Troughs and crests in the pandemic response
The nationalistic turn in global politics has affected vital institutions and partnerships at a time they are needed most.
- The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, that causes the disease COVID-19, has proven the ultimate stress test for governance systems globally. And governments worldwide are failing, showing up for all to see how poorly prepared they were for this examination.
- Even those governments that are likely to be rated relatively highly by scholars of public policy studying this moment later will not pass the examination unscathed. Such is the virality and lethality of this pathogen that success will be measured in hundreds of lives lost, compared to the tens of thousands of fatalities experienced elsewhere.
- Yet, the common challenges faced by all governments to fight COVID-19 must not mask the considerable variation in their performance which holds lessons from which we must learn.
Stages in the response
- A first stage is early clear-eyed recognition of the incoming threat, and, in the case of COVID-19 at least, requires the unpalatable decision to lock down society.
- Ideally this is done with full consideration of how to support the most vulnerable members of society, especially in a country such as India, where so many survive hand-to-mouth.
- This is a phase aimed at buying time, of flattening the epidemic curve, so that public health facilities are not overwhelmed; and, for using this time, paid for by collective sacrifice, to secure the personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies necessary to save lives.
- The second phase of the pandemic response is slowly to ease the burden on the economy by permitting a measured return of business activity so that livelihoods and supply chains can be restored.
- This stage can only be safely executed if accompanied by a war-footing expansion of testing capacity so that new infections can be identified and isolated at once, allowing contact tracing to be implemented by masses trained to do this crucial and painstaking work in communities across the country.
- The final stage, which for COVID-19 seems a lifetime away, is a mass vaccination programme and then the full rebuilding of economic and social life. None of this is easy, but, like an examination in a dreaded subject, one’s only hope is early and persistent preparation and, at crunch time, remembering the lessons learned.
What drags systems down
- The three main limitations of contemporary governance systems. First, for all the defensive finger pointing, opportunistic politicking and xenophobic posturing — exemplified best by the peevish current occupant of the White House but hardly unique to him — this is not a crisis that can be tackled without robust and multidimensional international cooperation between nations.
- From the epidemiologists whose data-driven models inform policy debates about how and when to lift quarantines, to the medical community identifying more effective treatments, to the research scientists racing to find a vaccine, we are watching in real time the benefits of intellectual collaboration that does not stop at national borders.
- But the nationalistic turn in global politics over the past two decades has reduced investment in and undermined the legitimacy of the very institutions that facilitate international partnership at the very time they are needed most.
- Second, pandemic response requires a whole-of-government strategy, for which political will and legitimate leadership are vital to convene and maintain.
- The State’s ability to fight the virus, which given the rapid growth of cases and a relatively high case fatality ratio, looks increasingly vulnerable to a debilitating outbreak. But even more worrisome is the abdication of good sense by the political class in the State.
- Even as the threat of COVID-19 was apparent, and as Kerala had put its State response into action, a soap opera in Madhya Pradesh was in full swing, with defections and the collapse of the Congress State government.