A couple of days back, India joined the top five countries in terms of total confirmed cases of COVID-19. The other members of this club are the US which leads the pack by a staggering margin, followed by Brazil, Russia and UK [See chart below. Data from JHU and MoHFW]. This status is unlikely to change in the coming days. Numbers six to ten include four European countries where the pandemic has already peaked and – unless there is a second wave – they are unlikely to show any significant increases. Peru, the only other Latin American country besides Brazil in the top ten, is perilous and may well jump up. Others especially from Asia and Africa may possibly show explosive growth. But for now this is it.
It is not just a coincidence that the top five are what they are. All have had problems in grappling with the pandemic swiftly and scientifically. President Trump refused to believe that the coronavirus would hit the US, he even talked at one point, of a miracle happening. Later he reconciled to the fact that the pandemic had hit the US hard, with cases and deaths mounting in a lethal explosion till it has reached the stage today of just short of 2 million cases – more than a quarter of the world toll. Prime Minister Johnson of the UK too delayed the response, allowed weak restrictions and messaging, toyed – very briefly – with the rather chilling concept of allowing herd immunity to develop naturally, and then doubled down to actually fighting the virus. This delay contributed to the mind boggling death toll in the UK - over 40,000 with a large number of them elderly. Brazil has been led by Jair Bolsonaro, who has refused to wear a mask in public, ridiculed both the pandemic and those who were urging quick action, and continues to go about as if nothing is happening, while mass graveyards are getting filled up outside Sao Paulo. Russian president Vladimir Putin too acted indifferently in the early days, preparations were tardy and the weakened healthcare system was not prepared. Then the surge came and the cases have spiralled, with distant regions too reeling from the impact.
And in India, we had Prime Minister Modi taking only some measures to stop flights even as 53 days passed after the first case was confirmed at the end of January. It was only on 24 March that a countrywide lockdown was announced – from doing practically nothing, the country’s leadership went to the other extreme. Modi’s speeches make it clear that he believed that the onus of fighting the deadly virus was primarily on the people. He wanted them to exercise restraint and show resolve, and appreciate the frontline workers by banging pots and plates, or blowing conch shells. At that time, India had about 400 confirmed cases. Now the tally stands at over 2.7 lakh, with several cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad etc. heading for a catastrophe.
All these countries have these authoritarian figures as their leaders who believe that they know everything and want things to run only as they want them to. Even scientists and experts are given short shrift. Global experience is not taken on board organically. Some peddle their bizarre eccentricities in full public view – Bolsonaro and Trump. Others bluster their way out by photo ops and figures that are allegedly incomplete or misinterpreted – like Modi and Putin, and even Johnson.
But the root of the way these leaders have faltered lies in their compulsion to centralise power and disregard dissent, or even different views. They are hegemonic and intolerant. They fight to retain as much power as they can with themselves, only abandoning it when things get tough and somebody else needs to be blamed. Look at how the Modi government has shifted gears to asking State governments to deal with the situation, without helping them a bit financially.
These leaders were also popular – there is no denying. Perhaps that’s what gave them the boost to do their own thing. But this political popularity also created – indeed, it fostered – a phalanx of sycophants and yes men. You can perhaps win elections with this set-up, but you can't fight the pandemic when nobody dares to disagree with the Great Leader himself.
There are signs that this is cracking. Trump’s approval ratings are down, partly of course because of his handling of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but also because the deaths due to COVID are too much to bear. Bolsonaro too rode on popularity and demagoguery, but again he is losing ground, after being seen as responsible for the spiralling COVID deaths. There have been demonstrations in Russia against Putin, but the dynamic there is different because challengers are still to emerge and he has consolidated his power relentlessly for two decades. Johnson of course is still somewhat popular because he recently won the Brexit and the election. But he faces a tough challenge in explaining the disaster of the pandemic.
Modi, in India, has glossed over the pandemic bungling till now, mainly by pointing at the relatively lower deaths in India. But he has made a spectacular error in pushing through very unpopular changes in agriculture, industrial relations, corporate taxation, foreign investment policies and divestment of the public sector – all hot issues in India. And, the lockdown has destroyed the economy which was already stumbling. Unemployment is zooming at around 24%, fiscal tight-fistedness has ruled out any rebound and from all indications, it appears that India is in for a tough future.
Modi, like his friends in the Big 5 Covid Club, faces an increasingly disaffected people – and they have used up all their wily tactics and shenanigans already.
[Data collated by Peeyush Sharma of Newsclick’s Data Analytics team]