Leaders Can’t Lift Lockdowns Without Public Trust

Germany’s reopening is working because Angela Merkel treats citizens like adults; China’s is succeeding because people see results. In India, there’s no trust—and little evidence of progress.

A family watches Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address to the nation on a television at their home in Amritsar on March 24.
A family watches Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address to the nation on a television at their home in Amritsar on March 24. NARINDER NANU/AFP via Getty Images
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May 10 was Mother’s Day. Children enjoyed the glorious weather in the newly opened playgrounds in Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany, where I live now. Families played soccer, and young couples walked hand in hand. On one corner, a group ostentatiously hugged and kissed as they said goodbye. There wasn’t a mask in sight.

The grumblings of a considerable minority apart—“Have they not heard of the second wave? Are these people complete idiots?”—Germany as a whole had come together to shake off the torpor of the preceding period of restrictions. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s remarks of the previous week in a press conference had been well received. “The first phase of the pandemic was over,” she declared. The spread of the illness had been “slowed,” and the health system had “not been overwhelmed.”

In an extremely rare TV address almost two months earlier on March 18, Merkel had outlined the gravity of the task, the advice she was taking on board, and the road ahead. She chose her words carefully.

Telling everyone to stay home when a threat looms is relatively easy. Agreeing on when it’s OK to go outside again is harder.

Germany hadn’t faced a challenge of the pandemic’s magnitude since “German reunification, no, since the Second World War.” Any response to it demanded “action in a spirit of solidarity.” All action was being taken in consultation with experts. The Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany’s federal health organization, was explicitly name-checked. “There is still neither a way to treat the coronavirus, nor is there a vaccine,” Merkel said. As long as that remained true, all that mattered was to slow the virus down, “flatten the curve over the course of several months, and buy time” so more people wouldn’t die in a health system that couldn’t cope.

Merkel laid out what would be closed. She underlined how difficult all this would be to people used to their freedoms, harking back to her own history as someone who had grown up in repressive East Germany. But if all Germans pulled together, she said firmly, there was hope, even though “the situation is serious and the outcome uncertain.”

Around the world, the conversation around COVID-19 is shifting from containment to the more loaded question of when—and how—to open up. Telling everyone to stay home when a threat looms is relatively easy. Agreeing on when it’s OK to go outside again is harder. Who gets to decide the threat is past or that the urgent need to move forward mitigates the threat itself? Who does one trust?

My experience of three separate countries—Germany, India, and China—illustrates how the sharing of information between states and citizens is central to the level of trust between the two. That trust, or the lack thereof, informs every part of the response to the coronavirus situation both individually and on the part of the government.

In Germany, the government treated its citizens as adults. It shared information with a population used to being told the truth. There was no attempt made to sugar-coat the pill. Expert advice was cited and adhered to—until recently, RKI was conducting daily briefings—and a road map laid out over the following weeks stating which milestones would have to be achieved for certain freedoms to be reinstated.

The government did indeed take away some control from ordinary citizens but told them why, on what basis, and outlined when that control would be returned. In other words, adults were speaking to adults, and a contract that had been forged over years was invoked. Trust the experts, Merkel was saying. Trust the government. Move forward together. And Germany did.

As a result, I’m looking forward to sitting in my favorite beer garden, which reopened on May 18. Even as RKI warns that there is a spike in infections and the R number is rising again since the easing of restrictions; even as the rumblings about the “second wave” gain momentum, an odd assortment of protesters wave placards, and various state governments diverge from the advice being handed down by the federal government on the scale and speed of the opening up: There is, if not widespread optimism, at least a grimly determined sunniness among my peers.

“We did it before. We can do it again.” In a world where COVID-19 is part of the new normal, the Germans, at least for now, are just getting on with it.

If Germany illustrates one extreme of the trust spectrum, India—the country of my birth and putatively also a liberal democracy—arguably lies at the other. A week after Merkel’s address, on March 25, India was summarily locked down with less than a day’s notice. Credible information wasn’t shared. (If India has an equivalent of RKI, few are aware of it.) Predictably, chaos followed.

A sea of migrant laborers, the invisible engine of India’s growth, immediately set off for their homes in the hinterland, hundreds of miles away. They did so on foot because interstate transport was suspended as well. With no long-term housing arrangements, no guaranteed access to food, and no employment for the foreseeable future, what else were they to do? They certainly didn’t trust the government to protect their interests.

If Germany illustrates one extreme of the trust spectrum, India—putatively also a liberal democracy—arguably lies at the other.

This human flood brought to mind images of the great partition that clouded the independence of India from the British in 1947. Millions of India’s Muslims moved to newly created Pakistan, and Hindus and Sikhs fled the other way.

Partition is India’s own fracture, a wound to rival Germany’s memory of World War II. More than a million people may have died as a direct result of the cleaving of India, though a number has never been agreed on. People were butchered in cold blood and died on the road and of illness and hunger in the camps afterward. Widespread sexual violence, hushed up then, continues to come to light. The resultant ill feeling poisons India-Pakistan relations to this day.

In Germany, Merkel invoked the memory of World War II—the country’s role before and during the war; the pain of rebuilding after; and, crucially, its oft-stated resolve to never let it happen again—specifically as a spur to collective resolve and action. What was the Indian government’s excuse to not share information? Why didn’t it plan for the inevitable exodus of already marginalized people when their livelihoods were taken away?

Two months later, infection rates are spiking in India. But the country is still locked down. It is obvious now that rates were artificially low to begin with, primarily due to an inability—or reluctance—to test the population widely. Now that more testing is happening, a new picture is emerging of the real numbers, which is as unsurprising as it is discouraging. If more people are being identified as infected, when will India’s draconian lockdown end?

Witness the dark drama of Sikh pilgrims from the northern state of Punjab marooned for weeks in Nanded, Maharashtra, almost 1,000 miles away. They had traveled to Hazoor Sahib in late March. It is where Gobind Singh, the 10th guru of the Sikhs, was killed in the early 18th century, and it’s now a major pilgrimage site. After the intercession of senior leaders at the state and central levels, those pilgrims were tested, found to be coronavirus-free, and sent back to Punjab on specially arranged vehicles.

Some of them then tested positive after they had been allowed to return to their homes. Inevitably, the other returnees were immediately quarantined in Punjab. At which point, one pilgrim remarked bitterly to a local TV channel from her cramped quarantine quarters: “I may not have had the coronavirus when I came back from Maharashtra. But I’m definitely going to catch it here.”

Modi’s regular televised hectoring has become background noise—long on encouragement and promise, short on actual facts.

In the absence of a robust testing regime and a transparent flow of data, the different state governments traded barbs and ducked responsibility (with the honorable exception of the southern state of Kerala, which has led the way in testing, tracing, and free dissemination of information—leading to a much lower infection rate than many other Indian states). The populace is left to its own devices, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regular televised hectoring as background noise, long on encouragement and promise, short on actual facts. People watch his addresses with morbid curiosity, parsing them for clues to what new restrictions they have to look forward to the next day.

“I don’t read the news,” one friend from India said. “I don’t watch it. It will just remind me how disempowered I actually am. It is terrifying.” This is from an educated member of the urban elite, worlds removed from a migrant hiking home with his family, his belongings on his shoulder. Even supposedly simple operations, such as establishing whether one is infected, can’t be taken for granted. People just don’t trust the government and its entities.

Yet Modi’s personal approval numbers are still stratospheric, especially among urban Indians. His accession to power in 2014 was greeted by his loyalists as a metaphor for a new India—a more assertive one that wasn’t afraid of ambition. These days, many of the people still beating their drums about him dream, at best, of being allowed out of their homes in the near future.

It would seem that having India’s biggest megaphone does count for something. Having an invisible enemy to fight against has been a blessing, at least for Modi. The infantilization of the Indian public is set to continue for the foreseeable future, and the world’s largest electoral democracy can continue on its paternalist way, taking its citizenry for granted, just as it always has, regardless of who’s in charge.

In Beijing, which some people still believe is reeling from the concealed effects of COVID-19—an arts group I used to belong to was, until recently, restricting entries to its meetings, due to a strict limit on how many people could be in a particular space. That upper limit is now history. Even people in the streets aren’t newsworthy, anymore. Traffic jams are commonplace again as children return to school and their parents go back to work.

China, where I lived until last year, is of course a special case when it comes to credible information and the sharing of it with its citizenry. China’s authoritarian regime just doesn’t do freedom of information.

What was interesting to me, when I arrived there in 2016, was that most Chinese are aware of this but don’t really care. They know that their access to information is tightly controlled. But this is something they’ve grown up with. Their extremely active and potent digital sphere is also a sort of escape valve. It is where they express dissent. The Chinese state polices it with its usual assiduity, but the fast-moving nature of digital media, and its incredible reach, requires a flexibility of the state that it doesn’t really need to exhibit anywhere else.

The furor over the treatment of Li Wenliang is a case in point. Li was a doctor and an early whistleblower of the situation in Wuhan who was censored by the authorities. He later caught COVID-19 and died of it, and his death was treated with shock and rage online.

For the most part, though, the Chinese let the government get on with what is seen as being its business. This includes letting it control practically every part of their lives, as long as they feel they’re being looked after and their interests protected—among other things, a high level of personal safety and access to the benefits of China’s economic growth. To a people accustomed to having the state take care of things like this, the way the pandemic has shaken out at home is very much par for the course.

The Chinese are used to trading control for security. In Hong Kong, where another way of doing things is part of the collective memory, this is legitimate grounds for protest. But on the mainland, among the mainstream, there is widespread acceptance. And the contract has worked thus far, in this particular situation.

Did Beijing try to hush it up to begin with? Of course. Are the numbers still fudged? Almost definitely. But it is also true that, once it set itself to it, the regime has done a good job of countering the pandemic. That’s just a fact.

Meanwhile, with a galloping death rate, disputes over which figures are more current and valid, unmet promises over testing, and the unedifying spectacle of uncomfortable ministers lying on TV to protect an advisor who clearly broke the law, the country that gave the world parliamentary democracy has become a global laughingstock. The United Kingdom has also been a source in a recent spike in imported COVID-19 cases; the citizens of China and Hong Kong agree on this, if nothing else.

An expatriate friend’s imminent return to the U.K. was just made public to my erstwhile circle in Beijing. Even if it hasn’t been stated to his face, I know others around him are all thinking the same thing.


Avtar Singh is a writer and editor based in Germany. Twitter: @avtar1_singh

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