In Fight Against Coronavirus, Should India Take a Cue from China?

China prioritised building State capacity over military power – this allowed it to cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

5 min read
Archival image of PM Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, used for representational purposes.

With COVID-19 positive cases escalating, Prime Minister Modi announced (24 March) a lockdown of India for 21 days. With some experts forecasting a huge surge in cases, one of the main objectives of this lockdown is to try and “flatten the infection transmissibility curve” to the level of the current capacity of the healthcare system, by limiting contact among the infected, potentially infected, and non-infected.

This “flattening” will not eliminate the coronavirus – but can spread the strain on the medical services over a longer period, as also buy time for augmenting State capacity to handle this crisis, and perhaps for developing some effective treatment for the disease.

And suddenly, setting a new timeline on Enlightenment, the same jingoistic ra-ra media, that till a month ago, at times hunched over sand-models in combat uniforms, was hyping India’s State power over Pakistan, China, etc, began questioning the State’s capacity to deal with this crisis. They did this by pointing fingers at the poor healthcare infrastructure; the limited number of ICU beds, ventilators; paucity of doctors, healthcare staff, testing kits, Personal Protective Equipment (PPPE), etc. Hence, the need to outline the importance of State capacity over State power.

China’s ‘Whole-of-the-State’ Response to Corona Outbreak

The COVID-19 cases began in China in November 2019. A Canadian Artificial Intelligence firm ‘BlueDot’ spotted it as an epidemic on 30 December, and the next day, China informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of cases of ‘pneumonia of unknown etiology’ in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. On 7 January 2020, Chinese authorities identified it as a new strain of coronavirus, and on 30 January, the WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’.

China mounted a massive, “whole-of-the-State” response to the epidemic:

  • building 16 makeshift hospitals (18,000 beds) in record time to treat patients in/around the epidemic epicenter
  • establishing reliable societal supply chains (food, medicines, energy) that delivered pre-packaged supplies to each quarantined community
  • used drones in large numbers to spray disinfectants, convey samples, carry supplies to selected patients, and for enforcing curfew
  • developed and began using Big-Data, analytics and Machine Learning/Artificial Intelligence for spotting infectious cases, tracking where each had been and met whom, and then identifying, allocating priorities and treating them

By 10 March, the infections had started to decline in China, and there are indications that normal life and economic activity maybe slowly reviving.

China is the world’s second largest economy on nominal basis and perhaps the largest on Purchasing Power Parity. However, it is not just money that allowed China to handle this crisis, but two others aspects.

Factors That Allowed China to be Well-Equipped to Handle Coronavirus Crisis

  • China’s Political System: The Communist Party of Chinese (CPC) led regime is indeed authoritarian. But contrary to popular belief, the CPC is actually very responsive to its people. It is aware that China has a history of “luan” (disorder); the days of Tiananmen Square type of jack-booting are over; there is no other political party it can blame for failures; and that the CPC’s legitimacy stems from its ability to deliver. Given the quasi-monolithic State structure, a failure would have pointed a finger directly at President Xi Jinping. Hence, the CPC made sure that local politicians and officials were made active stakeholders in the ‘fight’ against COVID-19. PM Modi’s recent directive to his ministers to take charge of their respective States and play the role of leaders in defeating the epidemic is a step in this direction.
  • Long-term Strategy – State Capacity: After Mao Zedong died (September 1976), it was thought that China would crumble. However, his successor Deng Xiaoping, battling enormous institutional constraints, set up new models of economic, political, and social stability. He also asked China to “hide and bide, and rise peacefully” even as he unveiled his ‘Economic Opening & Reform’.

China Prioritised Building State Capacity Over Military Power

More importantly, Deng ensured that China did not emulate the Japanese and German empires of the pre-1945 era, but rather the non-violent Japanese and German economic miracles of the post-1945 era. It assiduously avoided all armed conflicts after its Vietnamese debacle of 1979 and maintained its official defence spending to less than 1.5 percent of its GDP.

As its economy ramped up, 1.5 percent of GDP allowed very larger outlays in real terms on defence (Chinese economy in 2014 was more than 25-times bigger than in 1990). What is however more important is that from 2000 onwards, it began expending at least 4 percent of its GDP on healthcare (it plans to allocate 9.1 percent of its GDP on healthcare by 2035).

In other words, China prioritised building State capacity over military power – and that’s one factor which allowed it to cope with the COVID-19 crisis.

Lack of Awareness in India That Healthcare, Education Are Backbone Of Nation

In the past few decades, we have focused more on building State power than State capacity. It does seem that there has been sparse awareness that healthcare, education and a powerful economy are the true building blocks of a nation. Large GDPs in turn allow larger outlays for the military – but large/powerful militaries do not lead to larger economics.

In the initial decades post-Independence, India was beset by many regional challenges. But we yet did well with a decent-sized military (1965; 1971), as the main objective was to lay the foundation for a modern India. In 1980, the economies of China and India were almost the same.

But as the Indian economy started to grow, we began expending larger amounts on our military and security forces. India has no dearth of challenges – but for too long we chose to listen to military leaders and spooks, and then focused on both imagined and actual challenges/threats.

In order to cover all bases, we diversified our spending on both imagined and actual threats. And now, that same massive State power – military, CAPF, security architectures, etc – are found not optimally useful in the face of this pandemic – and this may wreak far greater havoc and destruction in terms of economic and human cost.

In fact, this pandemic is much more than just a medical crisis – but may change many things including the global order.

Coronavirus Pandemic: A Wake-Up Call for Indian Leadership

In 2020-21, India’s Defence Budget was pegged at Rs 30,42,230 crore. In addition is the MHA’s budget. The healthcare allocation – for a population of about 1.35 billion people – is a paltry Rs. 67,484 crore. The National Health Profile 2019 admitted that in 2016, its public spending on health was just 1.17 percent of the GDP, that is, less than nations classified as Lower Income Countries by the World Bank (who spend 1.57 percent of their GDP on health that year). And amazingly, in 2018-19, only 59 percent of the total National Health Mission budget was expended. The government plans to expand healthcare spending to 2.5 percent of GDP by 2025.

It is, therefore, perhaps time to ponder, whether India really needs a military that can overmatch all its neighbours simultaneously or has a regional expeditionary capability?Or, one with an efficient deterrence capability? 

Pakistan is a good example – a mediocre army with a country and a nuclear arsenal. Do we really need aircraft worth Rs 4000 crore plus each, which will surely be vulnerable to the air defence weapons of already being fielded? Given the new all-pervasive surveillance technologies, do we need this continuous expansion of CAPF? What should we prefer – an educated, self-motivated, well-informed, enterprising, innovative, cooperative population? Or, an unhealthy, coarse, ignorant, obscurantist population that requires constant policing? Should this crisis not be a wake-up call to leaders – spend more on healthcare, education etc – the core building blocks of a nation – and develop State capacities?

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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