What The Pandemic Teaches Us

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CHINA placed the industrial province of Wuhan under lockdown and contained the spread of the Covid-19 virus. An insightful article in Chuang (a blog devoted to “analyzing the ongoing development of capitalism in China, its historical roots, and the revolts of those crushed beneath it”) noted the difference between the racist tendency to blame China and people of Chinese origin for the pandemic, and between a critical analysis of the Chinese State’s handling of the crisis and what it tells us about capitalism today. The essay is especially insightful because the Chinese state’s response shares some features with the response of authoritarian regimes in India and other countries as well.

Regimes like to use fear – (of terrorism, of coronavirus, of loss of employment) to build consensus for their authoritarianism. If an Emergency was seen as an illegitimate clampdown by a dictatorial leader, an Emergency imposed in the name of Coronavirus precautions might generate a lot more support. But, we might ask, do we not need lockdowns to prevent the spread of the virus? Are not lockdowns effective and essential? This is question we could ask not only in the context of China but of India too.

And the answer is pretty obvious. The lockdowns are necessitated by the fact that the healthcare systems are unable to handle the load of a large number of patients at one go. So “social distancing” enforced by a lockdown is needed only because our healthcare systems are weak. Why not acknowledge this and nationalise healthcare, as Spain has done? Even better, why not have universal testing and effective isolation and care of people testing positive for the virus, as South Korea has done? South Korea’s model has, after all, proved to be most effective in containing the spread of the virus. So why are other governments not doing this?

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At the heart of the issue is this simple fact: that democratic methods persuading people to understand basic principles and willingly practice those principles are proven to be far more effective than demanding blind obedience to rules and rituals and punishing violations. In his pathbreaking book on hospital infections, Better, surgeon Atul Gawande recounts the impact of a revolutionary new – democratic rather  than top-down draconian – approach to hospital hygiene.

Gawande writes, “Stopping the epidemics spreading in our hospitals is not a problem of ignorance–of not having the know-how about what to do. It is a problem of compliance–a failure of an individual to apply that know-how correctly. But achieving compliance is hard.” Repeated injunctions to wash hands correctly and so on fail and infections continue to be rife in hospitals.

With the new approach, doctors in a particular US hospital “held a series of thirty-minute, small group discussions with health care workers at every level: food service workers, janitors, nurses, doctors, patients themselves. The team began each meeting saying, in essence, ‘We’re here because of the hospital infection problem and we want to know what you know about how to solve it.’ There were no directives, no charts with what the experts thought should be done. Ideas came pouring out. People told of places where hand-gel dispensers were missing, ways to keep gowns and gloves from running out of supply, nurses who always seemed able to wash their hands and even taught patients to wash their hands, too. Many people said it was the first time anyone had ever asked them what to do. The norms began to shift…. Nurses who would never speak up when a doctor failed to wash his or her hands began to do so after learning of other nurses who did.” The result was that hospital infections dropped to zero in that particular hospital.

The message is clear: that people’s participation in identifying and solving problems is a lot more effective than any authoritarian and punitive imposition of “rules”. This insight offers clues for the failures of the state-led programmes like Swacch Bharat and Beti Bachao to combat open defecation and sex-selection respectively. And above all, it offers us insights into how the top-down approach in combating coronavirus is costing China, India and the world dearly. A more democratic approach would chose to listen to and learn from doctors like Dr Li Wenliang, and would trust people to be capable of understanding how the virus spreads and acting responsibly in democratic cooperation with each other to prevent its spread. Such an approach might be life-saving and revolutionary. But since democracy and mutual cooperation are more contagious than viruses, regimes all over the world discourage them and instead use the crisis to shore up their authority and power over people instead.

The lessons for us, the people, are that our response to a pandemic cannot be radically different from our response to the crisis of capitalism and fascism. We must continue to foster mutual trust, empathy, and cooperation – the same qualities and approaches we need to build unions, run communes, conduct revolutions and sustain revolutions – to help everyone, including the most vulnerable, survive the pandemic.

Below, we carry excerpts from the detailed and thoughtful analysis of capitalism, China, and the Covid-crisis in the Chuang blog.

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