The public policy challenge is to make this inner quest a social outcome. How do we create incentives for compassionate behaviour?
This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.
In a recently published study of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, a group of Italian scholars found that “government institutions and national health care services largely proved ineffective in facing the crisis, while civil society experienced a serious breakdown due to the climate of generalised suspicion. Potentially useful interventions, especially regarding social distancing, were negatively affected by mistakes in communication”. The measures used to control the outbreak “led to social division instead of greater unity and solidarity. (These) mistakes and failures in managing the Spanish flu had long-lasting negative economic consequences.” Arnstein Aassve, Guido Alfani, Francesco Gandolfi, Marco Le Moglie conclude that “experiencing the Spanish flu and the associated condition of social disruption and generalised mistrust had permanent consequences on individual behaviour in terms of lower social trust. This loss in social trust constrained economic growth for many decades to follow.”
Contemporary economic policy discourse in India has largely missed this point. Even as governments, industry associations and think tanks have come out with recovery plans and stimulus recommendations, the all-too-important social dimension has been ignored. Let me offer a mea culpa: the economic reconstruction plan that I co-authored with my Takshashila colleagues declares three policy objectives: humanitarian relief, economic revival and long-term reconstructions. We called for monetary, fiscal and regulatory changes, but completely missed out the urgent need to halt the dangerous destruction of social capital and the conscious effort that public policy must make to rebuild it. For, if we allow social disruption and generalized mistrust to perpetuate, not only will an economic recovery prove elusive, but there will be worse to follow.
The challenge of bringing the pandemic under control requires us to set aside all other differences and focus on the public health crisis and its consequences. Had the nationwide protests against the Citizenship Amendment Bill and National Register of Citizens continued despite the pandemic and in defiance of the lockdown, India’s present situation would have been a whole lot worse.
Compare this to the United States, where over a thousand epidemiologists and public health experts supported the Black Lives Matter mass protests during an extant pandemic. Harvard epidemiologist Maia Majumder tweeted that “police brutality is a public health problem; anything that causes mortality at such a scale is a public health problem.” Politics has prevailed over science in such arguments. As The Atlantic magazine’s Conor Friedersdorf writes, “The reinforcement of progressive social-justice narratives should not get in the way of simple truth-telling.” Yet, they have, and thousands of people are on the streets risking their own health and those of others for a cause. Reason’s Robby Soave rejects the view that “the righteousness of the cause is somehow a mitigating factor for spreading the disease”, but yet another chapter is now being written in the tragic tale of how the US has botched up its response to the covid-19 pandemic.
We should avoid getting there. The Indian government would do well to reconsider socially controversial aspects of its pre-pandemic political agenda. Locking up university students and street protesters in New Delhi at a time when courts are not fully functioning and police forces are overstretched should not be a priority at this time. Should the relationship between police forces and citizens takes an adversarial turn again, India will suffer a lot more damage than it already has, and that we can ill afford.
To rebuild the economy, we must focus on rebuilding social capital. To rebuild social capital, we need greater compassion across society. So many of the humanitarian tragedies that unfolded over the past few months could have been avoided or mitigated had we shown more compassion: in making migrants feel safe, making food available, in saving small businesses and giving money directly to those who are in most need. This is not merely an indictment of our Union and state governments. It is an indictment of our society as a whole.
It is easy to dismiss compassion as being a social issue or personal matter and absolve public policy of any role in it. That would be wrong, given its importance to national prosperity and well-being. Indeed, it is perhaps inattention to the need for a compassionate society that lies at the root of our social and economic problems. Across parties and ideologies, whether in the name of social justice, inclusion or nationalism, our politics tends to promote policies of “us versus them” that creates resentment and undermines compassion.
To be clear, the call for compassion as a goal of public policy is not a call for redistribution of wealth. Higher taxes and mandatory corporate social responsibility do not create compassion. Then how do we go about it? The Buddhist philosophical tradition’s answer is to start with an internal transformation, brought about by reflection, meditation and the experience of benevolent living. Meanwhile, neuroscience is confirming the view that brain functions can be changed and compassion cultivated. The public policy challenge is to make this inner quest a social outcome. How do we create incentives for compassionate behaviour? We have to, well, reflect on this.
There are many more The Intersection columns here
What is clear, though, is that political leaders and policymakers should avoid deepening social disruption and the generalized mistrust in society, especially at this time, tempting as the opportunities might be. A pandemic is not the time for taking political prisoners. Nor indeed for us to be imprisoned in our own politics.
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