in times of war or crisis.

And so the Constitution established, in Article II, an executive branch that has grown in power and authority in the centuries since the Founding. This growth has been propelled by emergencies that required strong executive action, such as the Civil War, the two World Wars, and the financial crises that took place in 1908, 1929, and 2008. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln mobilized an army of a million men, although the Union contained fewer than 20 million people. When the American railroads required to supply the war effort in Europe became hopelessly snarled, Woodrow Wilson nationalized them, turning them into state-owned enterprises. Franklin D. Roosevelt marshaled an even larger war effort during the Second World War, and bypassed Congress in negotiating Lend-Lease. During the 2008 financial crisis, the Federal Reserve was delegated unprecedented powers, funneling hundreds of billions of dollars to prop up systemically important financial institutions (including several foreign ones) with little congressional oversight.

The U.S. has thus been able to generate huge amounts of state power when necessary. In Latin America, legislatures have frequently bestowed emergency powers on presidents who then kept them and became dictators. We see similar power grabs taking place in Hungary and the Philippines today. By contrast, the U.S. has tended to return power to society once the emergency has passed. Armies were rapidly demobilized in 1865, 1918, and 1945; Wilson returned the railroads to private ownership after a couple of years. The powers granted to the executive branch under the Patriot Act after 9/11 have been gradually clawed back.

So while America may be slow to act at first, once it is up to speed, it can probably match the capabilities of most authoritarian governments, including China’s. Indeed, one can argue that because power in the U.S. is democratically legitimated, it is more durable in the long run than the authority of a dictatorship. In addition, the government can draw on ideas and information from citizens and civil society in a way that China cannot. And for all that U.S. federalism fractures authority, it also creates a 50-state laboratory for new ideas. The governors of New York and California have been willing to move much faster and more decisively in the pandemic than the bogged-down federal government.

A democracy delegates emergency powers to its executive to deal with fast-moving threats. But willingness to delegate power and its effective use depend on one thing above all, which is trust that the executive will use those powers wisely and effectively. And this is where the U.S. has a big problem right now.

Trust is built on two foundations. First, citizens must believe that their government has the expertise, technical knowledge, capacity, and impartiality to make the best available judgments. Capacity simply has to do with the government having an adequate number of people with the right training and skills to carry out the tasks they are assigned, from local firemen, policemen, and health workers to the government executives making higher-level decisions about issues such as quarantines and bailouts. Trust is something the U.S. Federal Reserve had in spades in 2008: Its chairman, Ben Bernanke, was a former academic who had studied the Great Depression in depth; the Fed is staffed with professional economists rather than political appointees likely to favor friends and cronies.

The second foundation is trust in the top end of the hierarchy, which means, in the U.S. system, the president. Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt enjoyed high levels of trust during their respective crises. As wartime presidents, this trio succeeded in symbolizing, in their own persons, the national struggle. George W. Bush did initially after September 11, but as his invasion of Iraq soured, citizens began questioning the delegations of authority they had made to him via legislation like the Patriot Act.

The United States today faces a crisis of political trust. Trump’s base—the 35–40 percent of the population that will support him no matter what—has been fed a diet of conspiracy stories for the past four years concerning the “deep state,” and taught to distrust expertise that does not actively support the president.

President Trump continues to denigrate and undermine agencies he feels are hostile: the intelligence community, the Justice Department, the State Department, the National Security Council, even the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. Many administrative agencies have seen a steady depletion of career civil servants in recent years, with positions of high responsibility going either to acting agency and bureau heads, or else to political friends of the president such as Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell. With a 29-year-old partisan conducting a purge of federal agencies, the administration has placed personal loyalty far above competence. Trump appears to be well on his way to sidelining the highly trusted Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for disagreeing with him publicly.

All of which highlights the extent of the challenge to the second foundation: trust in the president and his immediate circle. Donald Trump has never, during his three and a half years as president, sought to reach out to the more than half of the country that didn’t vote for him. He has not taken any of the simple steps he could have to build trust. When recently asked by a journalist what he would say to fearful Americans—a softball question any other leader would have hit out of the park—he instead went on a tirade against the question and the journalist.

Because of Trump’s hesitancy to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, many conservatives have come to deny that we are in a crisis at all, and insist that the panic surrounding the virus is the result of a Democratic plot to take down the Trump presidency. Trump himself, after briefly pivoting to portray himself as a “wartime” president, declared that he wanted to reopen the country by Easter. He has admitted that this date was chosen not on any epidemiological grounds, but because it would be a “beautiful” date for churches to be full. Perhaps he is thinking of the national spectacle of thanksgiving he could stage around his reopened rallies, and how that would affect his reelection chances. The intense distrust that Trump and his administration have aroused, and the distrust of government that they have instilled in their supporters, will have terrible consequences for policy. The Democrats were insistent on including transparency requirements for use of the corporate-bailout fund included in the $2 trillion relief bill passed on Friday. The Trump administration, in signing it, asserted that it will not be bound by this provision, just as it refused congressional oversight during the impeachment proceedings. This guarantees that any future exercise of emergency powers to help distressed businesses or hard-hit regions will be second-guessed, and subject to accusations of cronyism on the part of an administration that up to now has been quite happy to reward cronies.

In the end, I don’t believe that we will be able to reach broad conclusions about whether dictatorships or democracies are better able to survive a pandemic. Democracies such as South Korea and Germany have been relatively successful so far in dealing with the crisis, even if the U.S. is doing less well. What matters in the end is not regime type, but whether citizens trust their leaders, and whether those leaders preside over a competent and effective state. And on this score, America’s deepening tribalism leaves few reasons for optimism.

Originally published in The Atlantic, March 30, 2020

https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/03/thing-determines-how-well-countries-respond-coronavirus/609025/

“How the spectre of the Black Death still haunts our collective memory”, by Helen Carr

Despite 800 years of medical advancement, coronavirus has resurrected our dormant fear of the plague. 

When a ship sailed into one of the ports along England’s south coast in the summer of 1348, its unwitting crew also delivered ashore the most deadly cargo to ever reach the British Isles: Yersinia pestis, a bacterium causing bubonic plague. Having erupted out of Asia, the disease had travelled along the Silk Road and torn through Europe via rats roaming merchant ships.

The symptoms of such a virulent infection, which would devastate England’s infrastructure, were as dramatic as its spread. First a fever, cold and general flu-like symptoms, followed by blackening buboes forming in the joints, most commonly the groin or the armpits. It was these buboes that would later give the disease its nickname: the Black Death. Sometimes people survived this stage, but usually the infection would reach the bloodstream and death was inevitable – and swift.

Over the next few months the highly infectious disease ravaged the south of England, wiping out entire towns such as Bristol, and reaching London in November 1348. By New Year’s Day 1349, the mood was apocalyptic, with 200 bodies a day being piled into “plague pits” in the city’s suburbs – Smithfield being a favoured spot to bury the corpses of citizens of the City. Henry Knighton, an Augustinian monk, witnessed the devastation caused by the Black Death: “There was a general mortality throughout the world… villages and hamlets became desolate and no homes were left in them, for all those who had dwelt in them were dead.”

The panic, fear and hysteria surrounding the Black Death were unprecedented. In a society driven by religion, the view was that the disease was a form of divine punishment. This consensus induced waves of ritual flagellation on the streets; people whipping themselves until bloodied, often not stopping even then. Blame was also pointed at the Jewish community, leading to a period of brutal anti-Semitism.

The 1348 epidemic was not the only outbreak of the plague, just the first, the most famous and the most deadly. Mortality by plague epidemic became a regular occurrence in almost every decade that followed, often sending people into a frenzy of fear and panic. Henry Knighton described another episode in 1355 during which people ran wild and were forcibly bound in churches in order to be given “relief” by God. In 1374 the Flemish chronicler Jean d’Outremeuse recounts a similar event in the city of Liège (in present-day Belgium), where women “abandoned themselves to frivolity” – a Danse Macabre. The Black Death appeared an endless scourge on humanity, attacking everybody from nobleman to labourer.

The plague of 1361 was particularly cruel: it was nicknamed “the children’s plague” after virulently attacking an entire generation of children. Following the 1348 Black Death, three decades of recurrent epidemics halved the British population from around five million to 2.5 million, until the infection eventually slowed in 1377.

There was no cure for the Black Death, despite the desperate and sometimes bizarre remedies that were popularised – strapping live chickens to the emerging buboes being one. People could isolate themselves, run away or impose a household quarantine. In cities, the poor, usually bound to their homes, would have to remain inside and wait, whereas most of the nobility would retreat from the cities during peak plague season for centuries after 1348.

The plague returned in varying degrees over the next three centuries, until its final shattering year in 1665, when it devastated England yet again, acquiring the name the Great Plague. In London alone, almost 70,000 people died. Antiquarian scholars in the 19th century instigated the long task of sifting through and even transcribing archival documents from the Middle Ages, paving the way for our understanding of the period. However, the spectre of the Black Death endured throughout the centuries that followed, with superstition, fear and panic across generations.

By the 20th century, the Black Death had become the model for “epidemics”, symbolising catastrophic mortality and the mass hysteria surrounding the outbreak of infection. By the 21st century, this escalated further in popular culture. The 2010 film Black Death depicts the culture of fear surrounding epidemics – suspicion, panic, violence – using the 1348 plague as a backdrop.

When the coronavirus outbreak was detected, plague iconography became a regular feature on social media – macabre images of a 17th-century plague doctor, with his black robes and beaked nose, began to circulate as a series of memes. In Italy, the European centre of the epidemic (with 7,335 cases at the time of writing), citizens recently paraded through the streets of Venice to mark the anniversary of the 1575 plague outbreak, which killed 50,000 people – they were dressed as plague doctors.

Despite infectious diseases ravaging society for centuries, the recollection of the Black Death remains at the forefront of our collective memory. After 800 years of enlightenment, medical advancement, antibiotics, vaccines and information, coronavirus has resurrected our dormant fear of the Black Death.

https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/coronavirus/2020/03/how-spectre-black-death-still-haunts-our-collective-memory

This article appears in the 13 March 2020 issue of the New Statesman, How the world is closing down

Helen Carr is a medieval historian, television producer and writer. Helen has produced history documentaries for BBC, SkyArts, Discovery, CNN and HistoryHit TV and has previously worked in radio for BBC. She now runs her own podcast, Hidden Histories available on iTunes

“Coronavirus is the greatest global science policy failure in a generation”, by Richard Horton

 We knew this was coming. In her 1994 warning to the world, The Coming Plague, Laurie Garrett concluded: “While the human race battles itself, fighting over ever more crowded turf and scarcer resources, the advantage moves to the microbes’ court. They are our predators and they will be victorious if we, Homo sapiens, do not learn how to live in a rational global village that affords the microbes few opportunities.”

If you think her language hyperbolic, consider the more sober analysis from the US Institute of Medicine in 2004. It evaluated the lessons of the 2003 Sars outbreak, quoting Goethe: “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.” It concluded that “the rapid containment of Sars is a success in public health, but also a warning … If Sars reoccurs … health systems worldwide will be put under extreme pressure … Continued vigilance is vital.”

But the world ignored these warnings.

Ian Boyd, a former chief scientific adviser to the UK government between 2012 and 2019, recently recalled “a practice run for an influenza pandemic in which about 200,000 people died. It left me shattered.” But did the experience trigger government action? “We learnt what would help, but did not necessarily implement those lessons,” Boyd said.

Austerity blunted the ambition and commitment of government to protect its people. The political objective was to diminish the size and role of the state. The result was to leave the country fatally weakened. Whatever the reasons for failing to act upon the lessons of Sars and influenza simulations, the fact remained, as Boyd summed it up, “we were poorly prepared”.

The global response to Sars-CoV-2 is the greatest science policy failure in a generation. The signals were clear. Hendra in 1994, Nipah in 1998, Sars in 2003, Mers in 2012 and Ebola in 2014; these major human epidemics were all caused by viruses that originated in animal hosts and crossed over into humans. Covid-19 is caused by a new variant of the same coronavirus that caused Sars.

That the warning signs went unheeded is unsurprising. Few of us have experienced a pandemic, and we are all guilty of ignoring information that doesn’t reflect our own experience of the world. Catastrophes reveal the weakness of human memory. How can one plan for a random rare event – surely the sacrifices will be too great? But, as the seismologist Lucy Jones argues in her 2018 book The Big Ones, “natural hazards are inevitable; the disaster is not”.

The first duty of government is to protect its citizens. The risks of a pandemic can be measured and quantified. As Garrett and the Institute of Medicine showed, the dangers of a new epidemic have been known and understood since the emergence of HIV in the 1980s. Since then, 75 million people have been infected with the disease and 32 million have died. HIV may not have swept through the world at the same pace as Sars-CoV-2, but its long shadow should have alerted governments to prepare for an outbreak of a new virus.

During a crisis, the public and politicians alike understandably turn to experts. But on this occasion, the experts – scientists who have modelled and simulated our possible futures – made assumptions that turned out to be mistaken. The UK imagined the pandemic would be much like influenza. The influenza virus is not benign – the number of annual deaths from influenza in the UK varies widely, with a recent peak of 28,330 deaths in 2014-15 – but influenza is not Covid-19.

China, by contrast, was scarred by its experience of Sars. When the government realised that a new virus was circulating, Chinese officials didn’t advise hand washing, a better cough etiquette and disposing of tissues. They quarantined entire cities and shut down the economy. As one former secretary of state for health in England put it to me, our scientists suffered from a “cognitive bias” towards the milder threat of influenza.

Perhaps that is why the key government committee, the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group (Nervtag), concluded on 21 February, three weeks after the World Health Organization had declared a public health emergency of international concern, thatthey had no objection to Public Health England’s “moderate” risk assessment of the disease to the UK population. That was a genuinely fatal error of judgement.

Failure to escalate the risk assessment led to mortal delays in preparing the NHS for the coming wave of infections. The desperate pleas I have received from frontline NHS staff are painful to read. “Nursing burnout is at an all-time high and a lot of our heroic nursing staff are on the verge of emotional breakdown.” “It is sickening that this is happening, and that somehow this country thinks it’s OK to let some members of staff get sick, get ventilated, or die.” “I feel like a soldier going to war without a gun.” “It’s suicide.” “I’m sick of being called a hero because if I had any choice I wouldn’t be coming to work.”

The availability of, and access to, appropriate personal protective equipment has been appallingly bad for many nurses and doctors. Some hospital trusts have planned well. But many have been unable to provide the necessary safe equipment to their frontline teams.

At every press conference, the government spokesperson always includes the same line: “We have been following the medical and scientific advice.” It’s a good line. And it’s partly true. But the government knew the NHS was unprepared. It knew it had failed to build the necessary intensive care surge capacity to meet the likely patient demand. As one doctor wrote to me: “It seems that nobody wants to learn from the human tragedy that happened in Italy, China, Spain … This is really sad … Doctors and scientists who are not able to learn from one another.”

We’re supposed to be living through the Anthropocene, an era where human activity has become the dominant influence on the environment. The idea of the Anthropocene conjures notions of human omnipotence. But Covid-19 has revealed the astonishing fragility of our societies. It has exposed our inability to cooperate, to coordinate, and to act together. But perhaps we can’t control the natural world after all. Perhaps we are not quite as dominant as we once thought.

If Covid-19 eventually imbues human beings with some humility, it’s possible that we will, after all, be receptive to the lessons of this lethal pandemic. Or perhaps we will sink back into our culture of complacent exceptionalism and await the next plague that will surely arrive. To go by recent history, that moment will come sooner than we think.

Richard Horton is a doctor and edits the Lancet

Source: The Guardian, 9 April 2020

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/apr/09/deadly-virus-britain-failed-prepare-mers-sars-ebola-coronavirus

“The Tragic Transparency of the Virus”, by Boaventura de Sousa Santos

Today’s cultural, political and ideological debates are imbued with a strange opacity, the result of their remove from the concrete day-to-day experience of the vast majority of people — ordinary citizens, or la gente de a pie, as they say in Latin America. That is especially the case with politics, which is supposed to be the mediator between ideologies and the needs and aspirations of citizens, but has been shirking that role instead. Whatever mediation is still left in it goes to the needs and aspirations of the markets, that shapeless, monstrous mega-citizen no one has ever seen, touched or smelled, a strange citizen endowed with rights but bound by no obligations. It is as if we were blinded by its light. Then, all of a sudden, the pandemic breaks out, the light of the markets fades, and out of the darkness — the darkness with which we are always threatened if we do not pledge our allegiance to them — a novel clarity emerges: pandemic clarity and the apparitions it brings to light. The things it allows us to see and the way in which they are interpreted and assessed will determine the future of the civilization in which we live. Unlike other apparitions, these ones are real and are here to stay.

The pandemic is an allegory

The literal meaning of the coronavirus pandemic is widespread chaotic fear and boundless death caused by an invisible enemy, but in fact it says a lot more than that. Here are some of the meanings contained in it. The invisible almighty can be the infinitely large (the god of the religions of the book), or it can be the infinitely small (the virus). Another invisible all-powerful being, neither large nor small, for it is misshapen, has emerged in recent times: the markets. Like the virus, it mutates in insidious and unpredictable ways, and, like god (Holy Trinity, incarnations), it is at once one and multiple. Although singular, it expresses itself in the plural. Unlike god, markets is omnipresent in this world and not in the hereafter, and, unlike the virus, it is a blessing for the powerful and a curse for all the rest (the overwhelming majority of humans and the whole of non-human life). Although omnipresent, all these invisible beings fit in their own specific space: virus in bodies, god in temples, markets in stock exchanges. Outside of these spaces, the human being is a transcendental homeless being.

Subject to so many unpredictable and almighty beings, humans and the whole of non-human life on which humans depend are exceedingly fragile. In case all those invisible beings remain active, human life will soon be (and probably already is) in danger of extinction. It is subject to an eschatological order and its end is at hand. The fierce theology woven around this eschatology contains various levels of invisibility and unpredictability. God, virus and markets are the formulations of the last kingdom, the most invisible and unpredictable one, the kingdom of heavenly glory or hellish perdition. Only those who are saved, the strongest of all (the saintliest, the strongest, the richest) shall ascend to it. Below that kingdom lies the kingdom of causes. It is the kingdom of mediations between the human and the non-human. Invisibility here is less rarefied, but it is created by intense lights that cast thick shadows on the kingdom. This kingdom is made of three unicorns. This is what Leonardo da Vinci had to say about the unicorn:

The unicorn, through its intemperance and not knowing how to control itself, for the love it bears to fair maidens forgets its ferocity and wildness; and laying aside all fear it will go up to a seated damsel and go to sleep in her lap, and thus the hunters take it.

In short, the unicorn is an almighty, as well as fierce and wild, but it has one weakness, in that it succumbs to the slyness of those who are able to spot it.

The three unicorns are, and have been since the 17th century, capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy — the principal modes of domination. In order to rule effectively, they, too, have to be intemperate, ferocious and prone to go out of control, as da Vinci warns. Despite being omnipresent in the lives of humans and of societies, they are essentially invisible, as is the essential interconnection between them. Such invisibility is the result of a common sense inculcated in human beings through education and permanent indoctrination. This common sense is self-evident and self-contradictory at one and the same time. All human beings are equal (so say capitalism); but given that there exist natural differences between them, equality between inferiors cannot be the same as equality between superiors (so say colonialism and patriarchy). This common sense has been around for a very long time and was once discussed by Aristotle, but it was not until the 17th century that it entered the lives of ordinary people, first in Europe and then throughout the world.

Contrary to what da Vinci thinks, the ferocity of the three unicorns does not stem from brute force alone. It also stems from the slyness that allows them to self-efface while remaining alive, or look weak when still strong. The first form of slyness is displayed through a multiplicity of wiles. Thus, for instance, capitalism seemed to have disappeared from a whole part of the world after the triumph of the Russian Revolution, but it turned out that it just went into hibernation inside the Soviet Union and went on controlling it from the outside (financial capitalism, counter-insurgency). Nowadays, capitalism’s vitality has peaked in the very bosom of its all-time greatest enemy, communism, in a country — China — that is soon to become the world’s largest economy. As to colonialism, it faked its own disappearance after the European colonies became independent, but it actually lived on, now metamorphosed into neocolonialism, imperialism, dependence, xenophobia, racism, expulsion of indigenous peoples and peasants from their ancestral lands to build megaprojects, etc. Finally, patriarchy gives off the idea that it is dying or weakened in the wake of the significant triumph of the feminist movements in recent decades, but the truth of the matter is that domestic violence, sex discrimination and femicide have been constantly on the rise. The second display of slyness consists in making capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy seem to be separate entities having nothing to do with one another. The truth is that none of the unicorns has the power to rule alone. It takes the three to make them almighty. In other words, as long as there is capitalism, there will be colonialism and patriarchy.

The third kingdom is the kingdom of consequences. This is the kingdom where the three almighty powers show their true face. This is the layer the vast majority of people are able to see, even if with some difficulty. At present, this kingdom possesses two main landscapes where it shows itself at its most visible and most cruel: the scandalous concentration of wealth / extreme social inequality; the destruction of life on the planet / imminent ecological catastrophe. With these two brutal landscapes, the three almighty beings and their mediations offer a glimpse of where we’re heading if we persist in viewing them as almighty. But are they really all-powerful? or is it the case that their omnipotence is just the mirror of the induced incapacity of human beings to fight them? That’s the question.

Reality on the loose and the exceptionality of exception

The pandemic lends a chaotic freedom to reality, and any attempt to capture it analytically is doomed to fail, because reality is always one step ahead of whatever we think or feel about it. To theorize or write about it is to lay our categories and our language on the edge of the abyss. It is to conceive of contemporary society and its dominant culture as mise en abyme, as André Gide would put it. Intellectuals should fear this situation more than anybody else. As is the case with politicians, intellectuals in general are no longer the mediators between ideologies and the needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens. They do all the mediation among themselves, they with their little-big ideological differences. They write about the world, but not with the world. There are few public intellectuals, and those, too, fail to escape our present abyss. The generation that was born or grew up during the post-WWII period accustomed itself to thinking exceptionally in normal times. Faced with the pandemic crisis, they find it difficult to think the exception in exceptional times. The problem is that our shifty, chaotic day-to-day praxis eludes all theorizing and demands to be understood in sub-theorization mode. It is as if the pandemic’s clarity generated so much transparency that we found ourselves incapable of reading, let alone rewriting what we wrote on a screen or on paper. Let me offer two illustrations.

At the very outset of the pandemic crisis, Giorgio Agamben protested against the danger of a state of exception being declared. By implementing surveillance measures and restricting mobility under the pretext of fighting the pandemic, the state would accumulate excessive powers, thereby jeopardizing democracy itself. His warning makes sense and was prescient with regard to some countries, notably Hungary. But it was written at a time when the panic-stricken citizens were awakening to the fact that the national health services were not prepared to fight the pandemic and demanding that the state take effective measures to stop the spread of the virus. Reaction was immediate and Agamben had to backpedal. In other words, the exceptionality of this exception did not let him think that there are exceptions and then there are exceptions, and that therefore in the future we shall have to distinguish not only between the democratic state and the state of exception, but also between the democratic and the undemocratic state of exception.

The second case in point has to do with Slavoj Zizek, who, at around the same time, foresaw that the pandemic pointed to “global communism” as the sole future solution. The proposal was in line with his normal-times theories, but was entirely inconsequential in times of exceptional exception. So he, too, had to backpedal. I have been arguing, based on numerous reasons, that the time of vanguard intellectuals is over. Intellectuals must see themselves as rearguard intellectuals, must heed the needs and aspirations of ordinary citizens and find out how to use that as a foundation for their theories. Otherwise, citizens will be defenseless before those who alone can speak their language and understand their deep concerns. In many countries these would be the conservative evangelical pastors or the radical Muslim imams, who stand for capitalist, colonialist and patriarchal domination.

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is a portuguese professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coímbra (Portugal), distinguished legal scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School, and global legal scholar at the University of Warwick. Co-founder and one of the main leaders of the World Social Forum. Article published in Critical Legal Thinking and provided to Other News by the author.

Source: Other News: Voices Against the Tide. 6 April 2020 https://www.other-news.info/2020/04/the-tragic-transparency-of-the-virus/?fbclid=IwAR33nuAjELUnkPK2JC1oktUefbZJRpz9gSu5M9frcsL3A-RGtNQg7EFkXDk

“Why this crisis is a turning point in history”, by John Gray

The deserted streets will fill again, and we will leave our screen-lit burrows blinking with relief. But the world will be different from how we imagined it in what we thought were normal times. This is not a temporary rupture in an otherwise stable equilibrium: the crisis through which we are living is a turning point in history. 

The era of peak globalisation is over. An economic system that relied on worldwide production and long supply chains is morphing into one that will be less interconnected. A way of life driven by unceasing mobility is shuddering to a stop. Our lives are going to be more physically constrained and more virtual than they were. A more fragmented world is coming into being that in some ways may be more resilient. 

The once formidable British state is being rapidly reinvented, and on a scale not seen before. Acting with emergency powers authorised by parliament, the government has tossed economic orthodoxy to the winds. Savaged by years of imbecilic austerity, the NHS – like the armed forces, police, prisons, fire service, care workers and cleaners – has its back to the wall. But with the noble dedication of its workers, the virus will be held at bay. Our political system will survive intact. Not many countries will be so fortunate. Governments everywhere are struggling through the narrow passage between suppressing the virus and crashing the economy. Many will stumble and fall. 

In the view of the future to which progressive thinkers cling, the future is an embellished version of the recent past. No doubt this helps them preserve some semblance of sanity. It also undermines what is now our most vital attribute: the ability to adapt and fashion different ways of life. The task ahead is to build economies and societies that are more durable, and more humanly habitable, than those that were exposed to the anarchy of the global market.

This does not mean a shift to small-scale localism. Human numbers are too large for local self-sufficiency to be viable, and most of humankind is not willing to return to the small, closed communities of a more distant past. But the hyperglobalisation of the last few decades is not coming back either. The virus has exposed fatal weaknesses in the economic system that was patched up after the 2008 financial crisis. Liberal capitalism is bust. 

With all its talk of freedom and choice, liberalism was in practice the experiment of dissolving traditional sources of social cohesion and political legitimacy and replacing them with the promise of rising material living standards. This experiment has now run its course. Suppressing the virus necessitates an economic shutdown that can only be temporary, but when the economy restarts, it will be in a world where governments act to curb the global market.

A situation in which so many of the world’s essential medical supplies originate in China – or any other single country – will not be tolerated. Production in these and other sensitive areas will be re-shored as a matter of national security. The notion that a country such as Britain could phase out farming and depend on imports for food will be dismissed as the nonsense it always has been. The airline industry will shrink as people travel less. Harder borders are going to be an enduring feature of the global landscape. A narrow goal of economic efficiency will no longer be practicable for governments.

The question is, what will replace rising material living standards as the basis of society? One answer green thinkers have given is what John Stuart Mill in his Principles of Political Economy (1848) called a “stationary-state economy”. Expanding production and consumption would no longer be an overriding goal, and the increase in human numbers curbed. Unlike most liberals today, Mill recognised the danger of overpopulation. A world filled with human beings, he wrote, would be one without “flowery wastes” and wildlife. He also understood the dangers of central planning. The stationary state would be a market economy in which competition is encouraged. Technological innovation would continue, along with improvements in the art of living.

In many ways this is an appealing vision, but it is also unreal. There is no world authority to enforce an end to growth, just as there is none to fight the virus. Contrary to the progressive mantra, recently repeated by Gordon Brown, global problems do not always have global solutions. Geopolitical divisions preclude anything like world government. If one existed, existing states would compete to control it. The belief that this crisis can be solved by an unprecedented outbreak of international cooperation is magical thinking in its purest form.

Of course economic expansion is not indefinitely sustainable. For one thing, it can only worsen climate change and turn the planet into a garbage dump. But with highly uneven living standards, still rising human numbers and intensifying geopolitical rivalries, zero growth is also unsustainable. If the limits of growth are eventually accepted, it will be because governments make the protection of their citizens their most important objective. Whether democratic or authoritarian, states that do not meet this Hobbesian test will fail. 

The pandemic has abruptly accelerated geopolitical change. Combined with the collapse in oil prices, the uncontrolled spread of the virus in Iran could destabilise its theocratic regime. With revenues plunging, Saudi Arabia is also at risk. No doubt many will wish both of them good riddance. But there can be no assurance that a meltdown in the Gulf will produce anything other than a long period of chaos. Despite years of talk about diversifying, these regimes are still hostages of oil and even if the price recovers somewhat, the economic hit of the global shutdown will be devastating.

In contrast, the advance of East Asia will surely continue. The most successful responses to the epidemic thus far have been in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore. It is hard to believe their cultural traditions, which focus on collective well-being more than personal autonomy, have not played a role in their success. They have also resisted the cult of the minimal state. It will not be surprising if they adjust to de-globalisation better than many Western countries.

China’s position is more complex. Given its record of cover-ups and opaque statistics, its performance during the pandemic is hard to assess. Certainly it is not a model any democracy could or should emulate. As the new NHS Nightingale shows, it is not only authoritarian regimes that can build hospitals in two weeks. No one knows the full human costs of the Chinese shutdown. Even so, Xi Jinping’s regime looks to have benefited from the pandemic. The virus has provided a rationale for expanding the surveillance state and introducing even stronger political control. Instead of wasting the crisis, Xi is using it to expand the country’s influence. China is inserting itself in place of the EU by assisting distressed national governments, such as Italy. Many of the masks and testing kits it has supplied have proved to be faulty, but the fact seems not to have dented Beijing’s propaganda campaign.

The EU has responded to the crisis by revealing its essential weakness. Few ideas are so scorned by higher minds than sovereignty. In practice it signifies the capacity to execute a comprehensive, coordinated and flexible emergency plan of the kind being implemented in the UK and other countries. The measures that have already been taken are larger than any implemented in the Second World War. In their most important respects they are also the opposite of what was done then, when the British population was mobilised as never before, and unemployment fell dramatically. Today, aside from those in essential services, Britain’s workers have been demobilised. If it goes on for many months, the shutdown will demand an even larger socialisation of the economy.

Whether the desiccated neoliberal structures of the EU can do anything like this is doubtful. Hitherto sacrosanct rules have been torn up by the European Central Bank’s bond buying programme and relaxing limits on state aid to industry. But the resistance to fiscal burden-sharing of northern European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands may block the way to rescuing Italy – a country too big to be crushed like Greece, but possibly also too costly to save. As the Italian prime minister, Giuseppe Conte said in March: “If Europe does not rise to this unprecedented challenge, the whole European structure loses its raison d’être for the people.” The Serbian president Aleksandar Vucic has been blunter and more realistic: “European solidarity does not exist… that was a fairy tale. The only country that can help us in this hard situation is the People’s Republic of China. To the rest of them, thanks for nothing.” 

The EU’s fundamental flaw is that it is incapable of discharging the protective functions of a state. The break-up of the eurozone has been predicted so often that it may seem unthinkable. Yet under the stresses they face today, the disintegration of European institutions is not unrealistic. Free movement has already been shut down. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent blackmailing of the EU by threatening to allow migrants to pass through his borders, and the endgame in Syria’s Idlib province, could lead to hundreds of thousands, even millions, of refugees fleeing to Europe. (It is hard to see what social distancing might mean in huge, overcrowded and insanitary refugee camps.) Another migrant crisis in conjunction with pressure on the dysfunctional euro could prove fatal.

If the EU survives, it may be as something like the Holy Roman empire in its later years, a phantom that lingers on for generations while power is exercised elsewhere. Vitally necessary decisions are already being taken by nation states. Since the political centre is no longer a leading force and with much of the left wedded to the failed European project, many governments will be dominated by the far right. 

An increasing influence on the EU will come from Russia. In the struggle with the Saudis that triggered the oil price collapse in March 2020, Putin has played the stronger hand. Whereas for the Saudis the fiscal break-even level – the price needed to pay for public services and keep the state solvent – is around $80 a barrel, for Russia it may be less than half that. At the same time Putin is consolidating Russia’s position as an energy power. The Nord Stream offshore pipelines that run through the Baltics secure reliable supplies of natural gas to Europe. By the same token they lock Europe into dependency on Russia and enable it to use energy as a political weapon. With Europe balkanised, Russia, too, looks set to expand its sphere of influence. Like China it is stepping in to replace the faltering EU, flying in doctors and equipment to Italy.

In the US, Donald Trump plainly considers refloating the economy more important than containing the virus. A 1929-style stock market slide and unemployment levels worse than those in the 1930s could pose an existential threat to his presidency. James Bullard, the CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis, has suggested the American jobless rate could reach 30 per cent – higher than in the Great Depression. On the other hand, with the US’s decentralised system of government; a ruinously expensive healthcare system and tens of millions uninsured; a colossal prison population, of which many are old and infirm; and cities with sizeable numbers of homeless people and an already large opioid epidemic; curtailing the shutdown could mean the virus spreading uncontrollably, with devastating effects. (Trump is not alone in taking this risk. Sweden has not so far imposed anything like the lockdown in force in other countries.) 

Unlike the British programme, Trump’s $2trn stimulus plan is mostly another corporate bailout. Yet if polls are to be believed increasing numbers of Americans approve of his handling of the epidemic. What if Trump emerges from this catastrophe with the support of an American majority?

Whether or not he retains his hold on power, the US’s position in the world has changed irreversibly. What is fast unravelling is not only the hyperglobalisation of recent decades but the global order set in place at the end of the Second World War. Puncturing an imaginary equilibrium, the virus has hastened a process of disintegration that has been under way for many years.

In his seminal Plagues and Peoples the Chicago historian William H McNeill wrote:

It is always possible that some hitherto obscure parasitic organism may escape its accustomed ecological niche and expose the dense human populations that have become so conspicuous a feature of the Earth to some fresh and perchance devastating mortality.

It is not yet known how Covid-19 escaped its niche, though there is a suspicion that Wuhan’s “wet markets”, where wildlife is sold, may have played a role. In 1976, when McNeill’s book was first published, the destruction of the habitats of exotic species was nowhere near as far gone as it is today. As globalisation has advanced, so has the risk of infectious diseases spreading. The Spanish Flu of 1918-20 became a global pandemic in a world without mass air transportation. Commenting on how plagues have been understood by historians, McNeill observed: “For them as for others, occasional disastrous outbreaks of infectious disease remained sudden and unpredictable interruptions of the norm, essentially beyond historical explanation.” Many later studies have come to similar conclusions. 

Yet the notion persists that pandemics are blips rather than an integral part of history. Lying behind this is the belief that humans are no longer part of the natural world and can create an autonomous ecosystem, separate from the rest of the biosphere. Covid-19 is telling them they cannot. It is only by using science that we can defend ourselves against this pestilence. Mass antibody tests and a vaccine will be crucial. But permanent changes in how we live will have to be made if we are to be less vulnerable in future. 

The texture of everyday life is already altered. A sense of fragility is everywhere. It is not only society that feels shaky. So does the human position in the world. Viral images reveal human absence in different ways. Wild boars are roaming in the towns of northern Italy, while in Lopburi in Thailand gangs of monkeys no longer fed by tourists are fighting in the streets. Inhuman beauty and a fierce struggle for life have sprung up in cities emptied by the virus.

As a number of commentators have noted, a post-apocalyptic future of the kind projected in the fiction of JG Ballard has become our present reality. But it is important to understand what this “apocalypse” reveals. For Ballard, human societies were stage props that could be knocked over at any moment. Norms that seemed built into human nature vanished when you left the theatre. The most harrowing of Ballard’s experiences as a child in 1940s Shanghai were not in the prison camp, where many inmates were steadfast and kindly in their treatment of others. A resourceful and venturesome boy, Ballard enjoyed much of his time there. It was when the camp collapsed as the war drew to a close, he told me, that he witnessed the worst examples of ruthless selfishness and motiveless cruelty. 

The lesson he learnt was that these were not world-ending events. What is commonly described as an apocalypse is the normal course of history. Many are left with lasting traumas. But the human animal is too sturdy and too versatile to be broken by these upheavals. Life goes on, if differently than before. Those who talk of this as a Ballardian moment have not noticed how human beings adjust, and even find fulfilment, in the extreme situations he portrays.

Technology will help us adapt in our present extremity. Physical mobility can be reduced by shifting many of our activities into cyberspace. Offices, schools, universities, GP surgeries and other work centres are likely to change permanently. Virtual communities set up during the epidemic have enabled people to get to know one another better than they ever did before. 

There will be celebrations as the pandemic recedes, but there may be no clear point when the threat of infection is over. Many people may migrate to online environments like those in Second Life, a virtual world where people meet, trade and interact in bodies and worlds of their choosing. Other adaptations may be uncomfortable for moralists. Online pornography will likely boom, and much internet dating may consist of erotic exchanges that never end in a meeting of bodies. Augmented reality technology may be used to simulate fleshly encounters and virtual sex could soon be normalised. Whether this is a move towards the good life may not be the most useful question to ask. Cyberspace relies on an infrastructure that can be damaged or destroyed by war or natural disaster. The internet allows us to avoid the isolation that plagues have brought in the past. It cannot enable human beings to escape their mortal flesh, or avoid the ironies of progress. 

***

What the virus is telling us is not only that progress is reversible – a fact even progressives seem to have grasped­ – but that it can be self-undermining. To take the most obvious example, globalisation produced some major benefits – millions have been lifted out of poverty. This achievement is now under threat. Globalisation begat the de-globalisation that is now under way. 

As the prospect of ever-rising living standards fades, other sources of authority and legitimacy are re-emerging. Liberal or socialist, the progressive mind detests national identity with passionate intensity. There is plenty in history to show how it can be misused. But the nation state is increasingly the most powerful force driving large-scale action. Dealing with the virus requires a collective effort that will not be mobilised for the sake of universal humanity. 

Altruism has limits just as much as growth. There will be examples of extraordinary selflessness before the worst of the crisis is over. In Britain an over half-million strong volunteer army has signed up to assist the NHS. But it would be unwise to rely on human sympathy alone to get us through. Kindness to strangers is so precious that it must be rationed. 

This is where the protective state comes in. At its core, the British state has always been Hobbesian. Peace and strong government have been the overriding priorities. At the same time this Hobbesian state has mostly rested on consent, particularly in times of national emergency. Being shielded from danger has trumped freedom from interference by government. 

How much of their freedom people will want back when the pandemic has peaked is an open question. They show little taste for the enforced solidarity of socialism, but they may happily accept a regime of bio-surveillance for the sake of better protection of their health. Digging ourselves out of the pit will demand more state intervention not less, and of a highly inventive kind. Governments will have to do a lot more in underwriting scientific research and technological innovation. Though the state may not always be larger its influence will be pervasive, and by old-world standards more intrusive. Post-liberal government will be the norm for the foreseeable future.

It is only by recognising the frailties of liberal societies that their most essential values can be preserved. Along with fairness they include individual liberty, which as well as being worthwhile in itself is a necessary check on government. But those who believe personal autonomy is the innermost human need betray an ignorance of psychology, not least their own. For practically everyone, security and belonging are as important, often more so. Liberalism was, in effect, a systematic denial of this fact.

An advantage of quarantine is that it can be used to think afresh. Clearing the mind of clutter and thinking how to live in an altered world is the task at hand. For those of us who are not serving on the front line, this should be enough for the duration.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

NewStateman, 1 April 2020https://www.newstatesman.com/international/2020/04/why-crisis-turning-point-history#amp

“Listening as governance”, by Amartya Sen

We have reason to take pride in the fact that India is the largest democracy in the world, and also the oldest in the developing world. Aside from giving everyone a voice, democracy provides many practical benefits for us. We can, however, ask whether we are making good use of it now when the country, facing a gigantic health crisis, needs it most.

First a bit of history. As the British Raj ended, the newly established democracy in India started bearing practical fruits straightway. Famines, which were a persistent occurrence throughout the history of authoritarian British rule, stopped abruptly with the establishment of a democratic India. The last famine, the Bengal famine of 1943, which I witnessed as a child just before Independence, marked the end of colonial rule. India has had no famine since then, and the ones that threatened to emerge in the early decades after Independence were firmly quashed.

How did this happen? Democracy gives very strong incentives to the government to work hard to prevent famines. The government has to respond promptly to people’s needs because of a combination of public discussion and elections. However, elections alone could not do it. Indeed, democracy is never understandable only as a system of free elections, which are intermittent, often with a big gap between one and the next, and which can be swayed by the excitement that the immediate political context generates. For example, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who was trailing badly in the polls before the Falklands War in 1982, got a huge bump from the war (as ruling governments often do) and comfortably won the general elections that followed, in 1983.

Also general elections in the parliamentary system are primarily about getting a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament. There is no formal rule about the interests or rights of minorities in the voting system. Given that, if all people were to vote according to their own personal interests, an election would not have been a strong saviour of famine victims, since only a small minority of people actually starve in any famine. However, a free press and open public discussion makes the distress and dangers faced by the vulnerable poor substantially known and understood by the public at large, destabilising the standing of a government that allows such a calamity to happen. Of course, the government itself, since it may also be run by people and parties capable of human sympathy and understanding, may be directly influenced by what they learn from the information and analyses emerging from public discussion.

Even though only a minority may actually face the deprivation of a famine, a listening majority, informed by public discussion and a free press, can make a government responsive. This can happen either through sympathy (when the government cares), or through the antipathy that would be generated by its inaction (when the government remains uncaring). John Stuart Mill’s analysis of democracy as “governance by discussion” helps to identify the saviour of the threatened famine victim, in particular a free press and unrestrained discussion.

Tackling a social calamity is not like fighting a war which works best when a leader can use top-down power to order everyone to do what the leader wants — with no need for consultation. In contrast, what is needed for dealing with a social calamity is participatory governance and alert public discussion. Famine victims may be socially distant from the relatively more affluent public, and so can be other sufferers in different social calamities, but listening to public discussion makes the policy-makers understand what needs to be done. Napoleon may have been much better at commanding rather than listening, but this did not hamper his military success (except perhaps in his Russian campaign). However, for overcoming a social calamity, listening is an ever-present necessity.

This applies also to the calamity caused by a pandemic, in which some — the more affluent — may be concerned only about not getting the disease, while others have to worry also about earning an income (which may be threatened by the disease or by an anti-disease policy, such as a lockdown), and — for those away from home as migrant workers — about finding the means of getting back home. The different types of hazards from which different groups suffer have to be addressed, and this is much aided by a participatory democracy, in particular when the press is free, public discussion is unrestrained, and when governmental commands are informed by listening and consultation.

In the sudden crisis in India arising from the spread of COVID-19, the government has obviously been right to be concerned with rapidly stopping the spread. Social distancing as a remedy is also important and has been rightly favoured in Indian policy-making. Problems, however, arise from the fact that a single-minded pursuit of slowing the spread of the disease does not discriminate between different paths that can be taken in that pursuit, some of which could bring disaster and havoc in the lives of many millions of poor people, while others could helpfully include policies in the package that prevent such suffering.

Employment and income are basic concerns of the poor, and taking special care for preserving them whenever they are threatened is an essential requirement of policy-making. It is worth noting in this context that even starvation and famines are causally connected with inadequacy of income and the inability of the impoverished to buy food (as extensive economic studies have brought out). If a sudden lockdown prevents millions of labourers from earning an income, starvation in some scale cannot be far off. Even the US, which is often taken to be a quintessential free enterprise economy (as in many ways it indeed is), has instituted income subsidies through massive federal spending for the unemployed and the poor. In the emergence and acceptance of such socially protective measures in America, a crucial part has been played by public discussion, including advocacy from the political opposition.

In India the institutional mechanism for keeping the poor away from deprivation and destitution will have to relate to its own economic conditions, but it is not hard to consider possible protective arrangements, such as devoting more public funds for helping the poor (which gets a comparatively small allocation in the central budget as things stand), including feeding arrangements in large national scale, and drawing on the 60 million tons of rice and wheat that remain unused in the godowns of the Food Corporation of India. The ways and means of getting displaced migrant labourers back to their homes, and making arrangements for their resettlement, paying attention to their disease status and health care, are also challenging issues that call for careful listening rather than inflexible decisions without proper consultation.

Listening is central in the government’s task of preventing social calamity — hearing what the problems are, where exactly they have hit, and how they affect the victims. Rather than muzzling the media and threatening dissenters with punitive measures (and remaining politically unchallenged), governance can be greatly helped by informed public discussion. Overcoming a pandemic may look like fighting a war, but the real need is far from that.