There are not one but five concurrent, interconnected contagions spreading around the world, all triggered by the SARS-CoV-2 or the novel coronavirus outbreak that emanated in China in December 2019.
The first is obviously the COVID-19 pandemic caused by the increasing global spread of the coronavirus itself. This, in turn, has triggered four other contagions — in information, economy, psychology and behaviour. While policymakers’ and media attention is primarily focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to recognise and address all five contagions in order to bring them under control.
The viral pandemic
The viral pandemic, of course, is the most immediate and about which much has been discussed and much is being done. India’s response — like that of many other countries — is to contain the spread through social distancing and severe restrictions on movement. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to his personal standing with the masses by emphasising the need for people to protect themselves and the community by staying home and distancing themselves for others. The Janata curfew that he proposed was a trial both to assess how practical voluntary shutdowns are in a country of 1.3 billion people, as well as to sensitise the people to the seriousness of the challenge. The government will have to quickly learn from the intended and unintended consequences of the exercise as it implements such measures nationwide for weeks together.
Greater availability of and access to testing — now that ICMR has permitted accredited private laboratories to conduct tests — will bring to light the true extent of the outbreak in India, and we should expect to see more positive cases reported in the coming days. Against this, serious social distancing and travel restrictions implemented since last week will start reducing new infections, showing up as a slowdown of the viral contagion towards the end of April.
The information pandemic
We have been deluged by a contagion of both good and bad information about the coronavirus over the past week. There is even a mini epidemic of coronavirus jokes. Managing the ‘infodemic’ is important. Good information about the current outbreak status, epidemiological models, learnings from other countries’ experience, effective treatment options and so on help individuals make better decisions. They also compel governments to stay on top of the information cycles, failing which authorities begin to lose credibility and public trust. This calls for daily briefings and real-time sharing of accurate data. India’s health authorities are not there yet. As cases shoot up in the coming weeks, the health ministry must raise its information dissemination game.
Tackling bad information is a harder problem because there is already a widely spread fake news infrastructure — it transcends television, social media and word-of-mouth. If quackery, unscientific techniques and bigotry were just bad before the pandemic, spreading them at this time should be criminal. We saw how Modi’s attempt to rally the people in the struggle to contain the outbreak turned into dangerous community gatherings owing to contagious memes spreading wrong information. The fact that big celebrities like Rajinikanth and Amitabh Bachchan transmitted these dangerous memes to millions of people should worry us, even if Twitter deleted Rajinikanth’s message (instead of the latter deleting Twitter, as jokes would have it).
The economic pandemic
The economic contagion — of which the financial and stock market meltdown is but a leading indicator — is already posing massive policy challenges and will persist long after the virus is contained. A global recession and an unprecedented shock to a slowing Indian economy mean that growth will grind down. Households, firms and government will suffer economic losses, which will cascade through the economy in complex, hard-to-predict ways.
The Indian government will face a surge in healthcare costs, demands for social spending to ameliorate the losses faced by the poor and to provide a stimulus to rekindle growth. It had very little fiscal room to begin with, and even that is shrinking as tax collections slow down in the past quarter. Raising taxes will hurt growth prospects, as will not compensating hundreds of millions of wage earners and the poor who will suffer disproportionately. The longer the viral pandemic, the worse will be the economic contagion.
The psychological pandemic
The psychology of fear, uncertainty and doubt is contagious too. For instance, the moment we see a person wearing a mask we get anxious and spread the anxiety to our family members, neighbours, friends and colleagues. As Frank M. Snowden writes in his history of epidemics and society, common responses “include stigmatization and scapegoating, flight and mass hysteria, riots, and upsurges in religiosity.” The viral pandemic is also damaging mental health. Moreover, the new anxieties add to the old ones within the overall climate of extreme political partisanship and worsening social harmony that prevailed even before COVID-19 came along. If left unmanaged, the psychological contagion can both undermine efforts to contain the virus and revive the economy.
The behavioural pandemic
Finally, there is a contagion of human behaviour too, both good and bad. The good part is when washing hands and working from home catches on. The bad is when people ostracise victims, attack groups suspected of transmitting the virus, avoid screening, escape quarantine, hoard medical supplies, try to make a fast buck from profiteering, congregate for religious events, and so on. So far have been fortunate to avoid mass unrest and challenges to public order, but we cannot take this for granted.
The infodemic and the behavioural contagion feed off each other, and higher levels of social anxiety exacerbate the process. Similarly, the psychological and economic contagions reinforce each other, and are in turn amplified by informational, behavioural and viral contagions. The complex interactions among five contagions make it much harder to contain the spread of the coronavirus that triggered this cascade. This why a governmental response focused on public health alone (with some information management thrown in) will not suffice.
Just like there are war cabinets during wartime, the multiple pandemics call for a pandemic cabinet. If there ever was a time for the cliched ‘whole of government approach’, it is now.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal