Trans-Pacific View | Opinion

The US and India Should lead the Defense of Democracy in the COVID–19 Crisis

The world’s oldest and largest democracies must come together amid this pandemic.

By Raymond E. Vickery, Jr. for
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The US and India Should lead the Defense of Democracy in the COVID–19 Crisis
Credit: Flickr/ White House

U.S. President Donald J. Trump has called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Reportedly, the conversation included pleas by Trump for releasing an anti-malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, as well as discussions about the helpfulness of yoga and Ayurveda.

But the U.S. and India need to do more, much more, in leading the fight against the present crisis and preventing the next. An important step is to recognize that crises like COVID-19 have a political dimension and can constitute a threat to democracy. As the world’s two largest democracies, the United States and India have a special obligation to counter these threats.

From China to Hungary, from Russia to the Philippines, authoritarians are using the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten their grips on power and project their interests internationally. With a frightened electorate and compliant authorities, history shows us that these efforts have a ready following and sometimes succeed with catastrophic results: Italy, Germany, World War II, and the Holocaust come to mind.

The institutions of democracy are in danger of being overwhelmed. Just as healthcare facilities can find themselves unable to deal with the severity of a pandemic, so too can democratic institutions find themselves unable to deal with the strains of a crisis. Challenges are many. Elections are fundamental to democracy. India leads the world in making elections work at a mass level under difficult circumstances. The United States is justly proud of its record in holding elections in spite of war. But what happens to the electoral process under the strictures of social distancing? Can legislatures function when legislators are physically impaired and their safety cannot be assured? Will judges and courts be able to function in a timely manner?

There are answers to all these questions if the underlying crisis can be addressed. With the United States and India in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, common action must go far beyond a discussion of release by India of a drug as yet unproven to be effective against the novel coronavirus, or, as euphemistically described by the White House, “the issue of global supply chains for critical pharmaceuticals.”

Modi has taken a lead both at the G-20 and in SAARC advocating international cooperation to defeat COVID-19. Trump would do well to heed his example and follow suit. Several areas of collaboration are ripe for meaningful collaboration.

Modi made a strong plea for strengthening and reforming the World Health Organization (WHO). Properly tasked and supported, the WHO can be instrumental in developing a greater capacity for early warning. The United States needs this capacity as much as India and other democracies. This early warning capacity is much more likely to be robust and effective if the United States and India promote it through an organization deemed non-adversarial by authoritarian states. The WHO has been rightly-criticized on many fronts. All the more reason to strengthen and reform a body that can give and receive scientific information about potential pandemics on a non-nationalistic and non-partisan basis. A virus carries no passport and is not an observer of partisan affiliation.

The United States and India can also lead the world in the race to discover a vaccine against COVID-19 and the vaccines sure to be needed against other viruses. The U.S. and India are great reservoirs of bio-medical research talent and the information technology resources necessary to support this talent. Moreover, the Indian-American doctors and scientists that are so prominent in the United States and their Indian counterparts form a natural bridge for scientific cooperation unequaled in any other bilateral relationship. However, for this U.S.-India collaboration on vaccine development to work with full effectiveness, there must be in an adequate policy framework that resolves the thorny intellectual property and regulatory issues that have vexed U.S.-India scientific cooperation for so many years.

The White House statement that the two leaders discussed “global supply chains … to ensure they continue to function as smoothly as possible during the global health crisis” is encouraging and points to another area for U.S.-India cooperative leadership. Too often the United States and India, instead of leading in a concerted effort to create global supply chains, have found them on opposite sides of key trade issues affecting public health. It is difficult for democracy to flourish without the economic wherewithal to meet the needs of citizens. The smooth functioning of international supply chains is fundamental not only to meeting the present crisis but also those that will exist in the future.

Future crises can make the present COVID-19 pandemic look mild. Scientists tell us that that other pandemics are coming and that they may be more severe than COVID-19. Imagine what would happen if a virus with the lethality of Ebola should be loosed upon the world. Scientists also tell us that the effects of a nuclear exchange with the invocation of widespread radiation and nuclear winter or the natural disasters from climate change can cause far greater death and destruction than COVID-19. Many do not think these threats are real. But then again, few imagined the death, destruction, and dislocation from COVID-19.

Crises that affect whole nations require strong international leadership. Where prevention is insufficient, there must be leadership to develop and implement responses that can minimize the threat to the fundamentals of democratic societies. A fundamental part of the quality of life in the United States and India is democracy. These two largest democracies are best situated to lead in its protection against existential threats like COVID-19.

Raymond E. Vickery, Jr., is Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Senior Advisor at the Albright Stonebridge Group, and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Trade Development.