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Home >Opinion >Columns >Has covid sent countries of the West down the road to serfdom?

There is a curious irony to how state responses to the covid pandemic are playing out in different parts of the world in this current second wave of infections, as compared to the first wave last spring. India, in the first wave, was one of the first countries (apart from those European countries most directly hit at the very outset, such as Italy) to impose a harsh lockdown in an attempt to “flatten the curve" of new infections. Meanwhile, responses in the UK, US, and Canada, to pick the world’s three major Anglo-Saxon countries, were light in comparison. European countries, which were hit hard in the first wave, imposed more stringent restrictions even in the first wave, but were not quite as harsh as India’s total lockdown.

Fast forward to today and the ongoing second (and in some cases perhaps third) wave of the covid pandemic, and there has been a reversal of roles. India has more or less opened up, and such restrictions as remain on daily life are relatively light. Meanwhile, in many Western countries (with the notable exception of the US in the waning days of the Donald Trump administration), harsh new lockdowns have been imposed that rival in their stringency India’s efforts last year. These new measures range from closing all public places, restricting restaurants to pick up or delivery only, and even imposing “stay at home" orders and curfews and police checkpoints to enforce them.

How does one explain this fascinating reversal? My hypothesis is that, having experienced a harsh lockdown full-on, and seeing how it did not really succeed in curbing new infections once re-opening began, most Indians have opted to take a more laissez-faire approach to dealing with the covid pandemic, an approach that is, at least tacitly, endorsed by state and central governments. Put simply, Indians have learnt to live with the infection. Perhaps they hope that India’s youthful demographic will ensure that most cases are mild and patients will recover quickly, without putting a strain on the hospital system and intensive care beds in particular. Perhaps there is also a sense that, given the relatively high infection rate (and recovery rate), some sort of “herd immunity" might have been achieved (or may soon be). Finally, with a vaccine rollout finally having begun, there may be a sense that there is little to be gained by sequestering oneself at this juncture, and that, even in the absence of a vaccine, a quick recovery could be hoped for if one does catch the infection.

In no way do I endorse the scientific veracity or wisdom of such beliefs, nor the lackadaisical response that emanates from them. But, whether appropriate or not, this seems to be what is happening in India, and, indeed, in a host of other emerging countries that do not have the state capacity to enforce harsh lockdowns beyond a certain point—and have counted the economic cost of whatever lockdowns have already been undertaken. There is, in other words, a certain pragmatism—I hesitate to invoke the overused concept of ‘fatalism’—to the response.

By contrast, in the West, the pandemic and the heavy-handed response of governments has marked a turn back toward what used to be called ‘scientific socialism’ in the heyday of central planning—the idea that a benevolent and well-informed government with all the necessary policy tools at its disposal is better placed than decentralized, individual action to achieve a socially desirable goal. Indians will be familiar with this thinking, since it was the intellectual foundation of Nehruvian socialism. We know the result of India’s tryst with, nay embrace of, scientific socialism: decades of stagnation and frustrated opportunity, until we threw off its shackles in 1991 and thereafter.

Your columnist has been crying hoarse since the outbreak of the covid pandemic and attendant lockdowns that the era of big government is back with a vengeance. Western populations seem strangely quiescent in the face of this danger, and willing to be led by the hand by increasingly empowered governments.

In many places, in Western countries that have not seen such a situation since World War II, governments rule by decree under enabling emergency laws. While the powers have been but lightly used in most places, the potential exists for greater restrictions on individual liberties, especially if infections, hospital admissions, and deaths remain above what authorities deem acceptable.

Several polls in countries ranging from Canada and the UK to Australia and most European nations show a high degree of support by those polled for harsh lockdowns and stiff penalties for violators. For example, a January survey in Canada by pollster Maru/Blue found that the majority of those surveyed favoured harsher lockdowns, restrictions and fines. Remarkably, in the province of Quebec, 52% of respondents supported barring anyone from travelling more than 5km from home except for an essential purpose. This is a province where there have been several reports of police harassing residents who have legitimate reasons (such as shift work) for being out during a nighttime curfew.

Perhaps Western countries are going to learn the hard way that governments are loath to give up an outsized role in people’s lives once they have acquired it. Time to thumb through a well-worn copy of Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom?

Vivek Dehejia is a Mint columnist

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