Covid 19-A Revisit to The  Scourge Of Our Times

Sub Title :

Issues Details : Vol 15 Issue 2 May – Jun 2021

Author : Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM** (Retd)

Page No. : 14

Category : Geostrategy

: July 1, 2021

Study of pandemics of the past and the experience of other nations must remain a constant exercise even as we await further waves. Academic departments and multi-skill institutions must study every facet to learn lessons and best practices which could be applied as early as the next wave itself. The issue of trauma and its early realization will ensure some counter measures to prevent mass trauma in the population and consequent loss of confidence. The pandemic’s effect on comprehensive national power and geopolitics must be ascertained progressively and measures to neutralize all that compromises must be taken.

Conspiracy theories abound. There is growing evidence to suggest that Covid 19 strains are very different from CORONA Virus that has existed for centuries. They appear to have been engineered and deserve an investigation.

Why did India’s response crack up so easily especially after a praiseworthy first encounter? Was it a result of bureaucratic bungling, administrative faux pas or simple neglect; politics over the subject are shameful, to say the least. Vaccine diplomacy and management backfired badly after initial success. In the middle of this there is good news as well. This compilation also includes suggestions for remedial administrative action and for handling psychological trauma that individuals and the society are being subjected to due to the pandemic.

Tamilnadu Chief Minister MK Stalin’s decision to put on hold all politics for three months to adopt a course of political cooperation with all parties until the pandemic is under control is commendable. We are at a juncture in the nation’s history when all shoulders have to be put to the wheel to defeat the raging pandemic. Political differences are the last thing required in such a situation. The Government can do only a finite amount for a once in a century event especially if mistakes have been made in the past and enough investment has not been made in the health sector; blame game is the last thing anyone wants in a such a situation.

In Apr 2020, this magazine was one of the first to publish a cover story on the pandemic and it was not just one on the virus, its symptoms and effects. I analysed what the strategic effect on the nation could be. Revisiting that story, I realized how eerily realistic it was and much of what happened in the second wave was actually predicted. The medical community may have been saying much of the same, and quite convincingly, but neither the media nor the public was willing to listen. Wisdom spewing television channels today are chiding everyone in authority who no doubt were responsible for much of the mayhem because of their obsession with the election but institutionally there were very few who spoke up loud enough against all that.

I am tempted to quote Yuval Noah Harari as I did last year. In his seminal essay titled ‘The World after Coronavirus’, the Israeli historian and celebrity author wrote, “The decisions people and governments take in the next few weeks will probably shape the world for years to come. They will shape not just our healthcare systems but also our economy, politics and culture. We must act quickly and decisively. When choosing between alternatives, we should ask ourselves not only how to overcome the immediate threat, but also what kind of world we will inhabit once the storm passes. Yes, the storm will pass, humankind will survive, most of us will still be alive — but we will inhabit a different world”. The unfortunate thing that happened to India was that we handled the first wave well but forgot the important points Harari made; that of shaping our world according to the changes that the virus brought. I have no problem in admitting that the elite and educated society of India failed the rest.

I am addressing three issues in this essay. The first will be – the world’s failure to study history of pandemics the way it should have. Thereafter, the trauma and mental distress being created by the pandemic and what we need to do about it. Lastly, a few top of the head observations of how geopolitics of the Covid times is likely to impact India.

The Study of History

There has always been a general lack of awareness in India about the potential occurrence of large scale pandemics and the inability to fully glean the enormity of the impact. One of the reasons for this has been a disconnect between the world of medical research with researchers and managers of national security. That is not strange because for far too long have we treated national security as border and internal security. It is only in recent years that things started to change with the academic world slowly coming on board to contribute its bit which is actually huge in terms of intellectual support. The perception that the health system could have something to do with security has equally escaped the Armed Forces. The surprise is that a century ago the world had witnessed a pandemic which saw 50-70 million deaths with 12-17 million in India alone. Neither the academic world revolving around medicine, nor the Armed Forces ever converged their thinking in spite of being fully aware of the existence of pandemics through the 20th Century.

Is it strange that the pandemic called Spanish Flu which lasted from Feb 1918 to Apr 1920 and afflicted 500 million people worldwide found insufficient traction in medical analysis and even lesser in the study of the management of administration which included the aspects of economics and human security.  500 million people ill in a period of 26 months meant almost one third of humanity of that time was afflicted. That pandemic emerged when the world was at war (1914-18); there were extraordinary circumstances. Lots of people were on the move, not only troops, but also civilians, refugees and displaced persons; and there was much hunger prevalent then. Information on the pandemic has been largely obfuscated as it occurred just when the world was looking at the end of a disastrous war; from a fatalities angle it almost seemed an extension of the war. The recorded impact of the pandemic and how the management of it took place in a vast country such as India then under British rule could have provided some insight for today’s management with modern day management techniques. Yet we have not had the benefit of those mostly because firstly India wasn’t independent and the British, otherwise so administratively efficient, had no major interest in it after a devastating war.

Dealing with the Pandemic’s Trauma

When negativity strikes, rarely is trauma thought about as an outcome as authorities struggle to restore the situation. Humans could lose their belongings, savings and material assets but could not bear the simultaneous loss of parents, children and siblings. Parents had to come to grips with losing a child while some children suddenly found themselves parentless. It is something we are witnessing this time too; with loss of both parents and relatives reluctant to take the children under their care.

We are in the second phase of the pandemic. Which way the curve goes and how far is yet uncertain. What is certain is that in societies of developing countries, focus or attention towards mental health care finds lower priority among the options of promoting wellness. Death even in slightly larger numbers usually does not perturb humans but two reasons involved there, do. First, if the deaths are across a cross section of society, by which citizens perceive that they could very well be victims themselves. Second, by the nature of the environment that is causing death. In the current pandemic a couple of issues stand out. The first is uncertainty revolving around having themselves or family and friends being afflicted by the virus without a medical facility to fall back upon. The macabre dance of death is accompanied by the rigmarole of looking for doctors, medical facilities, Oxygen, ICU beds and more. Death in a hospital, on an ICU bed and under effective medical care brings a level of mental satisfaction to family members, of having done their best to save a life. However, chronic shortage of hospital beds, Oxygen and ICU facilities, an inevitability of any pandemic, leads to loss of lives in waiting lists; unable to find suitable facilities even while having the means to afford the best. The poor and impoverished probably used to such challenges of life will be far less affected. It’s the middle class and the upper middle class who suddenly find themselves disempowered. Their ability to win favour through their backing of resources finds itself diluted leading to self-perception of diminishing of social status.

A pandemic with a larger than known infectious element attached, has its own fallout. A loved one may find a bed in an ICU far from home and remain cut off thereafter until he is well enough to return or simply be confined to statistics of death. His life remains in the hands of anonymous medical staff and the powerlessness to influence anything leaves people shattered. Jobs need to be retained; upstaking and getting to the security of home is not an easy option.  The effect of infection travels even after death where decent last rites cannot be granted. In human existence decent last rites is considered a virtual human right but when mortal remains are themselves infected and can lead to further spread, their anonymous disposal is cause for guilt among survivors.

Psycho-social care and counseling in distress and trauma like situations is yet rare in India due to awkward stigmas attached to anything to do with the term ‘mental health’. This is something that we will need to overcome quickly through regular appearances of psychologists in electronic media and elsewhere. The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) is one national institution which recognizes the challenges in this sphere. It has already opened help lines for those in acute distress.

Geopolitical Impact of Covid 19 on India

Geopolitics affects the comprehensive national power (CNP) of a nation. The reverse is also true wherein CNP dictates the level and the extent to which a nation can indulge in and influence geopolitics. Without too much debate CNP of a nation may be assumed to be a sum total of facts and trends which include geostrategic location, raw military power, economic capability, presence of crucial resources (oil and minerals), high scientific capability, education, research and development; very importantly the ability to stave off internal crises (propensity for stability in crisis), national demographic unity, and political maturity to set aside political differences in national emergency.  It also includes soft power and its handling including information and image projection. In the first wave India responded with alacrity. Scientific approach, realistic data management, lockdown and progressive opening up, acceptance of economic dilution and pragmatic measures to revamp, vaccine development and even vaccine diplomacy, ensured no reputational dilution, in fact only enhancement and that too internationally.  The second wave took India by relative surprise and the sheer volume overwhelmed the system.

The image generated by the negatives of the second wave has partially dented India’s CNP and thus its ability to play the geopolitical game with the same degree of confidence as in the pre-pandemic period. Here are a few observations about the geopolitical scene in the pandemic and its immediate aftermath:-

♦   Recall how Russia’s ability to contribute to geopolitics got marginalized after 1991 when its CNP drastically reduced. That should remain a lesson for India.

♦   The economic domain being adversely affected lowers India’s ability to sit at the high table of emerging economies and middle powers. The recovery in this domain is the crucial issue; it has to be quick, energetic and with a sense of commitment. With forex reserves at a high, confidence levels have not taken a beating. We must not hesitate in hiring the best talent to handle and restore the economy.

♦   Domestic political contestation will be churned but hopefully political stability will not be affected. The election obsession has to be overcome.

♦   India’s claim to regional primacy and leadership has taken a hit. There has been a quickened demise of Indian ability to influence and materially help the neighborhood. Will this shrinking of some strategic space may be yielded to China.

♦   On 27 April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi hosted a video conference with counterparts from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, where Beijing proposed a number of measures to promote anti-pandemic cooperation among them, as well as to promote economic recovery to get on with the Belt and Road cooperation.

♦   Ability to be “a leading power, rather than just a balancing power”, in the matrix of future geopolitics is India’s ambition. It will be challenging to maintain that in the light of compromise of status but no compromise on effort towards that should ever be made.

♦   India’s geo-strategic location (we talk a lot of Pakistan’s geostrategic advantage) is of immense importance – as keeper of the international waterways; as the region bordering the New Great Game; the proximity to Afghanistan; the presence of the Andaman Islands. We must continue to leverage this to our advantage.

♦   SAARC  –  Consider this an opportunity to reconfigure SAARC, adding health and environment as the main concerns of the moment. With Pakistan’s nuisance value largely neutralized, take positive control for the sake of other neighbours.

♦   Social media, electronic and print media are all proving negative for India. Western media’s negativity stems from traditional perception of a backward India stuck in the groove of the socialist period. It draws a malicious pleasure out of it. Western media is gleefully showing a negative India to the world.

♦   Why are we being defensive on vaccine exports – it was one of the ways of retaining the image we have carefully cultivated among less developed and even better off countries. Agreeably it created an artificial shortage which should have been made up through more licenses to manufacture. But the export decision was not a wrong decision. Let us build on this perception that India was not selfish, it was willing to share but suffered in the bargain. We will do it again.

♦   When a negative image of capability is created and the same has a cascading effect on international perception the image just sticks. It’s best to concentrate on some aspects of regaining efficiency in some fields. The vaccination drive for example could prove to be an image enhancer. A revolutionary method by throwing caution to the winds – get the uniformed forces to take this on under a military vaccination authority.

♦   The possibility of China exploiting India’s sudden weakening image, financial comedown etc to coerce once again cannot be ruled out. Last year’s actions by the Indian Armed Forces were excellent in messaging China. We will need a bold approach to continue projecting our will and capability to thwart aggression.

♦   The return of normality in China is important, because that is something that has so far eluded the US and India. This will have an impact on geopolitical dynamics, especially the revised Indo-Pacific strategy of the Quad nations, the decision to be more definitive in intent and perhaps weaponizing it. Remember China is of great importance to Australia and Japan. It’s not for nothing that Quad was never automatic; it’s been thought about at every stage.

Given the intensity of the current wave of the pandemic, it will be a while before the government can focus on external diplomacy. The intellectual diplomacy must continue through think tanks and media efforts; a void cannot be allowed.