In the middle of the corona crisis, French President Emmanuel Macron has decided that his most urgent need is to have a new PR person who can spread his fame around the globe. The coronavirus has put the leaders in a race. Who will turn out to be the best? The contest is more like a golf tournament with no time limit. We are still getting scores each day — how many tested, how many positive, how many died, is the country in lockdown, social distancing or social isolation? We are (at least six feet apart from each other) waiting for the end.
Without exception, every leader has been caught unprepared. China took days to realise and then publicly admit that Wuhan had coronavirus infection. President Xi Jinping cared more for his reputation than to admit a crisis. It may not be over yet but until recently, China had the highest positives and highest number of deaths. American President Donald Trump has rescued Xi from looking bad. Trump believes that he knows best even as he changes his mind. So after a lot of false optimism and blaming everyone but himself, he is taking it seriously. America may still head the league in number of positives and deaths.
We know what works. Testing. South Korea showed it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel also managed to keep infections and deaths low. What these two had was an efficient health sector and a disciplined public service. They don’t need PR.
The weakness of health infrastructures of many countries has been exposed. Number of hospital beds per capita, number of qualified health professionals, availability of testing equipment are what counts rather than Dow Jones or Sensex. The precarious ways in which people make their daily living, the inadequate housing and public facilities, the contrast between what government personnel (elected and bureaucratic) enjoy by way of perks and pensions and the rest of the citizens tells you where all your tax money goes. How many homeless can fit into a Lutyens bungalow?
Round the world, leaders are like rabbits caught in the car headlights. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, being a biographer of (Winston) Churchill, fancied himself as a war leader when the crisis broke. But he had no idea of what to do nor could he take expert advice seriously. The Health Service has been starved off funds for years to afford tax cuts for corporations. Days were lost while Johnson got his act together. It is British people as usual who are coming forward. Seven lakh people have volunteered to help the Health Service. Doctors and nurses have come back from retirement.
As a late comer to this race, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a lot to learn about what to avoid and what works. India has a totally inadequate health infrastructure except for the very expensive private hospitals. The overall structure of administration — the Iron Frame — is corroded and not fit for purpose, but impossible to reform as
Modi has found out. The BJP may have crores of members as must the other political parties but they are useless except for rabble rousing.
Citizens may turn out to be the best bet for helping if Modi can communicate to them their duty. India had a great tradition of voluntary social service before independence. We need servants of India back. Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family)? Just India would do.
This article first appeared in print edition on April 5 under the title “Out of My Mind: Amid a pandemic, race for the ‘best’”.
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