Maj Gen BK Sharma, AVSM, SM and Bar (Retd) Writes :
The Big Picture
Corona virus pandemic has emerged as a ‘Black Swan’ event of the 21st century. While this article is being written, globally, more than one million people are afflicted and 60000dead. The epicenter of pandemic has shifted to USA with more than 2,75,000 infected and about 7000 dead. Corona cases in India too have spiked to nearly 3000 infections and 80 deaths. The US which ranks No 1 in the global health care system is finding difficult to cope up with the pandemic. Its two $ 2 trillion worth stimulus packages has proved ineffective in providing effective health care and insulating the US economy from an impending recession. The pandemic has jolted global economy, disrupted supply chain system and taken a very heavy toll of precious human lives. It is bound to cause permanent shifts in political and economic power in ways that will become apparent only later. Most developed countries have released stimulation funds to help the economically stressed sectors and segments of society. But the people in the underdeveloped countries, particularly those working in unorganized sectors, are worst hit and are susceptible to loss of jobs and starvation.
China, the country of origin of virus, came in for sharp criticism from its own people and international community for suppressing the initial information thus losing valuable time in controlling the spread of disease. The virus was detected in early Dec 2019 but the warnings of people like Dr. Li Wenliang were ignored till January 20th, when Hubei was quarantined. However, China was swift to respond on a war footing, it locked down almost the whole country (60 million people), set up hospitals on SOS basis and facilitated emergency evacuation of foreigners. In sharp contrast, in liberal democracies like Europe and US, despite the warning period, let the pandemic spread. Today, China has embarked upon a sophisticated influence operations campaign to show case the country and China’s Communist Party leadership as saviors of mankind. It is another matter that China itself sooner or later will face inscrutable scrutiny for its acts of omission and commission. Countries like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea resorted to large scale tracing, testing and quarantine measures, prevented community spread and with high-quality medical treatment were successful in flattening the curve and minimizing casualties. On the contrary, states like Italy, other European countries, US and Iran that were slow to impose curbs and restrictions – are now facing brunt. A fundamental question has arisen, which system is better suited to cope up with such large-scale humanitarian crisis; authoritarian, quasi authoritarian or liberal democratic system? The efficacy of competing models of governance will become a matter of policy debates by intellectuals and strategic community.
Another important issue that merits reflection is; it is not the trade or technological wars or the strategic brinkmanship in the Indo- Pacific that impact geopolitics of US-China relations, but the Corona like pandemic. The disruptive event has brought the US – China relations to its nadir since the crushing of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. President Trump has called it ‘China virus’ and many western analysts have spun arguments that the deadly virus was not generated from the wet-meat market of Wuhan, but from a proximate biological warfare laboratory, where Chinese scientists were working on a secret biological weapon programme. Some Chinese promoted their version of a conspiracy theory that the COVID- 19 was produced by the CIA and released by American army personnel in Wuhan to harm China. In an unprecedented move, not seen since Mao era, China expelled almost all-American citizens, including journalists from New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal. The expelled journalists were denied reporting from Hong Kong as well. China barred American disease control experts from entering Wuhan. America imposed a cap on Chinese nationals working for five media agencies: Xinhua, CGTN, China Daily, China Radio International and People’s Daily. In a retaliatory move, the US banned entry of non- Americans from China. The ongoing tit for tat approach is indicative of heightened US- China hostility. These developments do not augur well for global peace and security.
The geopolitics of Covid 19 has wider ramifications with far- reaching impact on the intra -state, inter-state relations and international order as a whole. Each state has closed its borders and ports of entry /exit and dealt with the problem in its own characteristic way. Advanced western democracies fell short of responding to humanitarian crisis within their own countries, what to expect of rendering help to other needy countries. The episode has exposed the hollowness of President Trump’s insular ‘America First Policy’. China, on the other hand, has deflected initial blame directed at it and has extended support to afflicted countries like Spain, Italy and Iran. Both super powers have failed to show vision and sagacity to unitedly deal with humanitarian crisis of global dimension. Covid-19 pandemic will also accelerate the shift in power and influence from West to East, further tarnishing the aura of the Western “brand.”. The ‘Black Swan’ event has raised questions about the efficacy of globalized economic model. Nations are bound to create hedging stock to cope with extended periods of economic self-isolation, to incentivize indigenization and to adopt measures to selectively de-couple individual states from global economic dependence. Companies will now rethink and shrink the multistep, multi-country supply chains that dominate production today. On the security front, the question that arises – are we preparing for wrong kind of wars like hybrid and asymmetric conflict or the mankind should focus more on serious humanitarian existential threats like pandemic, Tsunami, climate change and global warming? Should the use of disruptive technologies for application in conflicts be over-ridden by research on pathogens, AI systems, genetic engineering, immunology, inoculations, vaccines and prophylactics merit debates. Collaboration in agreed reporting systems, shared controls, common contingency plans, norms, and treaties should be pursued as means of moderating our numerous mutual risks than investing in NATO style security blocs. How should the regional organizations like SAARC, G7, ASEAN, SCO and G20 states reinvent for a global community action to deal with non – traditional security threats?
Implications for India
India in the past has suffered hugely from epidemic. Spanish influenza, the flu pandemic of 1918-19 had inflicted about 18 million people or 6% of the country’s population at the time. One main reason for India being relatively insulated is due to very limited travel between India and China due to chronically strained relations. Creditably, India airlifted hundreds of its stranded citizens from China, Iran, Milan and a few other countries and quarantined them in specially created facilities run by the Army and other Central Police Organizations. Public information campaigns are abuzz on television channels; social media messages and interrupt calls have populated India’s 900m mobile phones. The government, both at the center and state level took timely decision to lock down the country. Admirably, India has shown great sagacity and solidarity in facing the challenge. A new eco-system, wherein, the administrative machinery, doctors and health workers, volunteer organizations and corporate donors have come forward in the period of crisis. A number of makeshift facilities have been created to accommodate sick and India’s floating working population (about 45 million)
However, experts believe that such curbs notwithstanding, the country runs the risk of having millions of people getting infected and many dying. Ramanan Laxminarayan, a noted expert of Princeton University says , “I suspect that if we did 20 times more tests we might find 20 times more cases, …..I personally think we are already in the thousands if not tens of thousands.” Hope this alarmist assessment does not come true. India spends a measly 1.28 percent of its GDP on health care, has abysmally low patient to doctor ratio, shortage of hospital beds and intensive care arrangements. Particularly vulnerable to the pandemic are densely populated urban slums and rural areas. Paucity of testing data, shortage of testing kits, limited capacity of government labs- add to the woes. Indian government has unveiled a fiscal stimulus package that will almost immediately nullify the 3.5 percent of GDP deficit target outlined in its new 2020-2021 budget, which was passed on March 23. The $22.6 billion package includes a number of measures such as direct payments to farmers and distributing cooking gas to the country’s poorest citizens. India has also the responsibility of supporting and protecting the neighboring states become crucial. With Indian PM Modi pledging USD 10 million emergency fund for SAARC countries, what will be essential is to revitalize the spirit of SAARC with each actor made responsible for maintaining peace and tranquility in the region. India has the capacity of becoming a net security provider in its immediate neighborhood and it cannot afford to look over its shoulders should its small neighbors call for help. Indian Prime Minister stood tall when he reached out to G20 leaders for adopting a collaborative approach to deal with the global menace . India cannot afford to be complacent about the ensuing pandemic. India has shown remarkable capacity to deal with Tsunami, cyclones and earthquakes. India must work with a great sense of urgency to revamp its R&D, medical infrastructure and develop a comprehensive response system to deal with the current and any future pandemic threats. At this time of reckoning it dawns upon all not to trivialize , communalize and politicize the challenge by remain steadfast in supporting a collective national endeavor to overcome the crisis.
 Narendra Modi, (2020). PM Interacts With SAARC Leaders to Combat Covid-19 in the Region, March 15, at https://www.narendramodi.in/prime-minister-narendra-modi-s-interaction-with-saarc-leaders-on-fighting-coronavirus-548793 (accessed on March 20, 2020)
Maj Gen BK Sharma, AVSM, SM and Bar (Retd), Director of United Service Institution (USI) of India. USI is India’s oldest ‘Think Tank’ established in 1870. He can be accessed at [email protected]
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI of India.