Rohit Negi, Ambedkar University, India
In late February 2020, as the world slowly began to realise the scope of coronavirus spread in China, controversy erupted around the country’s handling of the crisis. While WHO experts tracking the events commended China on its containment and treatment strategies, others - including the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - accused it of hiding data, thus covering up the extent of the illness. The debate has continued since, though it is now clear that China’s containment measures were far more effective than what several nations in the global north, including the US, have managed. In India, there is a sharp divide between the relatively small infection figures and the severity of response - that is, a country-wide lockdown, which has led to suspicion of official testing protocols. These contestations around information cultures require further thought: what is it about the Chinese public health machinery that fuses questions of transparency on the one hand, and effective response on the other? And what contests define the Indian response to coronavirus? The essay argues that the information cultures in the two countries have taken a radically different path towards a similar opacity, thereby undermining effective public health response.
The frantic global debate on the spread of COVID-19 in China has turned highly acrimonious with observers taking sharply opposed positions. While some, including the World Health Organization (WHO), have commended the country for its comprehensive and effective response, including massive lockdown and swift construction of health infrastructures, others point out lack of transparency and view claims related to the extent of the illness by the Chinese authorities with suspicion. In this intervention, I argue that these are not as much opposing positions, but two sides of the same state, especially its public health machinery: the very same aspects of the state which make it opaque also allow it to mount effective operations. Further, by comparing the Indian response to COVID-19, I contend that institutions that promoted greater transparency there have been fundamentally weakened recently, on account of an ongoing centralisation of the polity and its subsumption into a personality-driven hypernationalist regime, making the country vulnerable to the very processes which generated the coronavirus crisis in China.
First, the Chinese response. Once the party leadership realised the nature of and threats posed by the disease, their response was thorough. Much of the country - easily over 750 million people - stayed at home and authorities completely stopped movement in and out of Wuhan and other cities of Hubei province for weeks (Cyranoski 2020). The lockdown was of course enforced with the might of the Chinese police machinery, but such actions in China also draw heavily on ‘a collectivist spirit of self-sacrifice’ (Mason 2016). This is the part of the story which has received commendation from, among others, the WHO. As Bruce Aylward, the leader of the WHO team in China noted, ‘Hundreds of thousands of people…did not get COVID-19 because of this aggressive response’ (Kupferschmidt & Cohen 2020). But what is it about the Chinese state that delayed the recognition of the problem and therefore of state response in the first place?
While it may seem counterintuitive given the single-party authoritarian set up, the Chinese state functions as a hyperaware entity, which uses powerful information technologies and big data tools to track public opinion in real time. It does so because its legitimacy draws on its uniquely conjoined national security and developmental capacity - that is, the Chinese regime’s fundamental obligation to its citizens turns on its ability to protect them from various internal and external threats and to raise their collective standard of life (Holbig & Gilley 2019). It has to continuously project the image of being in control, and to seem so, it must know, fairly early on, what precisely it needs to be in control of. This is not easy to achieve given the formal curbs on freedom of speech or free press, and especially in a highly centralised system where dissenting voices are suppressed. There are strong disincentives to stray from ‘the line’, even when doing so may be in the long-term interests of party.
It is in this breach that surveillance infrastructures assume importance. Software deployed by the state track websites, social media platforms and even personal communication, building cartographic repositories of critical topics of discussion among the masses. These data provide the state a sense of people’s concerns that they can then publicly address before they spiral into popular unrest (Qin et al. 2017). In the case of air pollution, for instance, even though the economic costs of actions were high, fairly soon after it noticed a surge in social media discussions of toxic air, the Chinese state implemented a slew of air quality improvement measures (Kay et al. 2013). The state thus positions itself as a paternalist institution, fully aware of its subjects’ concerns and able to act decisively on them.
There are, however, two issues with this system: the willful obfuscation of reality by local officials on the one hand, and the absence of meaningful feedback to the centre, on the other. In the air pollution case, once the state recognised it as a major issue, air quality targets flowed from the central authority to the various provincial and local units, with the expectation of compliance and effective implementation. When a failure to achieve targets is not an option, the result is all manner of creative ‘innovations’. There have been multiple cases of local officials fudging air quality data, for instance, by spraying water via cannon next to the monitors or stuffing cotton into them to falsify readings. Often, in such a scenario, paper truths emerge, which would be fine if it weren’t for the visible smog in the case of air pollution, or dead bodies on the streets as with COVID-19.
Second, as Kathrine Mason notes in her book on the post-SARS shifts in Chinese public health, the state reconfigured the entire system in the lines of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ensure that a SARS rerun never takes place. It was believed that a system built around expertise and professionalisation was better placed to handle emergent health concerns than a centralised one greased by personal networks (guanxi). However, during the course of their response to the 2009 H1N1 epidemic, it became clear that ‘the practice of public health…degenerate[d] into a crudely political game’ (Mason 2016), where passing on responsibility overrode decision-making based on either the established guanxi or the new professional logics. Local officials in China remain in fear of conveying ungratifying reality to their superiors, leading to far weaker feedback loops than are necessary for accurate and robust policy-making. With COVID-19, there seem to be both of these aspects at play: local authorities fudged the science and massaged the number of infections, even as they kept the central authorities in the dark about the extent of the illness (Tufekci 2020). For all the financial and technical investment in public health, its informational culture remains intractable.
On the other hand, in a democratic India, while the media and civil society are active and - though increasingly less - critical, the regime is protected from challenges to its legitimacy by the fact that it is derived not from seeming in control real-time, but from the regular electoral cycle. There are of course notable exceptions when popular mobilisations have been massive enough to raise questions: two instances are the pre-emergency years and the final years of the Congress-led government that gave way to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in 2014. In the Indian system, instead, a certain linearity to state action is imagined, in that the ability of collectives to ‘pressure’ the system matters (Anand 2011). Over time, a robust feedback loop takes shape wherein readings from the ground make their way to the centre via an intricate system of formal and informal intermediaries.
Since 2014, however, critical changes have been brought about by the current regime led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP, the union cabinet, and state institutions that earlier enjoyed certain autonomy (such as the Reserve Bank of India) are firmly under Modi’s command, much of the national media has transposed into what is half-jokingly referred to as North Korean press, and large sections of the majority population unquesioningly back poorly thought-out policies, all the while participating in empty symbolic actions like banging utensils or lighting candles during the coronavirus lockdown. The regime has also actively undermined multi-party federalism by capturing the overwhelming proportion of electoral funding by corporates and using it - alongside other means - to overthrow state governments ruled by opposition parties. The problem is, the more power is centralised in the hands of the ruling coterie, the less attuned they are to dynamic local realities. Like China, as the personality cult gets stronger, voices from the ground grow weaker. When difference of view or plain statement of disagreeable facts is read by power as challenge to authority, there are high barriers to dissent. Several actions of the Modi government, including the disastrous demonetisation, can be seen in this light.[i] Moreover, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the government to weaken institutions tasked with data collection, analysis and dissemination (Bhattacharya, 2019).
It is in this context that the coronavirus arrived in India. The Modi government spent February 2020 oblivious to the dangers of the phenomenon - as late as 23 February 2020, the US President Donald Trump was welcomed by Prime Minister Modi at an event in Ahmedabad alongside over 100,000 eager locals. The next week was consumed by a communal progrom in Delhi directed at Muslims at the city’s northeastern peripheries. It was only on 7 March 2020 that the prime minister met the Union health minister to discuss the coronavirus issue. It does not seem that the situation was seen as that urgent, given that as late as 15 March 2020, the prime minister met a dissident Congress leader and inducted him into the BJP. It was, in other words, more or less business as usual until 20 March 2020, when the prime minister announced a day-long curfew on the 22nd March, and a couple of days later, a complete nationwide lockdown with advance notice of merely four hours. Scenes of millions of migrants’ exodus, mostly on foot, out of cities have since made global headlines (Mukhopadhyay & Naik 2020).
On 24 March 2020, when the lockdown was announced, there were fewer than 600 COVID-19 positive cases in the country. On the face of it, the containment measures - given that they paralysed an already declining economy - seem disproportionate. At the same time, observers have questioned the slowness in testing the population for COVID-19, with India testing around 35 people per million population, compared to over 8,000 in South Korea, and 2,600 per million in the US by 2 April 2020 (Beaumont 2020). It is thus to be asked if there is a purposeful gap between official infection numbers and reality - a gap that produces the contradiction of stringent action with few cases. Certainly, an eventual low official number would be a major success for the Modi regime, and one can foresee the entire official machinery and a pliant media credit the prime minister for ‘beating coronavirus’.
However, the tricky nature of the virus shows itself precisely at the interstices of visible illness and invisible carriers. Artificially low official numbers may end up multiplying infection beyond anticipated levels. It is therefore worth asking whether the concentration of power, weakened feedback mechanisms and the media’s capitulation may make India susceptible to the same processes that led to COVID-19 spreading in Hubei in the first two months, but without the capacity to mount a response like China’s? In any event, the coronavirus episode reveals a process of convergence in Chinese and Indian information cultures, though the paths they have traversed are radically different.
[i] In November, 2016, Prime Minister Modi withdrew Rupee 500 and 1000 notes as legal tender abruptly and without adequate planning. The move led to loss of thousands of livelihoods and set in motion a prolonged recession (see Mishra 2019).
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Rohit Negi is associate professor at the School of Global Affairs, Ambedkar University Delhi. His ongoing research concerns the political ecology of air pollution in the Delhi region, as part of the transnational The Asthma Files collaboration. He is the coeditor of Space, Planning and Everyday Contestations in Delhi (2016). Other publications include articles in Geoforum, Urbanisation, and the Economic and Political Weekly.