The brave new world we never wanted

We need trust amongst those guiding the destinies of countries and those being guided. And, trust happens when governance is by ethics.

Some call it the Chinese virus. The Chinese, equally nasty, squarely blamed the Americans for letting it loose. But the world at large is afflicted by the coronavirus, medically referred to as Covid-19. It is as deadly as it gets, infectious, contagious and worse, has no known vaccine or treatment. It knows no boundaries and respects no authority, no religion, no gender and no station in life. It has infected the powerful and the powerless alike. By way of consequence, this unseen virus has locked down the whole world. No country has any precedence of a strategic framework to deal with this threat to the mankind with a tragedy of untold proportions. The virus has gained ascendency because governments of nations, regardless of being democracies or monarchies or authoritarian, have increasingly devalued transparency in governance to a point where telling wellspun stories has become the essence of political engagement with their own populations and with each other. Advertisement and wellhoned PR networks are the icing over all policy desserts served to the gullible.

Be it international politics amongst the comity of nations or sharing policy rationale with domestic populace, the adornment is always sugar coating. The virus, noticed in its severity and consequential contagion as early as mid-December, was kept under wraps by the Chinese for fear of an economic downslide. The doctor who made it public in Wuhan was imprisoned and humiliated as only the Chinese state does in its inimitable authoritarian way. The infections became too big and too wide in geographies so fast, that the Chinese government was forced to go into extreme containment measures like lockdown of its cities and populations put in quarantine. Multilateral institutions like the World Health Organization and others failed in their obligations to the larger humanity and once again in the direst hour of unfolding tragedy, national governments struggled to save their constituents from the virus infections.

The cumulative failures of their governance models or sheer bad governance wrought by shortsightedness of misplaced policy preferences has been all too obvious. The pillars of development followed universally, despite loud alarm bells by climate scientists and environment activists, are facing a challenge of relevance and crying for change with one prime consideration that they conform to nature’s course rather than alteration of the nature’s course. But we digress, as the way ahead has to be all about change and adapt to nature. This is about failure of governance ethics and governments running their messaging as campaigns with unabashed ‘spin’ on their achievements and vehement denials on their policy blunders. The Chinese story of Covid-19 is a woeful illustration that is taking its toll in trillions of dollars and thousands of human lives and counting on a pan-global stage. And yet the Chinese refrain is how well they fought the virus and saved many lives. They are also telling the world that their precautions and timely alarms to the world at large through the world health body and other multilateral agencies actually saved a pandemic disaster.

A laughable travesty of the reality! Their embassies in world capitals and funded think tanks are at pains to explain away the Herculean efforts by the Chinese government at all levels driven by their superman President having overcome the economic and health havoc in their own land and thereby in the world. Not many are prepared to believe these tall claims and some like the United States go as far as to suspect that the coronavirus came out of the Chinese labs in Wuhan as a result of an accident or even a deliberate act.Either way, three million lives are afflicted all over the world and people are dying and populations around the world are in a lockdown mode. Normal life around the world is on hold and the global economy at a standstill. The politics of gamesmanship, meanwhile, continues. The major players are plotting their moves on the global chessboard to gain psychological and substantive dominance in the power contest. The United States is accusing China of deliberate mischief in withholding the spread of the virus epidemic in Wuhan and China in turn returning the compliment by alleging that the US navy brought it to China.

There is a story in The Washington Post that the research in corona was funded by the United States three years ago and its dangers were known to the funders. China calls itself the good boy for having done what was needed and warning the world health body of the pandemic. The truth has fallen between the cracks. What has come to the fore is the increasing opacity of policy formulations across countries by their governments, both for domestic consumption and for international politics. The premise for international relations has for long been that all countries are entitled to act in self-interest. Sure, that is granted but once sovereignty of a country is secure, there has to be a concern for humanity as a guiding light. We are now in “each one for herself and devil take the hindmost race”, almost for the last half a century. Our international politics of self-interest has destroyed the credibility of the multilateral institutions. The powerful set, of which the United States must take a lot of blame, was in the forefront of overriding the United Nation’s will and made the world a dangerous place in pursuit of harnessing oil interests and ended up with enhanced security threats to itself and its allies. The disguise for this pursuit of own interest was to build a world safe for democracy and forcing regime changes to do so.

The opacity in public policy has affected domestic governance systems as well. The need to provide a ‘spin’ to every government action and camouflage it as an achievement while deriding the dissenters and more so the contrarians, is only a reflection of petty mindedness at the very least and depriving our dialogues of productive conversations for a cohesive public space. We end up deluding ourselves. It is an evident political idiom when given a choice between what is right and what is populist, the politician will choose the populist. It is time, that this choice is now compellingly for what is right. The country and the humanity await this brand of leadership as the planet can no longer bear the burden of failed development paradigms and ‘spun successes’ of governments. We need trust amongst those guiding the destinies of countries and those being guided. Remember, trust happens when governance is by ethics. That is the brave new world we want to see. The writer is former director of India Habitat Centre and an expert on democracy and governance.