Anirban Dutta, Symbiosis School of International Studies | 19 August 2021
This short piece will focus on authoritarian responses, poor governance, and political polarization as defining the political consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic in South Asia. South Asia replicates poor governance, unresponsive governments marked by lack of centrality and rigidity not willing to prioritize citizens' needs. These political consequences have resulted in authoritarian tendencies, restriction of fundamental rights, and increased polarization against minority groups. The poor governance replicated by inefficiency and corruption has affected the marginalized segments of the population.
Authoritarian responses by governments in the region have dwindled civil liberties. The governments in South Asia adopted diverse tactics to control the pandemic and manage the outraged public opinion on the failures of the governments. Fundamental rights like the right to information, speech, and expression have been mainly violated during the lockdowns. The use of illiberal policies by the governments to advance their grip over civil society is unquestionable. The pandemic has transformed the political system of these countries into a 'democracy with authoritarian variants.' The introduction of the Digital Security Act in 2020 has raised concerns regarding the worst effects of one-party dominance and the shrinkage of the political space in Bangladesh. The silencing of the media and opposition voices through military crackdowns and threats has masked the government inefficiencies. The arrest of journalists and NGO workers in Bangladesh replicates the authoritarian variant of governance in South Asian countries. The use of the military in Sri Lanka to intimidate and collect Covid-19 related data is another such example. In India, the Covid-19 related lockdowns left many minority communities unsafe with arrests, harassment, and suppression of activism, criticism, and protests. A similar response occurred in Pakistan's Baloch province, where the Quetta police arrested doctors and nurses for protesting against the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).
The poor governance includes an incompetent response by the governments of South Asia to tackle the spread of the virus. Such an argument is supported by the example of the 'Enough is Enough' movement in Nepal, where protesters have claimed the government's incompetent handling of the epidemic. In India, a sudden lockdown resulted in millions of informal laborers leaving cities and returning to their homes in villages. The authorities in India have struggled to set up quarantine camps to shelter the migrant labourers. In Pakistan, mass religious gatherings, with easing restrictions, led to a spike in Covid-19 infections in 2020. The lack of leadership by the government in Pakistan left many people living in denial of the virus, leading to a decline in public trust towards the government's capacity to manage it. The confused and arbitrary actions have been reflected in Pakistan's case. In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the provincial government declared an emergency when active cases are low. The provincial government in Sindh locked down quickly when the federal government explored the possibilities of lockdown.
The political polarization has shown a trend of 'othering' a particular section of people by reinforcing prejudices against them. The spread of the pandemic has been blamed on the marginalized minorities in South Asian countries. In India, the prevailing majoritarian rhetoric has fed the narrative of 'corona jihad' to the Indian society. The tweets have been removed after they provoked enough criticisms and comments. The use of social media to share hate speech has reflected a need to bring the social media companies into the sphere of regulation, suggesting immediate amendments to the community guidelines. The state often aids such political polarization. The constant fusion of narrow narratives will lead to greater instability in countries that have experienced religious, ethnic, and political conflicts among their diverse communities in the past. The imposition of forced cremations on the Muslim community and association of the Muslim community with overcrowded living conditions in Sri Lanka is a case in point. The use of infamous blasphemy laws in Pakistan against the minority section of the society reflects the scale of the problem. The utilization of such beliefs is only interrupting pandemic management. The pandemic has entrenched the existing discrimination based on religion, race and ethnicity. The self-reported cases by the people residing in cities like Mumbai and New Delhi have reflected the use of harassment, abuse, and derogatory remarks. In its Situation report-35, the U.N health agency has reasserted 'the rise of harmful stereotypes,' leading to a rise in health problems, contributing to ongoing transmission. The growing stigmatization will lead to hiding the illness to prevent discrimination, preventing people from seeking health care, and discourage them from adopting healthy behavior. The cases of 'corona jihad' in India and forced cremations in Sri Lanka have reflected the lack of sufficient information to tackle the crisis. Therefore, there is a need to spread sufficient knowledge to counter the crisis and decrease stigmatization.
The political consequences of the pandemic will continue to plague South Asian countries. In the post-pandemic period, South Asian countries will continue to have fragile government structures. Despite the ill effects of the pandemic or perhaps, the government in power will be bolstered because of them. The political consequences will lead to authoritarian tendencies and centralization. The voices critical to the government will receive heavy-handed measures in South Asia. The freedom of expression and opinion will be tightly controlled. In many South Asian countries, the lack of trust in the government's policies has reduced public compliance to Covid-19 guidelines. Therefore, the policymakers in South Asia need to ensure trust in the government through institutional openness and public scrutiny. It will give an image of integrity and openness to the people, which, in turn, will help these countries survive the next global crisis.
Anirban Dutta is a Masters student at the Symbiosis School of International Studies, Pune, where he is pursuing Masters in International Studies. His research interests include politics, security dynamics and geopolitics of South Asia. He has acted as a Research Associate for the Law and Order. He is also associated with 1947 Partition Archive as a Citizen Oral Historian and has completed his Summer intern position at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi.