Lessons of COVID-19 for US and India: Need to invest in global public health, promote democratic norms

Both the US and India are remarkable democratic experiments and their ability to champion democratic norms and freedoms - rather than weaken them - will prove critical to global peace and prosperity in the years ahead, write Sohini Chatterjee & Swadesh Chatterjee for South Asia Monitor


The COVID-19 pandemic has undone decades of progress in development and already led to hundreds of million people falling back into extreme poverty. One of the hard-won lessons of the catastrophic effects of the COVID-19 is this: Countries need to invest in global development. Investing in development is about addressing the challenges of wars, famines, and pandemics before they ever happen.  

The Internal Monetary Fund (IMF) just predicted the steepest decline in global economic growth in a century. The US has already spent trillions of dollars on fiscal stimulus to pull the economy out of a downturn caused by the pandemic and, in India, the pandemic has undone decades of progress on human rights and economic prosperity. 

Countries like the US and India face a very simple choice: Invest now to keep their economies from collapsing or spend far more later to try and mitigate the consequences of their collapse – global pandemics, violent conflict, extraordinary instability, and billions of people living in extreme poverty.  

Economic growth linked with public health

COVID-19 has made clear that economic growth and prosperity are inextricably linked to our efforts to support global public health.  Infectious diseases have no borders. Countries like India and the US must invest to build resilient public health systems and scale up workable interventions to achieve health security and ensure better pandemic preparedness. By developing innovative approaches to help communities through targeted investments in community health programs, a new era of stronger, better public health can be catalyzed.  

The pandemic will soon prompt another half a billion people into life-threatening poverty, force millions of young girls out of school, and devastate progress on the United Nation’s sustainable development goals.  When families are unable to meet their most basic needs, societies begin to collapse. This will lead to much more violent extremism and conflict, which can have devastating consequences, including for global prosperity and security. 

Geopolitical instability, ineffective global public health protocols, widespread human rights abuses, and inadequate or unresponsive governance systems - left unaddressed - will continue to threaten global security and worldwide economic prosperity.  

Nations interlinked

There is no means or mechanism that will undo the tides of globalization.  Despite nationalist and mostly nonsensical fantasies of a time that existed prior to globalization, there is simply no turning back. If there is one thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has proved (with a vengeance), it is that nations are inextricably interlinked. There is no isolating from the rest of the world - the troubles of other nation-states will eventually reach our shores and we must all be prepared. 

It is outdated and naïve to invest so very little in pre-empting and responding to the trans-boundary challenges – catastrophic climate change, pandemics, extreme poverty - that threaten us.  

Respecting democratic norms

In addition to investing in development, the US and India should enhance their efforts to ensure that democratic norms are respected inside their own borders and around the globe. Democracy and democratic principles are increasingly under threat; the pandemic has only exacerbated this trend. 

The repression of minorities, religious oppression, and dismissal of key democratic principles - including freedom of speech and freedom of assembly - are running rampant even in advanced democracies.  

US President Donald Trump’s recent shirking of its closest democratic allies to cozy up to non-democratic states will undoubtedly have long-term negative consequences for global security and has already led to unprecedented democratic backsliding around the world.  China, North Korea, and Russia do not support functional multi-party democracies. The US should be working with its democratic allies, not against them. 

India should not follow in the dangerous footsteps of the Trump Administration. Instead, it should aim to promote democratic norms abroad and relentlessly support inclusiveness within its own borders, as India’s unique strength is fundamentally tied to its diversity. 

Both the US and India are remarkable democratic experiments and their ability to champion democratic norms and freedoms - rather than weaken them - will prove critical to global peace and prosperity in the years ahead.  

The US election provides an essential opportunity:  Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, if elected, has years of diplomatic experience and enough well-earned respect among democratic allies to craft a cohesive and bold foreign policy agenda.

The election will also provide a renewed chance for the new US Administration to craft an innovative geopolitical partnership with India, the world’s largest democracy. If elected, Biden’s presidency may offer a chance for two truly exceptional democracies to come together to champion fundamental democratic norms and to address the profound transboundary challenges - worsened by the recent pandemic - that increasingly threaten the economic and national security of both nations.  

(Sohini Chatterjee is on the faculty at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs. legal advisor for Independent International Legal Advocates and Senior Associate, Center for Strategic & International Studies. Swadesh Chatterjee is an entrepreneur, Chairman, US-India Friendship Council, Vice-Chair, Chancellor’s Global Leadership Council at University of North Carolina and the first Indian-American recipient in India of Padma Bhushan for public affairs. The views expressed are personal, They can be contacted at schat@ncrrbiz.com)

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