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Sunday 31 May 2020

United States & India: Same COVID, Different Prescriptions

The different social structures, experiences in the leaders of the two countries, variation in the degree of political capital, etc make India and the US react differently to the global COVID pandemic

Satish Sharma
Satish Sharmahttp://thesatishsharma.com/
Chartered accountant, independent columnist in newspapers, former editor of Awaz Aapki, activist in Anna Andolan, based in Roorkee

There is no need to remind the world of the problem it is facing. We all know it, the novel coronavirus disease or COVID-19. The crisis is one of its kind. No concrete medical study on the scourge is available, as the problem is new. No medicines are available, as the virus never existed before. Even the World Health Organisation (WHO) is changing guidelines every now and then — unsure of what to do. Countries have made mistakes and they are facing consequences. Italy is paying the price for its political correctness of hugging Chinese people in Italy. Spain is suffering because it was unable to block travellers from all over the world and was also cheated on a large scale by a Chinese company allegedly under the instructions from Beijing! Germany, Iran, France… every country is suffering.  And China?  We are not sure if China is facing the consequences of its blunder or its alleged creation. Still, the world’s largest economy, the US, and the world’s largest democracy, India, are two interesting cases of dealing with the same problem with different approaches.

India is following social distancing, a nationwide lockdown and virtual curfews to minimise the damage and to the time it can. On the other hand, the American market is completely open despite the fast-spreading infection and daily increase in the number of deaths. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken experts’ advice on the problem more seriously, while US President Donald Trump is mocking the doctors for suggesting a lockdown. What makes them act differently? What can a possible reason be? Here’s a shortlist.

India and the US: Different social structures

India and the US are poles apart if we consider the social structures in general. Recall the interview of Aishwarya Rai in this regard. On a question from David Letterman on his television show ‘Late Night Television’ about Aishwarya living with her parents, she had said, “It’s fine to live with your parents because it’s uncommon in India to take an appointment from parents to meet for dinner.”

India is a very open society. Here, everyone knows everyone. Frequent visits to the neighbour’s house is commonplace; there are large families, large gatherings at functions. Attending a funeral does not require an invitation either; friends and neighbours voluntarily condole the grieving family and walk the whole way to the crematorium or graveyard.

On the other hand, the US is a close society in terms of socialisation. No visit without an appointment (even within families) is not a strange thing if you are an American. So, maybe — just maybe — their president is right and I really pray for that although I believe otherwise. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, it’s a tie.

Verdict: India 1, the US 1

India and the US: Difference in leaders’ experiences

In dealing with an unprecedented situation, one’s experience of the past does not contribute much. However, instincts gained from different experiences can help a lot. On the one hand, Trump is a capitalist and does not have a long experience of public life though he had had desire to grab power for many years and he has switched political parties a record four times (in a nation of two-party rule, he has been in three parties), but he did not hold any political-administrative post before becoming president.

On the other hand, Modi has done a lot of organisational work for his party for decades before being four-time chief minister and twice prime minister in a row in the largest democracy of the world. These experiences make a difference when you are dealing with a problem never seen before. India has an upper hand here and PM is doing his duty with the support of the people.

Verdict: India 1, The US 0

Public support

Dealing with coronavirus is not a pure administrative task. It needs participation from the public at large too. Trump has emerged as a popular leader by taking a populist stand on the issues on which no leader from the US was speaking much. Still, he is unable to make a place in the hearts of US citizens—at least going by the media reports—whereas Modi has gained a position of a mass leader even when a fierce campaign to malign his image was going on for almost two decades. That campaign is still on and always will be there, but Modi has made his way to the houses of the lower, middle and upper-middle-class in India. He has the honour of being treated as a member of crores and crores of families. These families listen to him. The grand success of “Janata Curfew” was the result of the political capital Modi has accumulated over the years. Modi has the guts to take measures like a complete lockdown because the public listen to him as they do to the head of their family. They follow every word Modi says. Trump neither has this political capital nor the courage to tell the powerful US corporate lobby to shut up and shut down. 

Verdict: India 1, the US 0

Political courage

Political courage is different from experience. The second gives you vision. Courage is to implement the solution even if it’s for breaking free of the comfort zone of your own voters. Even after more than 50,000 cases of infection and 500 deaths, the US is unable to garner the courage to do what India has done on a very preliminary stage. This lack of political courage has broken the glass shield for American citizens. Data no longer supports the claim “every life of a US citizen matters more than any other person”.

Verdict: India 1, the US 0

Focus

At a time when human lives are at stake, POTUS has chosen to not stop production in the “world’s no. 1 economy” as he said in his press brief last Monday. In contrast, the Indian government has chosen to save the lives of millions and millions of people by locking the economy. It may be a huge loss on the revenue side for the government, but its focus is very clear: The importance of human life is more than that of the gross domestic product (GDP). India wins the competition on this count too.

Verdict: India 1, the US 0

This may be a rare situation where Indian society and politics have gained an upper hand. But again, it’s a situation that existed never before. In a changing world, rare events are going to become a trend. Stay home, stay safe.

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