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Covid-19: Populism's moment of reckoning

A backlash against elites brought to power populist rulers who disregard expertise. Will the pandemic now provoke a backlash against the backlash?

Donald Trump’s populism is rooted in a contempt of government itself.
Donald Trump’s populism is rooted in a contempt of government itself. (Getty Images)

On 25 March, a day after announcing the lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed residents of his Lok Sabha constituency, Varanasi. He used the metaphor of combat to describe the effort against covid-19, as many world leaders have done. “The Mahabharat war was won in 18 days," he said. “The war the entire nation is now fighting against corona is going to last for 21 days. We will attempt to win this war in 21 days".

Why would he think such a quick victory was possible, when China’s Hubei province and its capital Wuhan, ground zero for the virus, were at that moment extricating themselves from their inaugural covid-19 lockdown a full two months after it was imposed? Perhaps the prime minister and his advisers assumed that since they were shutting down the country early in the infection cycle, we would emerge from the crisis quicker as well. Eight weeks later, if any part of the Mahabharat seems comparable with India’s lockdown experience, it is Abhimanyu’s entry into the chakravyuha.

We do not know if leading epidemiologists briefed the prime minister before he imposed the lockdown. Had such an encounter taken place, I presume the experts would have underlined the importance of comprehensive contact tracing and testing to a lockdown’s success. Sadly, the two groups that make up India’s coronavirus task force were only constituted in the week before the lockdown commenced. It is inconceivable that they could have met, shared data, evolved a coherent plan and presented it to the cabinet or the prime minister’s office before 24 March.

In this light, the decision to introduce shelter-in-place orders at 4 hours notice parallels the country’s experience with demonetization, imposed with neither close consultation with specialists nor adequate preparation. After three extensions, we still lack a coordinated plan to safely transport all migrant workers back to their homes or to ensure their livelihood, well-being and dignity within their workplaces. Each day, thousands more desperate individuals and families take to the endless asphalt under the blazing sun, lugging what provisions they can muster. The chaos at state borders is unremitting. The scale of preventable suffering has surpassed anything in the living memory of Indians.

The pandemic is populism’s moment of reckoning. The last great global crisis, the financial meltdown of 2008, was caused by experts in banking and finance. It created a backlash in favour of politicians who claimed to speak for common people against entrenched elites. Prime Minister Modi is not an out-an-out populist in the manner of US President Donald Trump and right-wing leaders newly emerged in Europe. His commitment to containing government spending, for example, contrasts with the profligacy typical of populists. There are, however, aspects of his rule that fit firmly within a populist mindset, none more so than a disregard for academic expertise. Nothing else can explain the delay in establishing a dedicated coronavirus task force, something even the arch-populist Trump had managed by late January.

Trump has created a covid-19 catastrophe of his own to cement his sorry legacy. His populism is rooted in a contempt of government itself, as outlined in Michael Lewis’ book The Fifth Risk. Lewis studied the transition from the administration of Barack Obama to that of Donald Trump and found Trump appointees completely uninterested in learning from the experience of those heading out of the door. In some cases, Lewis was the first to read comprehensive documents compiled by departing officials to assist the new administration.

Lewis warned that an absence of project preparedness within the Trump administration constituted a “fifth risk", beyond the four well-known threats of the theft of nuclear weapons, conflict with North Korea, war with Iran, and sabotage of the electrical grid. In May 2018, a few months before The Fifth Risk was published, Trump’s then national security adviser John Bolton disbanded the global health and biodefense unit, a department established by the Obama administration in the wake of 2014’s Ebola outbreak and dedicated to preparing for a shock like covid-19. Elect populists and you risk having the agency charged with planning for a pandemic eliminated right before the worst pandemic in a century.

Trump nominated as secretary of health and human services (HHS) a lawyer and former lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry named Alex Azar. Azar hired as his chief of staff Brian Harrison, and later put him in charge of the coronavirus task force. Harrison had spent the six years before joining HHS as owner of Dallas Labradoodles, a firm that cross-breeds Labrador Retrievers and poodles. Elect populists and you risk ending up with a dog breeder as the head of your pandemic response team.

One reason East and South-East Asia have done well in containing the virus is that they have been spared the populist upsurge that has taken hold in the West. Although their systems range from the extremely authoritarian to the substantially democratic, the governments of this region are united in valuing academic excellence and domain expertise. China persecuted scholars and scientists during the Cultural Revolution, and is unlikely to ever travel that disastrous path again.

The communist leadership did silence doctors during the early phase of the pandemic, when it felt the outbreak could be contained easily and hushed up. This robbed the world of valuable reaction time, and ought to be punished in some fashion. It is equally true, however, that countries had all of February to prepare for the onslaught, and most did very little in that period.

The question now is whether there will be a backlash against the backlash, resulting in the eclipse of populism. Donald Trump’s ratings have held up thus far, and Modi’s might even have improved. I suspect this will change as the economic contraction begins to bite but that might just be wishful thinking. A majority of India’s affluent citizens, who shape the political narrative through conventional and social media, kept faith with Modi through the thoughtless imposition of demonetization, the botched roll-out of the goods and services tax, and the consequent economic slowdown. Who is to say the attitude will not persist despite the government’s callous abandonment of the most vulnerable among us during the covid-19 lockdown?

Girish Shahane writes on politics, history and art.

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