Comparing and contrasting corona response by US and Indian leaders

By Shivaji Sengupta

It was just about a month ago when Americans started to take Coronavirus seriously. In India, the government went into action just about two weeks ago. Both countries were late; India, perhaps dangerously so. Only time will tell.

We, the citizens of each country, are reacting more or less the same way, if we are to go by emails, WhatsApp, and other forms of electronic communications. We all have fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, friends in each country. Life is full of worries and anxiety. All types of traditional social modes are on hold. The writer, Arundhati Roy, has put it tellingly:

“Who can think of kissing a stranger, jumping on to a bus or sending their child to school without feeling real fear? Who can think of ordinary pleasure and not assess its risk? Who among us is not a quack epidemiologist, virologist, statistician and prophet? Which scientist or doctor is not secretly praying for a miracle? Which priest is not — secretly, at least — submitting to science?”

This virus – again to quote Roy – “seeks proliferation, not profit,” something that puzzles our businessman president, Trump. It knows no borders, countries, social standing and does not distinguish between paupers and prime ministers. The British PM is its latest victim. In each country, people are looking to their governments for effective action. But there is a difference here.

In India, things are perhaps simpler, or at least more straight forward. The central government takes over and issues blanket commands, not suggestions or recommendations. People are not allowed to stir out of their homes. It’s a curfew that you may break, and risk punishment by the police. In the U.S., we are still arguing over how much authority the President should enforce over us, even as the number of deaths each day is increasing by over 700. Unlike India, the United States government does not have the ultimate power over its inhabitants. Each State “is sovereign,” according to the Constitution, and the President should not “order” the states to follow him except during war. However, although the president likes to describe Coronavirus as an “insidious war,” he is reluctant to take on war-time authority because, he says, he is following the Constitution. Those who disagree with him, which includes the governors of over twenty-one states, including New York and New Jersey, say that during emergencies like these, the president is wrong not to take over conducting the “war” against the Virus directly.

I think the American President’s use of the term “war” is ironic. If it were a war, then who should be better prepared than us? Aren’t we the world’s “most militarily dangerous country in the world”? (Trump’s words). The most “medically advanced” (Trump’s boast) and, yes, the City on the Hill for other countries to follow? But if it really were a war, then who would be better prepared than the US?  If it were not masks and gloves that its frontline soldiers needed, but guns, smart bombs, bunker busters, submarines, fighter jets, and nuclear weapons, would there be a shortage?

According to WhatsApp posts reaching us from India, Indians are watching every night, Governor Andrew Cuomo brief New Yorkers with a candid yet caring approach. They are fascinated by his genuine humanity, contrasting sharply with Prime Minister Modi, who, according to them, is more like Trump. Indians are gasping in disbelief that American hospitals are overwhelmed, realizing that in the US, nurses and healthcare workers are underpaid and overworked. In America? They ask.

And India? This is a country which, in the words of Arundhati Roy, is “suspended somewhere between feudalism and religious fundamentalism, caste, and capitalism.” Like America, they had plenty of warnings too. In December, China, their neighbor, began its fight with the outbreak of the Coronavirus in Wuhan. India, at that time, was busy staving off mass protests (numbering in the thousands) against – according to them – the brazenly anti-Muslim citizenship law. Considering the possibility that the Coronavirus germs had already arrived in India, the possibility of its spreading during the protests is scary.  Then came Mr. Trump himself, to the country. Modi promised him a million Indians at the welcoming party and arranged for them to cheer the president in a massive stadium in Gujarat. More risks with the virus! Then came the Republic Day, with another hundreds of thousands of people attending the parade along Rajpath. Not coincidentally, the Brazilian President, himself a denier of Coronavirus, was Mr. Modi’s chief guest. That was January 26.

On January 30, India announced the first case of Coronavirus. Finally, on March 19, the Indian prime minister addressed the nation.  He talked of “social distancing,” not too difficult for a country with built-in distancing between castes at least in the villages and small towns. A people’s curfew was mandated on March 22. Just what else the government was doing for its people is nebulous at best, and nothing at worst. The lockdown, given on four-hour’s notice took effect from March 26 and stranded millions of poor (of which there are almost 450 million in India). They were literally abandoned. Chaos set in. Since then, we are hearing of private groups and some governmental agencies arranging for make-shift shelters and food for the poor. The prognosis is that if the Virus gets out of control, nearly half a million people could die in India.

Both of our countries are suffering from heads of state whose primary interests are not the people of their countries but braggadocio – the tendency to flaunt themselves and their respective countries even at the point of distorting truths.  Both enjoy “tremendous” (to use one of Trump’s limited vocabulary) support among wide swathes of their populations. However, at crisis-points like this, their game may be up. Those who do not support them are in a lose-lose predicament. If the United States and India come out ravished by the Coronavirus, then Trump and Modi will suffer huge setbacks to their political career. But the price to pay will be the respective countries!

Nobody wants that.

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