Pandemics present us with unprecedented crisis situations. Extraordinary situations demand extraordinary measures and many a time this is used to undermine democratic institutions and values. The Covid crisis is nothing different. This unprecedented crisis period has given certain political leaders across the world an opportunity to clamp down on many aspects of democracy – the most crucial ones being transparency and accountability. While on one hand, democracies take a bashing when compared with how countries like China succeeded in controlling the spread of the disease, on the other hand leaders of democracies might jeopardise public health at the altar of political cost. Decisions are also often delayed because they are evaluated by electoral concerns.

The crisis seems to have strengthened the pockets of authoritarianism inherent in democracies. Media, Courts and civil society organisations play the crucial role of watchdogs in a democracy. But now they are unable to serve as effective means of checks on arbitrary use and abuse of power. Periods like this also witness declaration of a number of welfare policies for the marginalised section. But they are also accompanied by a rise in corruption. This further erodes the public trust on these institutions. Interestingly such exploitation is not always undertaken for personal gain but also to consolidate political power. Cancelling, postponing elections, bypassing financial accountability and taking emergency measures undermining fundamental rights. Selectively targeting opposition leaders are examples of such manipulation and consolidation.

This crisis if not handled properly runs the risk of straining relationship between the government and the people, it might intensify polarisation, disenfranchise already marginalised voters, accentuate inequality and increase conditions of violence. Rumors and misinformation have the tendency of spreading too early and have the power to incite conflict, crackdowns and stigmatisation – something that we witnessed in India in case of Nizamuddin episode and also the attacks on health personnel.

These concerns have been raised in many countries. Countries like China, Taiwan and even South Korea used various apps to trace people’s movement. While many feel this is intrusive of their privacy, they kept quiet because this was seen as a measure to curb the spread of the disease. However in India from the very beginning the implementation of various policies have raised eyebrows – the sole reason being the arbitrary ways in which these implementations happened. There were clear violations of lockdown from certain sections – be it Tablighi Zamaat congregation or the gaumutra party held in Delhi, the swearing in ceremony in Madhya Pradesh or the chariot pulling in Karnataka’s Siddalingeshwara fair.

Such violation was in no way limited only to the ruling disposition. Incidents like Palghar saw people come out in large number and indulge in a violent crime, helpless migrant labourers kept walking and travelling back to home throughout the period. In times of crisis, when the enemy is an invisible virus against which we still do not have any cure, information is the key to keep ahead. Many state leaders starting from the Chief Ministers of Delhi, Kerala, Maharashtra and some other states and the health Minister Himanta Biswa Sharma of Assam held regular press conferences and disseminated information. But the same was not seen at all levels. Our Prime Minister made crucial announcements but didn’t break his record of not facing a single press meet. This is in stark contrast to someone like Donald Trump who could not stop talking to the press and often make remarks that would backfire.

In India, while Indian Council of Medical Research officials are regularly providing data, there seems to be a gap with regard to information like number of critical cases and follow up of discharged cases. Random news reports of cured patients being infected again cause confusion and panic among the people. This becomes important because in India most are asymptomatic and with a relaxation of lockdown the numbers have soared but general precautions have taken a backseat. In such a situation, a clearer picture of where we stand in case of critical cases would help people take much required precautions. Instead we are coming across decisions to impose lockdowns at short notice causing panic buy, price rise and large crowds in markets.

During this period, economic crisis was looming large. We are all aware of the pressure that India’s health care system had to face. Raising adequate funds to face this challenge was the need of the hour. For crisis periods like this, there are bodies like Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund (PMNRF). Along with the PM, President, it also has the president of Indian National Congress, a representative of industry and commerce and that of the Tata Trustees as members –making it more representative. In such a situation one is left wondering about the need to set up a parallel body Prime Minister’s Citizens Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situation (PMCARES) with members solely from the government. Both the bodies enjoy certain exemptions, are audited not by CAG but by external auditors.

While both bodies have similar functions, a question may rise about the need of two parallel bodies. As of 2019, the PMNRF has an unused corpus of Rs 3800.44 crores. But even then calls were given for fresh donation to PMCARES. Government employees were requested to donate a day’s salary to the fund. According to an Indian Express article and Indiaspend till June 10th, a massive amount of Rs 9677.90 has been deposited in the fund while the usage of only Rs 3100 crores has been made public. Interestingly a large part of the fund was disposed to buy ventilators. But questions are arising as to the quality and price of these ventilators.

Right to Information requests about the body has been rejected on the plea that it is not a Public Authority. While on technical grounds, this might be true – in crisis periods the government could have furnished the data to inculcate confidence and trust in citizens. Political leaders specially our Prime Minister has time and again come reached out to the civil society to help during this crisis. But at the same time, we know that such organisations are having a hard time due to the government tightening rules on funding. Like PMCARES, these NGOs could have also contributed more had they been given certain exemptions under FCRA.

Concern for public health should be above political pragmatism. Unlike authoritarian regimes, a democracy is better placed in consolidating a unified public mandate against crisis like this. Governments should not only act in a just manner but also be perceived to do so. If that sense of accountability, transparency and justifiability is missing, we will see doubts and conspiracy theories emerge from different corners which will not only undermine the effectiveness of government initiatives but jeopardise public health. There are no winners in such a situation and the most marginalised bear the brunt. The way anti-CAA protestors are being jailed also show an element of political vengeance. This is the time for those in power to work towards taking people on board and not use a crisis for consolidating political power at the cost of democratic values.

Parvin Sultana writes on various socio-political issues and can be reached at parvin.jnu@gmail.com


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