As a British citizen living in India, I have watched with a mix of fascination and frustration the unfolding of very different responses to the coronavirus crisis.
Regionally we have seen a broadly interventionist approach from technocratic governments in Asia. China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan were on the front foot quickly. They allocated resources and prioritised testing early. These are countries where expert knowledge and informed opinion is valued and woven into the DNA of government policy making. All were exposed to SARS and have built that institutional knowledge into their healthcare systems.
They are also places, where (broadly) citizens retain respect for their law makers and where traditional deference to authority means instructions are followed. Lives have been saved and economic risks to some extent mitigated.
Western governments took a more laissez faire approach.
The United Kingdom initially plumped for a full-throttled, free marketeering, “herd immunity” strategy. Faced with a rapidly rising infection rate, it made a dramatic U-turn. Its economic plan now includes guaranteeing the wages of employees of private companies, an idea that even the hard-left, Corbyn-led Labour opposition would have considered beyond the pale in its December election manifesto.
Going to the park
When two weeks ago the UK government finally asked its citizens to stay home, many took the opportunity to have a party, go to the beach or walk in the park. The day after the announcement, the Snowdonia National Park in Wales was apparently overwhelmed by visitors and its management couldn’t remember “a busier day”. The government had to remind residents that a round of golf did not constitute reasonable daily exercise.
Rule-abiding Brits, who normally stop at red lights, queue patiently and keep social distance, without being asked, decided they’d ignore advice and take matters into their own hands. For many British citizens, trust in government is a thing of the past. We don’t believe what the authorities tell us, and we choose to ignore its advice. We do not defer. We are highly individualistic. If it suits us to take a walk on the beach, then that’s our business and not an act that we see in the context of a wider threat to our fellow man’s wellbeing. The same “I’m alright Jack” mentality manifests in the panic buying of pasta and toilet rolls. We ignored expert advice on Brexit and we’ll now ignore their recommendations to avoid social interactions.
Other western governments stuck their heads in the sand, saw the problem as someone else’s and then had to change tack as the scale of the problem became evident locally.
The so-called developed world, for all its resources and supposed leadership, has struggled to offer a coherent response.
Falling in line
The Indian government’s response has been interventionist and harsh. The reaction of its citizens has been at times inspiring and counterintuitive. It presents a troubling conundrum.
In India, we happily drive on the wrong side of the road and think of red lights as “advisory’ at best. Rules are for other people. Queueing is a quaint, foreign affectation. Under normal circumstances we are rarely compliant. In a crisis, a different story emerges. When told by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stay home on March 22 and observe a 14-hour “janata curfew”, we did. My street in the Mumbai neighbourhood of Bandra was deserted. Asked to give health workers and sanitation staff a standing ovation from our balconies and doorways, we enthusiastically obliged. In the face of danger, inveterate rule-breakers found a taste for compliance.
Two days later the prime minister announced a 21-day lockdown with a mere four hours-notice before roads, ports, and toll plazas were shut. The country was caught unawares and ill-prepared. The lockdown may be a strategic necessity. It’s application is fraught with difficulty.
In affluent suburbs, working from home, self-isolation and social distancing are achievable goals that may stymie the spread of the virus. (The English phrase “social-distancing” is being used by government, media and population alike. Culturally, in a country that lives cheek by jowl and where privacy is limited, it’s an alien concept and I can’t find a ready Hindi translation).
The owners of shops and stalls in my local market – still remarkably well stocked after a week of lockdown – have painted circles on the pavements to keep customers a safe distance apart. Overnight, queuing has become de rigueur. Honking horns has abated. At night, the sky is alight with stars as pollution levels have dropped dramatically. Households are learning to cope without the daily domestic help that would normally bustle in and out of apartment buildings keeping middle class kitchens humming, floors swept, and clothes pressed.
The real story of India’s lockdown is played out in sprawling urban slums and on highways across the nation.
Huge numbers of urban dwellers live in overcrowded slum housing. For them, social distancing, work from home and self-isolation are nonsensical ideas. Poor sanitation and lack of water infrastructure leaves them vulnerable. Meanwhile, millions of displaced internal migrants, daily wage earners and armies of domestic workers, are making horrendous journeys to far off “native places”. Robbed of their livelihoods and shelter in India’s metros they have no choice but to head to their villages and towns. Many are walking hundreds of miles in the largest movement of people seen in the country since Partition. It is the antithesis of the government’s stay-at-home, Laxman Rekha diktat. En route people risk police brutality. At least 23 have died.
India’s willingness to comply with authority, its deference may mean the rich will be spared mass infections by staying home and keeping safe distance. It also means the poor are, right now, subject to the threat of disease, and facing the oncoming tsunami of a humanitarian and economic disaster.
Mark Hannant is the author of Midnight’s Grandchildren: How Young Indians are Disrupting the World’s Largest Democracy.