A Test for Liberal Democracy


The ongoing novel Coronavirus crisis gives us clues, and our response in the months to come will settle the question

COVID-19 has posed several questions. One among them is whether liberal democracies have adequate robustness of structure and ideology to deal with unprecedented pandemics and Black Swan events. This question has gathered traction after comparisons have been drawn between the efficacy of China’s response vis a vis that of the developed countries of the West, including the US. Could it be that totalitarian regimes are better placed to combat disasters and thus serve as more protective custodians of the well-being of their people as compared to democratic regimes?


The Novel Coronavirus was first detected as pneumonia of an unknown cause in Wuhan, capital of China’s Hubei province, in December 2019. The disease spread exponentially. By the end of February 2020, it had afflicted 80,000 Chinese and killed nearly 3000. It was beginning to appear that the all-powerful communist regime was helpless in the face of the virus.


But the recoveries began as rapidly as the spread of the disease. By mid-February, the total active cases had begun to recede. Today, as the rest of the world grapples with steeply rising curves of infection, China claims to have a little over 1000 cases left to be cured. The daily deaths have been in the single-digit since 18 Mar.


There is, of course, scepticism that the Chinese are whitewashing the statistics. Those who have accused China of creative accounting and worse, do not cite any evidence other than that China is a totalitarian regime and can control the media narrative entirely as per the wishes of the state. It is impossible to verify either claim. But the fact that Wuhan has been opened for business indicates that China has indeed worked a miracle.


The Chinese Response

What did China do to combat this challenge? China was quick to take measures that would qualify as ‘draconian’ in any liberal democracy.


Once the scale of the outbreak became clear, trains were banned from stopping at Wuhan. Flights were cancelled and roads blocked.


China has a large and widespread network of fever-clinics that have been around since the SARS epidemic of 2002. Any person who suspected that he or she had contracted the Novel Coronavirus could report to these facilities for a quick examination. Patients had access to doctors to discuss symptoms and to be tested. Their past medical and travel histories were probed and recorded.


This was done with speed and efficiency that would be unthinkable in most of the developed countries in the world. Even a day’s drive away from the epicentre at Wuhan, 320,000 tests were done for COVID-19 in the Chinese province of Guangdong. Less than one per cent emerged as positive. The tests were free or, where insurance did not cover it, paid for by the government. Hospitals were built with breakneck speed. Two 1000–1300 bed hospitals took between 6 to 15 days to come up from scratch and be fully operational. Training centres and stadiums were converted into makeshift hospitals. Existing hospitals were either re-mandated to focus exclusively on COVOD-19 cases or large isolation wards were created within such hospitals. Non-urgent medical care was suspended.


Above all, China made extensive use of technology to track the disease. The use of technology has been described by many as intrusive surveillance of the entire population. China’s own Global Navigation Satellite System BeiDou was pressed into use to help track patients, study patterns of the outbreak and thus assist the decision-makers to design logistic and medical response. BeiDou drones were used to monitor movements, especially in congested areas. Robots assisted by BeiDou also delivered critical equipment in remote locations in Wuhan and elsewhere.


Arguably, the most dramatic use of technology was the development of a colour-coded system that tracked millions of people daily. This was based on an app — developed in concert with Alibaba and Tencent — that assigned green, yellow or red colour code to individuals based on medical and travel history patterns. Using this app in 200 cities, the Chinese could decide whether to quarantine individuals or allow them the freedom of movement. Besides, checkpoints at several locations in each city checked body-temperature.


Emergency centres had giant screens that displayed the geographic spread of the disease in real-time. Officials in these centres had powers to intervene and change strategies if required. Chinese social media including Weibo was used extensively to dispel fake information about mumbo-jumbo cures.


By and large, online supplies of food were seamlessly delivered. That made self-quarantine and social-distancing easier and prevented panic-buying and hoarding. 760 million people were confined to their homes and external observers have reported remarkable compliance.


Workers were reassigned from other disciplines to assist the medical effort. Thousands of volunteers also pitched in.


The story has been equally remarkable in Singapore and South Korea, albeit on a smaller scale. Singapore also introduced TraceTogether, an app that tracks persons with the disease by connecting people via Bluetooth. It has been downloaded a million times.


The Rest

The contrast with the West could not be starker. The disease erupted in Italy in mid-February and has shot up to over 150,000 cases since then. Deaths peaked at 6557 per day on 21 March and are still averaging over 4000. In Spain, 166,000 persons have been the victims of the virus and deaths per day, over 8000 at one point. Fatalities are still hovering at over 3000 each day. The US story is even more worrisome. The world’s biggest superpower has 560,000 cases and rising, and 22,000 deaths. In New York alone, over 700 patients have been dying each day for the past week.


All these democracies have come under criticism for the late reaction, sluggishness of response, inadequate testing and a general lack of discipline on the part of the population.

In India, we have so far fared far better. Sceptics say that it can perhaps be attributed to ignorance of the actual scale of the problem. After all, testing has been possible on a minuscule scale. Lockdowns have helped. Still, around 800 new cases are being detected every day.


While many in the West are criticizing the measures taken by China as violations of privacy, there is also a subdued appreciation for its success.


The Looming Challenge

Which brings us back to our question of liberal democracies.

It can be argued that the response of liberal democracies to meet the challenge posed by the virus and simultaneously ensure the movement of the economic wheel will be watched by the millions of its adherents. The Prime Minister has already spoken of Jaan and Jahan (or, as economists put it, life and living). These are fine slogans. But how will these be translated into plan and execution will be the proof of the pudding?


People cherish personal liberties. But people need the tangibles of existence, food, shelter and money even more. Can both be provided?


We in India face a massive challenge. Even by the most liberal definition of poverty, 22 per cent of our population of 130 million lives below the level of subsistence. More than 82 per cent of the population is in the unorganized sector and, therefore, not benefited by regular income. How will we respond to their needs while protracted complete or partial lockdowns continue? How will food and cash be distributed, and supply chains made functional so that basic needs can be met? How will we ramp up testing and treatment? How will the demand and supply kick-started again so that we pull ourselves out of the morass of deepening recession? Will we ensure adequate safety-nets for all so that social unrest does not follow in the wake of Novel Coronavirus? Will we institute measures of tracking and surveillance as stringent and intrusive as China and Singapore? Will our citizenry accept these as necessary stratagems for survival? Will the population submit to the enforced lockdowns and all the application of official force that goes with it, without collective insubordination? Do we have the will to enforce these measures ad infinitum till the virus has been completely eradicated from at least parts of the country?


We face these questions. So does every other liberal democracy. And the efficacy and efficiency of our solutions will determine how the world at large begins to view the idea of liberal democracy.

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