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Indonesia: painted politics

A mural depicting Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a “404: not found” network error message covering his eyes in Tangerang, Jakarta, before being painted over (Fajrin Raharjo/AFP via Getty Images)
A mural depicting Indonesian President Joko Widodo with a “404: not found” network error message covering his eyes in Tangerang, Jakarta, before being painted over (Fajrin Raharjo/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 30 Sep 2021 10:30    0 Comments

Street art has been much discussed across Indonesia’s airwaves in the last couple of months. Three spray-painted murals expressing a critical perspective on the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic were quickly covered over by officials, igniting heated debates about free expression and the role of street art in national politics harking back to the country’s independence struggle.

Although the graffiti controversy has dimmed slightly in recent weeks, the debate could soon surge again with the potential for a third wave of the pandemic in Indonesia – with the country already an epicentre for the virus and one of the biggest contributors of daily cases globally.

The murals appeared in the context of complaints about official responses to Covid-19, with many of the problems in the health sector still to be addressed. The most controversial street art was painted in a tunnel on the outskirts of Jakarta, depicting a figure that resembled President Joko Widodo with his eyes covered and captioned “404: Not found”. Evidently a reference to the internet standard “404” error when a hyperlink is broken, the image has become a symbol for many in Indonesia disenchanted with the government, while the phrase “404: Not found” has turned into a rallying cry for freedom of expression. The street art ruffled the feathers of authorities, who claimed it insulted the President as “a state symbol”, leading police to search for the unknown creators.

Two other murals fed the polemic. Graffiti with the words “Tuhan Aku Lapar” (God, I’m Hungry) and “Dipaksa Sehat di Negara Yang Sakit” (Forced to be Healthy in a Sick Country) were also later censored.

Murals feature in Indonesia’s political tradition stretching back to the pre-independence era in 1945.

The administration is seemingly sensitive to the shortcomings in its handling of the Covid-19 crisis, which has been widely criticised as inadequate. But the crackdown has only drawn more attention to it. The chasing down of street artists has prompted the university students alliance Gejayan Memanggil in the city of Yogyakarta to call for mural contests, giving rise to aspiring Indonesian Banksys.

“This should be seen as policy feedback for government,” Adinda Tenriangke Muchtar, Executive Director for Jakarta-based think tank The Indonesian Institute, told me in an interview. “When we talk about democracy and abiding by the law, we need to question whether there is discrimination in society that incites this kind of expression – simply because people don’t have avenues to be heard or [responses to] their aspirations are tone deaf when submitted through formal political channels.”

The feedback reached the top. In his State of Union address in August, Jokowi, as the President is widely known, said he was aware that the government had received criticism for failing to resolve a number of problems. He thanked the people for their feedback and called them to continue to build a “democratic culture”.

Police subsequently announced that they would no longer pursue the creators of the “404: Not Found” mural, describing it as a “work of art”. Instead, they announced a mural contest with a Chief-of-Police Cup as a trophy. But observers saw this move as far too late. The threat of criminal charges had already been made and the desired “chilling effect” already achieved. Citizens will undoubtedly be much more hesitant about similar public expressions of criticism in the future. But then again, the writing has long been on the wall in Indonesian politics.

Murals feature in Indonesia’s political tradition stretching back to the pre-independence era in 1945. The most iconic example was the phrase “Freedom is the Glory of any Nation. Indonesia for Indonesians!” captured by Dutch photographer Cas Oorthuys. Historian JJ Rizal explained that the mural became an outlet for people in the newly-born nation to despise colonialism. The kind of work that Oorthuys’ camera recorded has long been both a means of mass communication and a valuable propaganda tool.

Other murals in West Java shot by photographer J. C. Taillie in 1947, such as “Terus Berjuang oentoek Keselamatan Bersama” (Keep Fighting for Our Safety), depicted pro-independence spirit, whereas graffiti scrawled on the wall of a house in West Java that same year called for “Full Independence and International Brotherhood of All Freedomloving Peoples”.

Indonesia’s street arts became a distinct subculture in the New Order era under Suharto, where a group of artists in Yogyakarta called Taring Padi created several murals as avenues to give voice to public critics. After Reformasi in the late 1990s, street art flourished in the country, with Respecta Street Art Gallery (RSAG) establishing Indonesian Street Art Database, a network of independently managed, community-based efforts towards a more comprehensive historical archive of murals, accessible not only to passers-by, but also to the public at large.

There seems no doubt that murals will continue to play a crucial role in Indonesia’s political discussions.

Covid crisis deepens in junta-ruled Myanmar

People stand with empty oxygen canisters as they wait to fill them up outside a factory in Yangon on 11 July (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images)
People stand with empty oxygen canisters as they wait to fill them up outside a factory in Yangon on 11 July (Ye Aung Thu/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 Jul 2021 10:30    0 Comments

A worsening third wave of Covid-19 is a cruel new blow in Myanmar, still reeling from the human costs of the coup on 1 February, and with a military junta more focused on combatting dissent than combatting the virus.

Thousands of new cases have arisen since late May, and the Delta, Alpha and Kappa variants have been detected. From 1 to 11 July, the junta-run health ministry reported almost 35,000 cases nationally and over 500 deaths. But low testing rates, and the regime’s haphazard pandemic response more broadly, mean these figures only provide a partial picture.

Cases have been reported among people detained in Yangon’s overcrowded Insein Prison; among border guard police in western Rakhine State; and in the town of Myawaddy on the border with Thailand. In Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, the six hospitals accepting Covid patients are reportedly at capacity.

In Kalay, a town in northwest Myanmar where locals have fiercely resisted army rule, aid workers and residents have estimated hundreds of Covid-related deaths and pictures on social media show people queuing to replenish scarce oxygen supplies. One local resident told Radio Free Asia that a local crematorium was overwhelmed and people were having to fend for themselves.



The outbreak has also breached Myanmar’s borders, with parts of Ruili, a city in China’s Yunnan Province bordering Myanmar, sent into lockdown after a string of cases were detected, including among several Myanmar nationals.

The Myanmar junta has progressively announced a patchwork of restrictions, including stay-at-home orders for a number of townships in the commercial center of Yangon, the capital Naypyidaw, and across at least six other states and regions. On 8 July, schools were ordered to close across the country for two weeks to stem infections.

But given the extent to which the military has terrorised the population to cement its rule in the months since 1 February, trust in the regime’s pandemic response is understandably low.

With the overlapping crises of the coup and Covid-19, United Nations agencies estimate that over 6 million people in Myanmar are in urgent need of food aid.

After the coup, testing, surveillance and vaccination all fell away, according to UNICEF’s Myanmar office. As Covid spread silently, state media spent more time denouncing dissenters and extolling the regime’s imaginary achievements than on urgent public health messaging.

Under Myanmar’s civilian government, Dr Htar Htar Lin was in charge of the country’s vaccine rollout, which had begun only days before the military seized power. In mid-June, she was arrested in downtown Yangon (along with her husband and seven-year-old son) for her involvement in the nationwide civil disobedience movement.

The detention of a high-profile health professional, while the country grapples with its worst surge in Covid-19 cases since the pandemic began, gives a sense of the junta’s priorities.

With the overlapping crises of the coup and Covid-19, United Nations agencies estimate that over 6 million people in Myanmar are in urgent need of food aid. The military crackdown itself has left almost 900 people dead, more than 5,000 detained, and some 200,000 people internally displaced. Parts of the country, in both urban and rural towns, have seen armed resistance; decades-old conflicts continue in ethnic nationality areas; and a collapsing economy is pushing more people into poverty.

Any country would struggle to contain the current Covid outbreak, but in post-coup Myanmar the challenges appear particularly acute. High among them is the junta’s relentless pursuit of its critics at all costs, including the continued targeting of medical workers – further damaging an already struggling health system.

Healthcare workers have been at the forefront of workers’ strikes in protest at army rule, placing them in a difficult bind as rising numbers of people seek medical treatment for Covid-19. Some medics have resorted to providing care in secret.

The junta’s response has been brutal. At least 240 attacks on healthcare facilities, personnel, ambulances and patients have been recorded since the coup. Twelve healthcare workers have been killed, hospitals taken over, and more than 150 medical personnel arrested, according to Insecurity Insight, an organisation specialising in risk assessments. As Physicians for Human Rights noted, “the human rights emergency of the coup is morphing into a public health disaster.”

Queues for Covid-19 tests in Mangshi in the Dehong Dai and Jingpo Autonomous Prefecture, bordering Myanmar in China’s southwestern Yunnan province (STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Like all countries that don’t produce vaccines, Myanmar will need to scramble to secure doses in the months ahead. But the junta’s plans are typically opaque.

Myanmar had secured an initial batch of vaccine from India prior to the coup, some of which were then reportedly appropriated by the military. But supplies from India dried up as that country focused on its own severe outbreak. China has since donated 500,000 doses and the junta recently revealed it is negotiating with Russia to purchase a supply of the Sputnik vaccine.

The country’s vaccine rollout is also complicated by the fact some people are rejecting vaccination in protest at the regime. Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s ousted de facto leader, detained since February and only sighted in a few brief court appearances, has reportedly had her two doses.

As Myanmar’s Covid crisis deepens, its neighbours may not be in a position to offer much assistance, with countries across Southeast Asia, from Thailand to Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia, all experiencing their own worst outbreaks to date. As has invariably been the case under decades of military rule, Myanmar citizens are being left to draw on their own strength and resources.

Thailand’s overcrowded prisons hit by Covid-19 surge

A monarchy reform activist is detained in a police prison car in January. The recent release of several prominent student activists has bought to light the scale of the current outbreak in Thailand’s prisons (Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A monarchy reform activist is detained in a police prison car in January. The recent release of several prominent student activists has bought to light the scale of the current outbreak in Thailand’s prisons (Vachira Vachira/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 27 May 2021 12:00    0 Comments

Thailand emerged from the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic as one of the best performing countries in the world in terms of minimising cases and deaths. But 2021 has been a different story.

A surge in infections since the beginning of April has seen thousands of new cases each day and a spike in deaths. While authorities moved to close parks, gyms and cinemas (although shopping malls stayed open), mandated face masks in public and tightened quarantine requirements for travellers, the virus was already rampant in settings where social distancing wasn’t possible, including the country’s notoriously overcrowded prisons.

More than 17,000 people in prison have contracted Covid-19 in this third wave in Thailand, and the tally is rising daily. On 25 May, the Thai health ministry reported 882 new cases in prisons in the preceding 24 hours (alongside more than 2300 new cases among the general population). Prisons across greater Bangkok have been hit particularly hard, but cases have also been reported at prisons in Narathiwat in the south and Chiang Mai in the north.

As of 17 May, people in prison made up more than 70% of the 9635 new cases reported nationally that day. At one prison in Chiang Mai, some 61% of offenders tested positive.

It takes little imagination to comprehend the heightened health risks faced by people detained amid a global pandemic. Unsafe and unsanitary conditions, poor ventilation, overcrowding and limited access to health services are issues in prisons around the world, and the physical and mental health of people in prisons is typically well below those living on the outside. Infections may be spread within and between prisons through new admissions, prisoner transfers, visits and staff deployments across multiple prisons, affecting people in prison, staff and the community.

Serious Covid-19 outbreaks have been reported in prisons in India, Pakistan, South Africa, South Korea and the United Kingdom, to name a few. In the United States alone, as of 18 May, just under 398,000 people in prison had tested positive, with an estimated 2680 deaths, according to The Marshall Project, a not-for-profit group focused on reporting on the US criminal justice system. The figures are even higher when accounting for people across all detention settings, as tracked by the New York Times.

A protest sign at Bangkok Remand Prison in Bangkok in February calling for release of four activists being held on royal defamation charges (Jack Taylor/AFP via Getty Images)

In Thailand, which has consistently had one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, the risk of an outbreak was always high. With a total prison population currently estimated at over 307,000 – three times larger than the country’s official prison capacity – Thai prisons are chronically overcrowded. At one facility, the Thailand Institute of Justice recently reported that 35–45 people were forced to share a single cell, sleeping shoulder to shoulder. The country’s strict drug laws are a key factor fuelling imprisonment rates, with more than 80% of people estimated to be detained on drug-related offences.

The full scale of the current outbreak in Thailand’s prisons was only brought to light after several prominent student activists involved in anti-government protests last year, and detained on charges of insulting the king, revealed they had tested positive to the virus. Among those infected were Panusaya “Rung” Sithijirawattanakul, who made headlines last year after publicly calling for reform of the monarchy, human rights lawyer Arnon Nampa, and several others who are now out on bail.

Although Thailand’s prison population has in fact declined over the past year, this has clearly done little to alleviate chronic overcrowding, or to ameliorate the health risks for people detained.

After being slow to act, Thai authorities are now scrambling to respond. Measures flagged to address the outbreak across multiple prisons include the ramping up of testing and vaccinations for people detained, an increase to the quarantine period for new prisoners to 21 days, a halt to prison transfers and consideration given to the early release of 50,000 people. Prison authorities were also instructed to establish field hospitals to treat patients.

However, few officials are sounding optimistic. “Prisons are overcrowded,” Aryut Sinthoppan, director-general of the corrections department, told reporters this month. “So there are limitations to hygiene and disease control efforts.”

Although Thailand’s prison population has in fact declined over the past year (by 16%, according to one estimate) as a result of two mass releases in 2020, this has clearly done little to alleviate chronic overcrowding, or to ameliorate the health risks for people detained.

Prisons are not the only sites that have seen major outbreaks during this third wave. Factories and construction workers’ camps that include many migrant workers, as well as dense urban communities without adequate housing, have also been disproportionately affected. More than 2000 cases were detected at a single factory in Phetchaburi, south-west of Bangkok, more than half of whom are migrant workers from Myanmar.

Thailand’s vaccine roll-out is also attracting widespread criticism, with concerns over supply and distribution, and the urgent need to vaccinate people most at risk. An estimated 1.94 million people have received at least one Covid vaccine dose (either AstraZeneca or Sinovac) to date. Prime Minister and former coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha is one of the lucky ones – earlier this week, he posed for the cameras with his vaccination certificate after receiving his second dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

When border control goes over the line

Passengers after flying in to Australia from India on 15 May (Rohan Thomson/Getty Images)
Passengers after flying in to Australia from India on 15 May (Rohan Thomson/Getty Images)
Published 19 May 2021 11:00    0 Comments

The failure of the Australian government to return citizens and permanent residents from New Delhi on the first repatriation flight to Darwin since the recent shutdown of air travel from India amounts to an Australian policy failure and a breach of international law.

A travel ban on direct flights from India was imposed on 27 April in response to the rising number of Covid-19 cases. That was followed by 1 May orders issued under the Biosecurity Act that further halted all direct or indirect air travel from India, with potential criminal penalties of five years imprisonment, fines of up to $66,000, or both. Those orders expired on 15 May; however, all passengers boarding the now-resumed Qantas repatriation flights coordinated by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade must have secured two Covid-negative tests days prior to departure. This resulted in 70 passengers, made up of 46 who returned Covid-positive tests and 24 close contacts, being denied seats on the first flight. That plane landed in Darwin with only 80 of an anticipated 150 passengers on board, notwithstanding that the initial set of resumed repatriation flights were for the most vulnerable Australians in India.

Two more DFAT-coordinated flights are scheduled for May and, given the ongoing high incidence of Covid-19 in India, it must be anticipated that similar circumstances will arise and Australians will be denied a right to board. Australians in India are not awaiting their repatriation flights in controlled quarantine-style hotels and remain susceptible to community transmission. Alternate commercial air routes to Australia via transit countries are very limited at present, due to other countries also suspending flights from India.

The effect of these polices and laws is that many Australians are trapped in India awaiting the next DFAT-coordinated flight. On the basis that more than 9000 Australians are reported to be in India seeking repatriation, under current legal, policy and operational settings, it will take many months for them to arrive in Australia.

A Qantas plane carrying returning Australians at RAAF Base Darwin (Department of Defence)

Over the years, Australia has developed a reputation of coming to the aid of citizens in peril as a result of terrorist attacks, natural disaster, civil strife or armed conflict. In 2002, there was a medical evacuation of 70 Australians from Indonesia to Darwin following the terror attacks in Bali. “Operation Bali Assist” involved five RAAF Hercules aircraft, 12 crews and five aero-medical evacuation teams, and a total of 15 flights. During “Operation Sumatra Assist”, following the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami, there were a total of 70 aero-medical evacuations of 3530 Australians. More than 5200 Australians and 1200 other foreign nationals were also evacuated by the Australian government in 2006 as conflict engulfed Lebanon.

Likewise, Australians have been evacuated by the Australian Defence Force from regional trouble spots including Fiji (1987) and Solomon Islands (2000). These evacuations of Australians in peril, some of whom were critically ill and others who would have been carrying post-disaster illnesses such as dysentery and typhoid, had become such a regular part of military operations that “non-combatant evacuation operations” (NEOs) are now standard ADF training. DFAT has been keen to stress, however, that there are limits to such operations, as occurred when Australians were caught up in unrest in 2011 during the so-called Arab uprisings.

Australian governments have previously demonstrated a capacity to repatriate citizens in times of emergency and medevac the critically ill.

On 10 May this year legal proceedings challenging the Indian travel ban were dismissed by the Federal Court of Australia on the basis that Health Minister Greg Hunt had power under the Biosecurity Act to issue the 1 May orders. Constitutional legal arguments that there is a right of citizens to enter Australia were ultimately not heard.

International law is clearer on the right of citizen entry. The 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states in Article 12 (4) that “No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country”. An exception exists in a time of “public emergency which threatens the life of the nation” and the Australian government would no doubt argue that ministerial declarations under the Biosecurity Act have made clear that such conditions exist. This argument would be countered in view of the quarantine controls placed on all persons who enter Australia. The legality of the government’s travel caps are currently being challenged on these grounds before the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child also creates obligations towards Australian children in India. Article 3 (1) makes clear that “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” for administrative or legislative decision makers. This raises for consideration whether the rights of accompanied and unaccompanied Australian children in India denied entry to Australia have been taken into account.

The operative effect of the Biosecurity Act orders, and now the conditions of carriage on Australians boarding Indian repatriation flights, is that citizens are being left behind. All the evidence suggests some will continue to be stranded in India for many months. In 2020, DFAT undertook the herculean task of coordinating the repatriation of Australians from all parts of the globe. The outcomes were remarkable. DFAT supported the return of 26,600 Australians to 30 June 2020 on 315 flights from 90 countries, including 63 non-scheduled commercial flights.

In the case of India, however, Australia is clearly failing, and the government’s legal and policy response needs a reset. Australian governments have previously demonstrated a capacity to repatriate citizens in times of emergency and medevac the critically ill. The time has come for a shift in thinking with respect to Australians in India.

India’s Covid-19 wave is spreading south

Relatives mourn a loved one who died of Covid-19, outside a mortuary in Chennai, Tamil Nadu state, 5 May 2021 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
Relatives mourn a loved one who died of Covid-19, outside a mortuary in Chennai, Tamil Nadu state, 5 May 2021 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 12 May 2021 11:00    0 Comments

Images of the pandemic in Delhi that currently saturate the international media depict ailing patients struggling to find beds, oxygen and medical attention. Amid a highly privatised healthcare terrain with underfunded public hospitals, access to Delhi’s hospitals has long depended on one’s own jugaad (capacity to develop “workarounds”), personal networks and ties to “big men” who lean on hospital officials to provide beds – characteristics that have played into Delhi’s pandemic scenario in a disastrous way.

As the second wave of Covid-19 sweeps south, there is hope that the different nature of South India’s health system will prevent the pandemic from taking hold in the same way.

Tamil Nadu, the state in which I live, has long had a clear commitment to providing quality health services at affordable cost, which stems from its history of democratic action and inclusive social policies. Access to hospital care is more equitable and transparent than in the North, and the state’s public health insurance is higher than in most other states (at approximately A$2500 per year).

Tamil Nadu has a streamlined model of centralised purchasing and distribution of essential medicines. This reduces the black market for medicines, as illustrated currently by the long queues to buy antiviral drug Remdesivir at regulated prices at government pharmacies in the state’s cities. Rural health infrastructure is more developed than in the northern states, which removes pressure from city hospitals. The neighbouring state of communist-led Kerala shares many of these characteristics.   

“We’re totally confused. We’re getting two types of information and don’t know what to believe.”

While the 2020 Covid wave was fairly well controlled in Tamil Nadu, with cases peaking at 600 per day, the second wave poses more of a challenge. This wave appears to be largely driven by a virus variant found in India determined by the World Health Organisation as of “global concern”, and the rising caseload in Tamil Nadu currently sits at 29,000 per day.

Since Tamil Nadu’s recent change of government – a coalition led by the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party was sworn in on 7 May, following April elections – the existing Covid measures have been expanded. The state has implemented a Covid command centre modelled on Mumbai’s “war room” initiative, which manages an online system of triage to track hospital bed availability and funnel patients to them. Oxygen buses have been established outside hospitals in the state’s capital city Chennai, and a full lockdown began this week throughout the state. In rural areas, health officials have been posted in each district to implement Covid measures and oversee village health workers. Hospitals are full, yet there is an absence of stories of people being unable to access beds or oxygen.

While these characteristics may make the Tamil Nadu healthcare environment appear more resilient and able to manage a predicted further upswing in Covid cases, local beliefs and practices pose a significant challenge to the course of the pandemic here.

In the villages near me outside Pondicherry, there is a diversity of beliefs, largely divided along generational lines. Middle-aged and elderly people ­– who are generally illiterate or semi-literate in this area – tend to believe that Covid is not a serious illness, given that the first wave in 2020 did not amount to much in this area. Election rallies held in March and April this year were strongly attended throughout Tamil Nadu, with few people wearing masks. Distancing is generally not practised in daily life, and community transmission is now widespread. Older people largely distrust vaccines and feel that vital information about side effects is hidden from them. Some believe coronavirus has been created or leveraged by authorities in order to reduce the population. Covid-positive deaths that occur in vaccinated people – whether in the village or among Tamil celebrities – reinforce the belief that vaccines are dangerous.

A volunteer inside a bus converted to provide oxygen to Covid-19 patients waiting to be admitted at a government hospital in Chennai, 5 May 2021 (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)

Younger people feel torn between different belief systems. They are mostly high-school and university-educated, and their access to technology exposes them to an array of ideologies. Government messaging interrupts mobile phone calls with upbeat audio messages encouraging people to wear masks and get vaccinated. Information circulated on WhatsApp mostly promotes traditional immune-boosting supplements that are popular in the South (turmeric, neem, ginger). Less benign memes shared on social media promote anti-masking, anti-vaccine messages and big-pharma conspiracies.

As one university-educated youth told me, “We’re totally confused. We’re getting two types of information and don’t know what to believe. We were born at home with the help of traditional midwives and ‘grandmother’s medicine’ [local remedies]. We’re wary this is a medical scam of big companies, to get people to buy medicines.”

Public-health measures in rural areas reinforce the fear of stigmatisation of being identified as Covid positive. For example, health workers in a nearby village place wide circles of sanitising white power around the homes of people identified as Covid-positive, which visibly marks a family and home as a site of contagion. It’s therefore understandable that villagers decline testing, and pass off their coughs and fevers as just a cold. Now that community transmission is widespread, contact tracing becomes mostly a matter of encouraging close contacts to self-isolate.

Tamil Nadu’s health system holds the promise of greater resilience than North India’s health sector, yet it remains to be seen in the weeks ahead how it will withstand the anticipated upswing in demand. Australians of Indian background have been vocal on social media recently, expressing their deep distress about loved ones unable to access healthcare in North India. Hopefully, South India’s health system will withstand this Covid wave better, and Australians of South Indian background will not experience the same sense of helplessness and frustration for their relatives.

India’s power illusion

A vaccination centre in Mumbai on 3 May: people over 45 were turned away due to lack of stock (Ashish Vaishnav via Getty Images)
A vaccination centre in Mumbai on 3 May: people over 45 were turned away due to lack of stock (Ashish Vaishnav via Getty Images)
Published 4 May 2021 13:30    0 Comments

India was proud to boast about being the “world’s pharmacy” as the coronavirus pandemic unfolded, particularly after other members in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue asked India to mass-produce Covid-19 vaccines for export across the world. Indeed, high-minded government decrees about India’s exceptionalism have become familiar to close observers in recent times, whether about India becoming the vishwaguru (world teacher) or India transforming into a global economic power. But the bragging has suddenly quietened now.

Less than two months after the Quad leaders gathered, a desperate India, devastated by a mix of arrogant misgovernance and an official aversion to scientific advice, resembles something more like an empty drugstore, run-down and ramshackle as the government pleads internationally for life-saving anti-Covid medicines and regular supplies of oxygen.

New Delhi’s mishandling of the second wave of the pandemic has resulted in a humanitarian disaster. The virus has proved relentless and levelling, poor and privileged alike struggling to find doctors, hospital beds and oxygen, or even the wood and space in crematoriums to burn the dead.

India’s ambassador to the United States Taranjit Singh Sandhu oversees a shipment of medical aid supplies to India (USAID/Flickr)

The health crisis has reinforced a sceptical view that despite the bold claims, India is not on the rails to becoming a world economic power. India spends a paltry 1.5% of its GDP on healthcare – some estimates put the figure as low as 0.34%. Either way, the spending falls far short of any of India’s partners in the BRICS grouping and nowhere near the 17.7% spent by the United States. Even before the pandemic, figures indicated the rate of poverty and unemployment in the country was at its highest in 45 years.

Covid has crushed all pretence. In March 2020, the sledgehammer lockdown wasted the country’s much-vaunted demographic dividend by precipitating the largest exodus of internal migrants in India since the 1947 partition. Rather than a government caring for its citizens to showcase strength, the image presented to the world was one of administrative incompetence, shambolic health facilities and economic weakness.

The innumerable pyres of Covid victims now glowing in India’s summer skies will put an end to the bragging about the country’s global power.

The crisis has exposed a ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government bedevilled by skewed priorities. Massive rallies, for example, were allowed with barely a face mask in sight in the vain hope of snaring power in state elections. In another instance, more than 9 million pilgrims were permitted to attend a Hindu religious gathering. As recently as 22 April, when Delhi’s lockdown was already one week old, the government was touting a US$3 billion project to build a new central vista as a seat of government, including a new parliament and prime ministerial residence, describing the construction as an essential service.

India’s pressures are mounting. Despite border clashes with China last year, money requested to modernise military equipment was cut by 38% in this year’s budget. The decision to remain aloof from economic groupings such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Partnership now look even more foolhardy and together with the Covid crisis could stunt the government’s Indo-Pacific ambitions. China’s latest defence budget is forecast to be US$209 billion, while India’s is $65.9 billion. A long-standing economic advantage has given China a military one.

But the government does not relish such facts. Regrettably, the suppression of the truth, which was a characteristic of Beijing’s tactics to cover up the outbreak of coronavirus in late 2019, is now a method used by New Delhi to hide its own negligence. It recently ordered Twitter to remove posts critical of the government. And people complaining about oxygen shortages have been threatened with seizure of property. But those who failed to build sanctioned oxygen plants seem have got off scot-free.  

New Delhi has also passed the buck to its counterparts at the state level. The central government initially fast-tracked emergency approval for anti-Covid vaccines used in Western countries and Japan, but only a fortnight later, as the number of dead rose, it decided not to import vaccines, saying the states could. But many states do not have the cash to pay for vaccines, having already been entangled in a dispute with the central government over the share and distribution of revenue from the general services tax. Meanwhile, the self-styled global pharmacy has struggled to ramp up vaccine production to meet the urgent demand in India alone.

India’s humanitarian catastrophe is simultaneously a big foreign policy blunder. The innumerable pyres of Covid victims now glowing in India’s summer skies will put an end to the bragging about the country’s global power. A crisis compounded by ineptitude has cruelly increased India’s dependence on foreign assistance and swept away all illusion.

India: Smoke and mirrors

A burning pyre at a makeshift crematorium in Delhi, India on 1 May (Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A burning pyre at a makeshift crematorium in Delhi, India on 1 May (Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 3 May 2021 13:30    0 Comments

Watching a Hindu cremation, in which the body is burned on an open funeral pyre, is a profoundly confronting experience. The body is placed onto a cement platform. A pyre is built around it, with wood stacked in a triangular tunnel to allow the fire to breathe. Ghee is scattered around the structure to help the flames along. As you watch the fire burn and with bits of ash flying high and all around, you grieve and reflect, but as it grounds down and the deceased returns to the earth, you pass over into acceptance. It is raw, primal and earthy – but it is above all, deeply soulful.

The open cremation needs fuel, it needs space, but most of all it needs time. It can take an hour or more for the body to burn and for their soul to be released, and it shouldn’t be rushed. 

Which is why the photographs of corpses wrapped in white cloth and lined up outside crematoriums, under the scorching April sun, is for me perhaps the most potent of all the images bleeding out of Delhi. It is unimaginable to be forced to rush through the moments of saying goodbye and letting go. To have to, as I’m reading about, fight with fellow mourners for firewood or space. Makeshift crematoriums are now being built in car parks and parks across the capital, and trees are being cut down for fuel, meaning the scars on the city are now physical, as well.

Indians are angry – not just at their own government, but at the international community, for ignoring them in their time of need.

The current crisis in Delhi and elsewhere in India, where a wave of Covid-19 has exploded like a bomb, has catalysed the country’s deep sense of malaise. The virus does not discriminate on the basis of religion or economic status, but the cheek-by-jowl living in India’s cities make its people a prime target. Already, the healthcare infrastructure was overburdened, and in some cases archaic and ineffectual. Now, it is teetering on the verge of collapse. Delhi is a city choking to death.

And the worst is yet to come, with experts predicting that the peak of this wave will come in about mid-May. It is unimaginable to think how the crisis could worsen – and how much more loss is to come. 

The crisis has also exposed how easily ruptured the carefully nurtured bilateral ties can be. Indians are angry – not just at their own government, but at the international community, for ignoring them in their time of need, or seemingly condescending to them, such as in Angela Merkel’s throwaway comment about Europe “allowing” India to be the world’s pharmacy. At the same time, Australia continues to keep its gates closed to even Australian citizens in India, potentially trapping them in a ticking time bomb of contagion.

 Nigambodh Ghat crematorium, Delhi (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

India is a country that is too populous and too fragmented to be governed efficiently. It might be a democracy, with signs of economic growth everywhere, but those things that happen well happen because of its people, not its rulers. The vaccine facility pumping out Covidshield? A private company with one shareholder. Schools, hospitals and aged-care facilities are privatised where possible. In fact, the growth of the private health system means that people struggle to access public health. Indians are rightly proud of having found a workaround to systemic government failings by creating a parallel private system, but perhaps that has been counterproductive: in failing to hold the public system to account, it has allowed it to continue to degrade. (To be fair, India has a ridiculously low tax base, with between 1 and 3% of the workforce paying taxes.)

The same can be said of the country’s vast networks of NGOs, which are now a vital part of the economic system, as they so regularly step into the breach of services which should be government-funded.

Anyway, it is all now moot, as no one, private nor public, is able to access an efficient supply of oxygen.

Private shipments are being arranged: for example, the entrepreneurs behind the courier service Delhivery have announced they have chartered flights from China to help bring in oxygen compressors. Mass appeals for funding for NGOs such as the Hemkunt Foundation and Give India have gained enormous traction. The PM-CARES Fund, which was meant to fund 162 oxygen plants across 14 states (so far, just 33 have been delivered), received a $50,000 boost from Australian cricketer Pat Cummins. Interestingly, the IPL cricket schedule is continuing, with matches this week in Delhi and Ahmedabad, although it is attracting increasing criticism. “There is another month to go – a month when there will be more cases, more deaths and greater anxiety, all matched by the triumphalism and crassness of the tournament being played in a bubble,” writes Suresh Menon in The Hindu.

Patients suffering from Covid-19 are treated with oxygen at a makeshift clinic outside the Shri Guru Singh Sabha Gurdwara in Indirapuram, Uttar Pradesh (Rebecca Conway/Getty Images)

Just how this will play out politically is starting to become evident. My personal barometer is my family WhatsApp group, where my many Modi-loving relatives have recently fallen silent, preferring instead to post photos of their first and second vaccinations. There is no doubt that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has lost enormous support, across the country, over his government’s mishandling of the crisis. From failing to anticipate the second wave and prop up the health infrastructure accordingly to holding mass election rallies in West Bengal, Modi appears not just tone-deaf but wilfully intent on denying the enormity of the infection. It is also clear that the Indian government is minimising the casualties. The real number is estimated as anywhere from two to ten times the official figure. Media outlets have now stationed journalists outside crematoriums to keep count.

A week ago, I sent some money to a friend in Delhi, a driver who has struggled to find work. He messaged me a short time later on Facebook to tell me he’d received it, adding that he was, at the time, at one of the city’s crematoriums after a distant relative had died of Covid. My friend, who has spent enough time working for journalists to know what we’re interested in, then stood out the front for an hour, photographing and videoing bodies arriving, and the sheer volume of cremations on the go. It was unsettling: for that hour, my phone pinged repeatedly, with each message heralding the arrival of a new set of bodies. 

The true number of casualties may never be known.

Family members of Covid-19 patients wait outside an oxygen filling centre to get their cylinders replenished, 1 May in New Delhi (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The Covid crisis in India also presents what could be the first major challenge to the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. Conceptualised as a security grouping, the Quad has swiftly attracted attention and hopes that it will be able to counter the regional threat of China’s domination, perhaps even as a kind of Asian NATO. However, India’s Foreign Minister S Jaishankar this month told the Raisina Dialogue that the Quad is about far more than security, having cooperated so far on wide-ranging issues, from counterterrorism, supply chains, higher education – and yes, vaccines. When his country’s Covid caseload blew up the following week, that vaccine cooperation was in scant view, with the US lambasted for continuing to withhold the raw materials needed for vaccine production.

Despite moving quickly to release the materials and send over plane loads of supplies in assistance, the Biden administration is in danger of losing that goodwill, with many Indians on social media criticising the US over its perceived self-interest. Australia, too, has sent over humanitarian supplies, including oxygen concentrators and personal protective equipment, but is dogged by its decision to shut down flights between the two countries – even for Australian citizens in India and their families. Many have pointed out that even when the UK and US reached their peaks in caseload numbers, flights were not banned. The crisis has, in this way, shone a light on the worst reputational attributes of three of the four Quad members: Australian xenophobia, US exceptionalism and Indian ineptitude.

I am fortunate that I haven’t lost any friends or family members. But the grief I feel is profound, and intensifies every time I look at social media and scroll the endless posts of people begging for help for hospital beds, ICU places, oxygen, remdesivir, money. But India, meant to be an emerging global leader, doesn’t need handouts – it needs better infrastructure and leaders who care about more than power. It needs a total systemic overhaul. The best thing its partners could do in this case would be to forever hold India’s leaders to account.

The Quad gives a boost to India’s vaccine diplomacy

Workers in Myanmar unload a shipment of Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in India (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Workers in Myanmar unload a shipment of Covid-19 vaccine manufactured in India (STR/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 16 Mar 2021 13:00    0 Comments

The most notable takeaway from the first-ever “Quad” leaders meeting involving the US, India, Japan and Australia at the weekend was the agreement on expanding the global vaccine supply. The vaccination capacity of India will be increased to produce 1 billion doses by 2022, the leaders announced in a joint statement, as US and Japan plan to fund Indian production of Johnson and Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, which Australia will then distribute across Southeast Asia.

This will undoubtedly boost India’s vaccine diplomacy efforts where it has been providing vaccines to the developing countries, both in its neighbourhood as well as globally. So far 71 countries have received vaccines manufactured in India, fast garnering it the title of “the world’s pharmacy”. Largely, these are developing countries which did not have adequate access to the vaccine.

India’s vaccine diplomacy has won attention for its efforts to make vaccine availability more equitable. There has been criticism that India is working outside the World Health Organisation’s COVAX initiative in supplying vaccines – although India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has rejected the “hypocrisy” of such claims, asking “Which one of these countries have said that while I vaccinate my own people, I will inoculate other people who need it as much as we do?”

The strategic significance of India’s vaccine diplomacy also cannot be overlooked. India is now competing with China in the vaccine diplomacy sphere, as both countries vie for strategic influence in the region. After the troops of both countries disengaged from their borders after a dangerous stand-off last year, their rivalry has now shifted to vaccine diplomacy.

The Quad is clearly trying to finely balance its cooperative and competitive outlooks in the region.

Since the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan in 2020, India has not missed a chance to seek political influence in its region through displays of strategic altruism. The focus on Southeast Asia as a priority region has important geostrategic implications. China has sent more than 60% of its global vaccine supply to Southeast Asia. Undoubtedly, Beijing has attempted to employ a soft-power strategy in this region to soften the stand of these countries on territorial disputes such as that over the South China Sea.

The Quad leaders meeting held on 12 March (Washington time) was historic, not just because it was the first of its kind, but also because it highlighted how the four countries can realistically cooperate in creating a “free, open, secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific region”. Creating an equitable access to an effective vaccine distribution has now become a central goal of the Quad as outlined by the leaders’ joint statement entitled “The Spirit of the Quad”.

Expanding the global vaccine supply is an important chapter for the Quad because it is an early example of international cooperation in efforts to roll out vaccines to the low- and middle-income countries. Supporting India’s expanding vaccine manufacturing capacity has given the Quad a shot in the arm in its cooperation mechanisms in the region.

The Quad is clearly trying to finely balance its cooperative and competitive outlooks in the region. It is doing so as to not appear too antagonistic, which arguably was one of the reasons that eventually led to the demise of the first iteration of the Quad after early meetings between officials in 2007. The reconstituted Quad is now more in tune with the regional realities in that it is seeking to link its security objectives with prosperity and development objectives.

Yet the focus on vaccine collaboration is not purely to act as a counterbalance to China. Another notable element from the Quad leaders’ meeting was to highlight the willingness for the countries to cooperate in areas of climate change. This recognises that the strategic future of the Indo-Pacific involves a linkage of the security and development needs of the countries in the region and is not solely reliant on one dimension or the other. The Quad leaders’ meeting has promoted a framework that fosters multilevel cooperation.

It is also important to note the historic origins of the Quad as a response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, when the four countries came together to coordinate disaster relief. The Quad’s initial rationale for multilateral cooperation was essentially for delivering humanitarian assistance, which later evolved into more security-oriented cooperation. In that sense, by focusing on delivering vaccines in the region, the Quad is playing to its strength of cooperating to provide regional assistance.

There has been cautious optimism for the future of Quad since its rebirth in 2017, as it now looking at wide ranging areas of “practical cooperation” that is mutually beneficial to all the countries in the grouping – as well as the wider region.

Covid vaccines: Charity begins at home

AstraZeneca vaccine boxes in a refrigerator in Bari, Italy, 9 March (Donato Fasano/Getty Images)
AstraZeneca vaccine boxes in a refrigerator in Bari, Italy, 9 March (Donato Fasano/Getty Images)
Published 10 Mar 2021 12:30    0 Comments

There has – rightly – been a strong reaction in Australia and more broadly to the Italian government decision, endorsed by the European Union and some of its leaders, not to permit AstraZeneca to export 250,000 contracted doses of its Covid vaccine to Australia.

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio hasn’t helped to calm matters by saying that the Italian government’s decision last week was not intended as a “hostile act” towards Australia, but was instead the result of AstraZeneca delaying the supply of its vaccine to Italy, which was “unacceptable”. And, adding fuel to the fire, he is also quoted as saying that “it is right for countries of the European Union to block exports to nations that are non-vulnerable”.

There is, of course, no logic to this. Refusing a contracted vaccine shipment from the EU to a country like Australia because of an entirely unrelated bilateral dispute between the EU and AstraZeneca and, moreover, punishing Australia for having done so much better than Italy in fighting Covid is just nonsense. And Di Maio, of course, has form on all of this, as the former head of the nationalist/protectionist Five Star Movement in Italy.

Fortunately, according to Health Minister Greg Hunt, the Italian/EU decision is unlikely seriously to undermine the AstraZeneca vaccine rollout in Australia. Australia is still receiving vaccine shipments from Europe. And it just underlines the tremendous wisdom Australia has shown in ensuring that the bulk of AstraZeneca’s vaccine supply will be manufactured in Australia.

But it should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone that the rollout of vaccines is not just about fighting a pandemic. It is an intensely political exercise, in terms of both domestic politics and geopolitics.

So frustrated are some EU members that they have either already approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine for use or are assessing it with a view to doing so, despite the European Medicines Agency not yet having given the go-ahead.

Italy, for example, has a very new government under Prime Minister Mario Draghi, its (roughly) 66th government and 30th prime minister since 1946. Draghi is an excellent choice and brings huge experience to the job, not least his term as President of the European Central Bank. But Italy has had more than 3 million Covid cases, and its total deaths from Covid have just passed 100,000. Meanwhile, only about 8% of Italy’s population has been vaccinated. So it is all about the new Italian government being seen to do something about the major health crisis that it still faces.

And why wouldn’t the EU Commission in Brussels and some other EU leaders – French President Emmanuel Macron in particular – support Italy’s stance? The rollout of the vaccines in EU member states has been very slow – only around 8% of the EU population has been vaccinated, compared, for example, with around 30% in the UK. Insisting that the big pharmaceutical companies not be permitted to export vaccines to non-EU countries until they have delivered what they have contracted to provide EU members is part of a major battle with the vaccine producers. But it is also a sign of the weakness and lethargy the EU and some of its members have shown in dealing with the pandemic. It looks suspiciously like a European version of the “America first” policy of the previous US administration.

That unhappiness with the EU’s coordination efforts and slow response is also manifesting itself in other ways. So frustrated are some EU members – Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic – that they have either already approved the Russian Sputnik V vaccine for use (as Hungary has) or are assessing it with a view to doing so, despite the European Medicines Agency not yet having given the go-ahead. And Poland, while indicating that it won’t buy Sputnik V, is assessing the Chinese Sinovac vaccine for possible use.

And speaking of the Russian and Chinese vaccines, both countries are playing a very clever geopolitical game by offering their vaccines – for sale or for free – to developing countries across the globe. Sadly, that isn’t for charitable or development purposes. The main aim is not to ensure that poorer developing countries don’t miss out because the rich are hogging vaccines. It is, transparently, to buy influence and goodwill.

The World Health Organisation’s Covax initiative involves many more countries – including Australia – in a welcome facility to provide vaccines to the developing world. The Biden administration has announced that it will provide $2 billion to the Covax arrangement. China is a donor to Covax. But Russia is conspicuously absent, as, by the way, is India.

Australia has undertaken to provide vaccines to its Pacific neighbours, a sensible decision, not only because of their fragility and lack of funds, but also for sound geopolitical reasons. Australia does not want China, in particular, to strengthen its already substantial influence in the region through its Sinovac vaccine. And assisting, for example, Papua New Guinea to combat Covid-19 is also an important way of resisting the spread of the Covid virus to Australia from the neighbourhood.

Tackling the Covid-19 virus requires a global approach. But – as the Italian decision has shown – charity, unsurprisingly, does begin at home, and for much wider national interest reasons than good international citizenship.

Covering the Covid shock on The Interpreter in 2020

A virus of overlapping consequences (7C0/Flickr)
A virus of overlapping consequences (7C0/Flickr)
Published 24 Dec 2020 06:00    0 Comments

From the first days in January this year, the question that dominated the outbreak was how upfront Beijing had been about the novel coronavirus that became known as Covid-19. Richard McGregor:

So far, the handling of the crisis seems to have underlined one of the ongoing problems with the authoritarian strictures of the party-state, which places a premium on the control of information in the name of maintaining stability … Could the virus have been contained, and its spread limited, if officials in Wuhan had levelled with both their bosses, and the public, earlier? It is impossible to say, but at the moment, it certainly looks that way.

Still, the warning signs about the rapid spread of the virus – and what would result in more than 1.7 million deaths so far – did not translate into public trust, particularly in already politically stressed Hong Kong. Vivienne Chow:

An unprecedented level of panic is caused not just by fear, but by the lack of trust. Reactions of the people of Hong Kong and the international community are a vote of no confidence in the authorities’ abilities to protect people and contain the virus. Authorities here are not only the Hong Kong and the Chinese governments, but also the World Health Organisation, which is supposed to “lead partners in global health responses”.

Australia began to react with travel restrictions, buying time at a cost to the education and tourist industries, but Dominic Meagher warned “that time must now be used effectively”.

Three things must be done: eliminate panic, develop some form of treatment, vaccine, or cure, and put in place more sustainable policies to slow down the virus.

But by late February politics and prejudice had complicated the response around the world over. Audrey Jiajia Li:

With 28 countries so far reporting confirmed cases of the virus, caution over the mysterious deadly illness is expected and natural. Yet it is important to emphasise that Chinese people are the victims, not the culprits, of this epidemic.

South KoreaEurope, the United States, India and almost everywhere saw spiking rates of infection. The Tokyo Olympics were soon abandoned, Indonesia struggled and Pacific island nations feared the danger as lockdowns spread. Leaders felt the pressure to rise to the occasion. Michael Fullilove:

There has been a lot of discussion about the communications tools, including websites and texts, that governments are employing to speak with their nations about the coronavirus pandemic … The media noise being generated about Covid-19 is deafening – but the single note of a good speech, well delivered, can penetrate it.

And by the end of March, it was increasingly clear the virus would hold momentous consequences for the world. Daniel Flitton

The crisis will affect everything in some way, whether budget assumptions, global supply chains, or the trappings of power … drastic change [may be] later assimilated into a “new normal”, the point was still a major readjustment and far-reaching – and lasting – implications not only for the community, but also for relations between nations.

So The Interpreter examined the cross-cutting influence of the virus had on existing international challenges, whether the Hong Kong protest movement, poverty in India or the Philippines, migrant workers in Singapore, insurgency in Thailand, fighting the remnants of Islamic State, conflict in Afghanistan or tensions on the Korean peninsula. The crisis had a disproportionate impact on women, while the cost to the global economy was also manifesting. Roland Rajah:

The social distancing required to slow the virus – both voluntary and mandated by governments – means the economic hit is going to be large, and there’s probably not much that traditional demand-stimulus policies can do to materially counter it. In part, that’s because people won’t go out to spend the money, but it’s also because the virus is an intensifying supply-side shock as well – with big disruptions to normal business activity and many workers pulled out of work, either for health reasons or as workplaces and schools are temporarily shut down.

And if a first step to combating a problem is first understanding it, disinformation and conspiracy online was certainly no help. Natasha Kassam:

The dilution of information on the internet is currently posing a risk to global health and safety. Much like globalisation has extended the reach of the virus, social media has extended the reach of fake news. And the stakes are higher.

Austin, Texas (Ampersand72/Flickr)

Bright spots emerged. Enterprising Indonesians mixed their own hand sanitiser, and Bob Kelly – aka BBC Dad – had some helpful advice for those staring at a Zoom meeting working from home:

This will be a slog for the next several months, and my guess is that for all the convenience of telework, most people will enjoy going back to an office when this situation finally breaks.

Nick Bisley wondered at the future power dynamics in Asia. Mark Beeson asked what the crisis might hold for the vaunted international order?

Any of the big issues that collectively confront us – including climate change, economic disadvantage, and, of course, controlling pandemics – would seem to necessitate some form of institutionalised international collaboration.

Countries raced to develop vaccines while wrestling with the rights to privacy when tracing the virus spread. The future design of cities was questioned, we wondered about spies and the warning signs, protecting political leaders from the virus or whether they could strike a global bargain to do better next time?

Jennifer Hsu charted the growing power China’s Xi Jinping amid the pandemic, while Erin Hurley watched Donald Trump shrivel before the challenge. Meantime, Stephen Howes urged the world to remember those most vulnerable:

Covid-19 is hitting at a time when the number of displaced people is at its highest since the end of the Second World War. What if the virus takes hold in a massive refugee camp in Africa, the Middle East or Asia?

Should the world have been better prepared? Shahar Hameiri:

Used to financing and implementing limited interventions far from home, developed states’ governments were suddenly fighting huge contagions on the home front, for which they were often poorly prepared. And since very limited collective capacity had developed previously, their full focus immediately turned inwards, thus producing a fragmented, “zero-sum” response globally.

Or did the world overreact? Ramesh Thakur:

Health professionals are duty-bound to map the best- and worst-case scenarios. Governments bear the responsibility to balance health, economic and social policies. Once these are included in the decision calculus, the political and ethical justification for the hard suppression strategy is less obvious.

Perhaps, in the end, planning doesn’t matter. Gordon Peake and Christian Downie:

Magnified exponentially by these last few weeks, there seems something both absurd yet strangely comforting about feeling emboldened enough to guess a course for endpoints years away … [looking back] planning documents are proof-positive of that old Yogi Berra maxim that the most difficult thing to predict is the future.

Let’s see in 2021 if nature cares that humans can count in years.

Main image via Flickr user 7C0