Covid-19: The Us-Them Polemics and Placebos

The optics of doing better, it appears, depends on those doing worse. Reason has been quarantined and the pandemic has widened existing fault lines and triggered a surge in placebos and us-them polemics.

By Shankkar Aiyar | Published: 24th May 2020 04:00 AM |

‘Say aah’ is rarely said these days. Orthodontology, thanks to the lockdown, like other segments of the economy is on pause. Dentists, The Economist quips from its perch, are at best offering three A’s — antibiotics, analgesics and advice. The alphabet-soup, in letter and spirit, is also the mainstay of governments — lockdowns act as the anesthetic and analgesic, cash-transfers and debt moratorium as antibiotics to suppress the economy’s immune response, and advisories wrapped in fear/threat enable order.

Five months since the Wuhan revelation, the world is more aware and less assured. The West, justifiably railing at and riled with China, simply adopted the Chinese post facto approach as the pre-emptive strategy. When China shut down 160 million people in February following the outbreak, the world gasped and in the ensuing months over half the world did just that.

Envious admiration for the Swedish approach has engineered neither gumption nor subscription. Exit from lockdown is once again not dissimilar to what China did.

The New Indian Express

The chant of ‘we are all in this together’ has not quite united the world. Indeed, the chasm has widened existing fault lines and triggered a surge of ‘us and them’ polemics. China has found gratification in mocking the inadequacies of the US response. The Trump administration has dressed its failings as the villainy of China, threatening action on the Chinese entities listed in America, besides punitive action on the trade front.

The virus has eluded the definitive and multiple variables and challenged every emerging postulate on the quality, quantum and context defining testing. Yet, there seems to be a puerile race ridding the data of active cases and deaths. The optics of doing better, it appears, depends on those doing worse.

“15 countries with highest number of COVID-19 cases, with almost same population as India, have reported 34 times cases and 83 times deaths as reported in India,” claimed the health ministry. India may appear to be doing better but the fact is little is known about timing of the so-called ‘peaking of infections’. Science, it would seem, has been put in isolation.

And Reason it would appear has been quarantined. In India, millions of migrants are stranded across major metros, dispossessed and in despair. The courage of 15-year-old Jyoti Kumari who pedalled 1,200 km from Gurugram in Haryana to Bihar, ferrying an ailing father moved millions but failed to stir the conscience of political parties engaged in blame game, egged on by pauperised politics of populism.

The human cost is manifest in data, images and headlines. The arrival of cures and vaccines is yet some distance away. Even those on the horizon are challenged by questions of efficacy.

Trapped in the pandemic of panic is the education of a generation — over 200 million enrolled in graduate courses find their future stalled. In India alone, over 300 million children have not been able to attend school.

Profound issues of life and livelihood are haunted by uncertainty. Millions have lost jobs and millions wonder if they will have jobs. The worst hit are small businesses and the touch and care services sector accounting for two-thirds of global GDP — world over health care sector is haemorrhaging as paying patients are staying away and beds are being corralled by governments.

To borrow the phraseology from epidemiology, there are sectors which have tested positive and there are sectors which are asymptomatic as yet. The implications are grave. Global rating agency S&P forecasts a loss of over $ 2.2 trillion just in the US, to households and corporates. This financial shock threatens to infect emerging economies.

Of the countries/sovereigns rated by S&P since March, ratings of over 46 per cent slid lower. In fact, the agency says “Across all 135 rated sovereigns, the outlook balance is firmly tilted to the downside.” This week, the Reserve Bank of India placed India’s growth for the year in negative territory — last seen in 1979–80 when India’s economy contracted by over 5 per cent.

Policy action is essentially a mix of pause and placebos approach. Countries have extended moratorium on loans to businesses and payroll bailouts. Central banks have loosened purse strings and cut interest rates to stave off systemic risks. Even exit from lockdowns are corralled by ifs and buts and colours of containment.

The hope it seems is the storm will abate day-after and the global economy will revert to normal. However, what the new normal could be cannot be fathomed as yet and definitely not by looking at the rear-view mirror — this crisis is unlike any other and calls for collaborative action.

You could say that the world is trapped in Abhimanyu’s Chakravyuh…yet there is no grand strategy to exit the maze, a cure many murmur privately may turn out to be worse than the disease.

This week saw nations come together for retribution, calling for an independent probe on the origin of the virus. But they are yet to come together on an action plan for reincarnation.

At a time when the world is threatened by its worst crisis, statesmanship is conspicuous by its absence. It would be fair to say that the absence of evidence in this case is verily evidence of absence.

Shankkar Aiyar, political economy analyst, is author of ‘The Gated Republic –India’s Public Policy Failures and Private Solutions’ which is releasing in May, ‘Aadhaar: A Biometric History of India’s 12-Digit Revolution’; and ‘Accidental India’. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @ShankkarAiyar. His previous columns can be found here. This column was first published here.