The two largest democracies in the world, India and the United States, are now struggling and flailing in the fight against the coronavirus. India has the world’s largest number of new cases, followed closely by the US. The number of reported cases are almost surely undercounts, as in both countries testing has been delayed and highly inadequate, if not downright chaotic. Death rates per million people are much lower in India, possibly because the Indian population is much younger. As the number of cases mounted, the government in both countries discontinued giving daily briefings on the virus impact.

As is well known, in the US, President Donald Trump and his party had been in denial or claiming imminent victories too often (consistent with their anti-science and anti-expert attitude), fatally wasting several weeks of potential preparation. Simple hygienic precautionary measures have been politicised, with not wearing masks becoming a sign of partisan or libertarian defiance.

The US also lacks a unified public health agency to authoritatively handle and coordinate in a major pandemic. Even in the best of times, the US private medical insurance system is messy, uncoordinated, mired in a bureaucratic system oriented to exclude people, and largely unaffordable for all those, particularly the poor, who do not have a stable job. Among rich countries the system is among the least prepared to face a pandemic of the current proportions.

The current regime in India in its health plans has been trying by and large to copy the American system of subsidised private insurance. Health spending by the Indian government as percentage of GDP has long been one of the lowest for any major country, and the public health system is chronically dismal. This has been a matter of national shame, but this kind of shame does not get the attention of our current crop of ultra-nationalists.

A poorly handled pandemic

Faced with the virus, India, like the US, has been woefully unprepared. India also wasted crucial weeks in February and March, even as the virus was raging in a neighboring country. This was not so much because of anti-science attitudes (though they are not absent in the ruling party and its affiliates – remember the cow urine drinking parties organised by some of them to forestall the virus), but more because of another virus that has been afflicting India’s body politic: the virus of hate and intolerance.

Much of February, particularly around the time of the Delhi state elections, went in majoritarian hate-mongering against the minority Muslim community and all dissenters against a highly discriminatory Citizenship Act. The protesting women of Shaheen Bagh were the enemy, more than the pandemic. On February 24, the regime felicitated Trump in an Ahmedabad cricket stadium packed with 110,000 people, at a time when restrictions were already in place in some countries. After the Delhi elections, some ruling party politicians were busy fomenting riots. The first half of March the central leadership was preoccupied with toppling an Opposition state government.

In the third week of March came the sudden total lockdown, among the world’s most stringent, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the nation for only three weeks’ time for victory in the war against the virus. The lockdown came with hardly any notice or consultation with the state governments, and without any simultaneous announcement about alternative food and shelter arrangements for the suddenly unemployed. The inevitable chaos, police excesses in enforcement, displacement and destitution followed.

Since then, the central bureaucracy in its typical heavy-handed way issued thousands of arbitrary and often-conflicting regulations. There have been also cases of ruling-party politicians and health officials scapegoating minority Muslim communities as super-spreaders (as with immigrants in Trump’s America, or Jews in medieval plague-ridden European cities).

By now the whole matter of fighting both the health and the economic crises has been relegated to the state governments, which are at the frontline of the battle without adequate financial help or technical assistance, as in the US. Meanwhile, infection rates are galloping and are expected by some epidemiologists to reach over a hundred million by the end of the year.

Dayaram Kushwaha, a migrant worker, carries his 5-year-old son, Shivam, on his shoulders as they walk along a road to return to their village, during the nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus, in New Delhi. Photo: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

The Indian government has tried to distract public attention from the massive-scale human suffering brought about by the pandemic and the economic paralysis, with religious spectacles harking back to ancient myths of pious glory, with the Prime Minister acting as the high priest, on a site of fanatic vandalism now court-sanctioned.

The government in the US has tried to distract attention by sending federal troops to intimidate largely peaceful protesters. In both countries, chaos has reigned with the lack of federal coordination in mobilising finance and technical expertise, in allocating scarce medical resources across regions, and in aligning travel restrictions with lockdowns and openings, as the virus surges in different regions at different times.

A crisis of democracy

All this is grist to the mill of Chinese propaganda that their authoritarian state is better at handling the pandemic than the ‘western’ democratic system. China, of course, initially fumbled (as they also did during the SARS crisis in 2003) in Wuhan, and thereby wasted crucial weeks both for itself and the world, largely because in an authoritarian system the local officials are reluctant to share bad news with the authorities above. Since then they have mobilised the state machinery reasonably well in curbing the disease, though the official data on death rates are dubious.

The Chinese propaganda also deliberately ignores the successful examples in democratic countries like Germany, Austria, Denmark, New Zealand, Uruguay, Costa Rica, and in their immediate neighborhood, Taiwan and South Korea. Incidentally, the idea of democracy is not exclusively ‘western’. There are some ‘eastern’ examples even in the ancient world, like in the Buddhist discourse and practice of public deliberation and decision-making in ancient Indian city republics, almost around the same time when western democracy is traced to Greece, and also in ancient Mesopotamia.

An effective and well-coordinated state is important in handling crisis, but authoritarianism is neither necessary nor sufficient for this. The dysfunctionalities in the two largest democracies are not inherent to the process of democracy as such. In fact, some of the problems those two countries are facing are partly because they had enfeebled some institutions of democratic responsibility and accountability. (The Swedish V-Dem Institute’s well-known Democracy Report shows a large decline in democracy index both for India and the US in recent years). Both governments have used the cover of the virus to try to criminalise protests and dilute environmental regulations.

One major difference in the two democracies is that political opposition to the government’s mishandling of the crisis is much more energised and organised in the US now, with some hope for democratic rejuvenation in the near future. Unfortunately, such hope is absent in India.

There is a danger that by the time the coronavirus crisis is finally over in India, there may be only a largely hollowed-out shell of democracy left. India will then be known as the world’s largest pseudo-democracy. This will give China a much larger ideological victory than their minor military one at India’s borders that the Indian government is currently busy covering up to prop its faltering image of muscular nationalism.