Ravi Bhoothalingam: Coronavirus and the Mandate of Heaven (March 13, 2020)

NB: This thoughtful essay appeared a year ago. I planned to post it then, but it seems much more appropriate to be read now. It reads like a prophesy. DS   

The Mandate of Heaven is an ancient Chinese philosophical doctrine evolved during the Zhou dynasty in the first millennium BCE, to confer on an emperor the legitimacy to rule over his people. The popular theory runs thus: ‘Heaven’ - the natural order in the universe - wishes harmony on Earth, and seeks to establish this through conferring its Mandate on the Emperor. But conditions apply. The claimant must govern as a just and benign ruler, bringing prosperity to his people. If not, Heaven may withdraw the Mandate, leaving the field open to anyone who could claim that his superior governance would rectify the injustices of the previous regime.

Before withdrawing the Mandate, however, Heaven customarily would convey its displeasure through warning signs like earthquakes, fires or floods, or calamities such as epidemics, riots and rebellions. It was hoped that these events - and the signals they would send to citizens and potential rivals alike - would cause the Emperor to reflect and mend his ways - or else…. 

Of course, even a cursory reading of Chinese history shows that there is no empirical validity in the doctrine of Heaven’s Mandate. Bad Emperors have - quite literally - got away with murder or worse,  whilst good ones have often suffered. Still, popular beliefs die hard, so the rapid global spread of the coronavirus pandemic would naturally provoke some Chinese citizens to question their government. But the Mandate of Heaven speaks of the universal nature of governance, so every citizen of the world should pose such questions to their own government. As a global threat, Covid-19 raises questions at five levels.

First, early detection and isolation of the infected persons was obviously the first requirement. Here, the evidence at hand points to prevarication by the Hubei provincial authorities in accepting that a novel virus was afoot. Despite a brave whistle-blowing doctor, timid local officials were unwilling to rock the boat, and we will never know the true cost of this initial blunder. But now, when the virus is loose, we should ask ourselves whether our own disease surveillance systems and field forces are alert, robust and capable of detecting and reporting uncomfortable facts.

Second comes containment. China has done a magnificent job in containing much of the viral ferocity by sealing off Hubei province through unprecedented measures. Their ‘whole-of-government approach’ implements policy directives consistently, starting from the Party apex right down to local neighbour-hood committees. Supplying Wuhan - a city of more than 11 million people under lock-down - with essentials and maintaining civic calm in an environment of great stress, shows remarkable administrative efficiency. China may spin this as an example of how “socialism with Chinese characteristics” can deliver the goods.

But we need not buy that narrative. After all, India’s administration too has unparalleled achievements like the management of the mammoth Kumbh Melas. The real questions are: do we have rehearsed protocols and drills to roll out a commensurate response if and when the virus strikes India in force, and have we used this respite to equip our hospitals appropriately?

Third, a country’s public health system is the front line of its response to the virus. India’s is not in particularly good shape, so this time round, we will have to muddle through as best we can. But given the increased frequency of novel diseases with epidemic potential - SARS, MERS, Ebola, H1N1, H5N1, Zika and Nipah being examples in the last 20 years - we should expect more such episodes in the future. More importantly, a comprehensive public health system is essential if India is to increase its human productivity rapidly enough to move our country into a high-income status. Do our Budgets and Plans provide convincing evidence that establishing such an accessible and universal public health system is indeed a principal aim of our Government?

This brings us to the fourth (and broader) question which is about the risk management strategies to be followed by any civilized society. Should not such societies prioritize human security which includes - but is not limited to - national security? Whilst the latter secures us against external aggression or terrorism, the former seeks to reduce risk through a sustainable level of prosperity, health, education and quality of life of its citizens. National security risks are up-front and dramatic, so they command public attention and demand resolution. Human security risks are more debatable and the negative consequences take time to play out. Thus, epidemics do not happen every day; and climate change is seen as happening only in the distant future. This makes effective political mobilisation around climate change a tricky issue around the world, as Greta Thunberg has forcefully pointed out. Simply put, how do we play the guns or butter dilemma?

Fifthly, as the coronavirus spreads into a community infection (as the U.S. Centres for Disease Control warns is likely), a crucial success factor will be the cooperation of the general population in following sound public health practices like maintaining good hygiene, not hoarding masks, avoiding panic and not crowding hospitals with mild infections.

India lacks China’s culture of collective discipline, so what will provide the glue for people to cooperate rather than follow their raw survival instincts? It can only be a spirit of fraternity amongst all our people - regardless of caste or creed - and a common belief that only through a unified front can the threat be overcome. Sadly, the spirit of fraternity - the least discussed of the trinity of the French Revolution (liberty, equality, fraternity) - is in retreat around the world as attitudes are sharply polarised within and between countries as well as peoples. Is it too much to ask India to set an example?

Experts tell us that the coronavirus will ultimately settle as an endemic but seasonal infection. But how we - as a country and as part of the planet - emerge out of it will depend on the answers to these questions.
Published in the Business Standard: March 13, 2020

Ravi Bhoothalingam is Treasurer and Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies, and an Independent Director on corporate boards


NB: Thoughtful readers might spend some time reflecting on the connections between these terms: hubris (arrogance before the gods/ nemesis (adequate punishment  for hubris) 

Ahankaar; swaarth; kumbh; amrit; vish
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