Dr. Henrik Chetan Aspengren is a Research Fellow at the Asia Programme of Swedish Institute of International Affairs and Coordinator of South Asia Initiative. He is also the Co-convenor of Europe India Research and Dialogue Network. He holds a Ph.D. from SOAS, University of London. Some of the primary areas of his expertise include domestic politics and foreign policy of India, EU-India relations, Indo-Pacific and Sweden-India relations. In an exclusive interview with NEPAL FIRST, Dr. Aspengren highlights the impacts of Covid-19 on India, South Asia and world politics.
How is the Covid-19 situation in Sweden? Unlike most of the countries, it has not imposed lockdowns to contain the spread? Has this model been fairly successful?
Sweden’s strategy has been to emphasize the need for social distancing, to reduce social activities (no gatherings of more than 50 allowed), to stay home if any symptoms occur, and importantly, to protect those at risk (elderly, people with underlying conditions etc). The responsible authority issues recommendations and advice, the government then regulate if necessary. Sweden has kept preschools, schools grade one to nine, offices and shops open, but the advice has been to work from home if possible. The goal is to flatten the curve – considerably slow down the spread of the virus (so as to not overwhelm the intensive care and health care), keep the economy going if possible, and importantly to only impose restrictions that are acceptable to people in the long term – too harsh restrictions will not be possible to uphold on a voluntary basis, only by force. The premise of the strategy is high public trust in expertise, high trust in public authorities, a model of governance where the executive relies on the advice from independent government agencies.Sweden’s neighbors have chosen to impose much stricter restrictions and regulations. Death rates are much lower in those countries, but the peak in infections will occur later, perhaps in the fall. I am not an epidemiologist, medical doctor, virologist, or an expert in infectious diseases, so my comments come with caveats.
How do you analyze the Covid-19 situation in South Asia?
All countries face different situations, but there are shared challenges. The Covid-19 situation poses short, medium, and long term challenges to the region. The imminent challenge is of course to reduce death and severe disease caused by the virus, to avoid break down in health care systems and shortages in vital equipment and necessities, to avoid sector specific unemployment, and avoid an economy in free fall. Medium term challenges are to avoid economic recession, avoid prolonged shortages of food and vital necessities, prevent general unemployment, and prevent social insecurity and social tension. Long term challenges are increased social unrest, sovereignty losses due to foreign activities, democratic backsliding, and long term unemployment among the youth.
While it appears certain that world economy will fall into a big recession, how do you assess the impact of the pandemic on India’s economy and its ripple effect in the region and beyond?
It is too early to say. The challenge will be massive at a time when India’s importance for global growth has increased. For India’s part, in addition to the increased hardship for the poorest and the real challenges facing the growing middle class, it is also important to think about whether the already existing differences in economic performance between regional states will not be accelerated. Now, some of the consequences for South Asia will be country specific, some shared. But the fall out – as well as the possibility to cooperate to deal with the fall out – would have been different if the region had been highly integrated. South Asia is one of the least integrated regions of the world, in terms of trade and supply chains.
The South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation has remained almost defunct due to the perpetual rivalry between India and Pakistan. Do you think this crisis could be a good opportunity for its revival?
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had down played the importance of SAARC for some time, before the call for setting up a SAARC Covid-19 fund was issued. I highly doubt that this crisis could provide an impetus to the organization. There are perhaps other initiatives that could be more useful from India’s perspective, such as BIMSTEC.
What do you think will be the political and economical position of powers like the United States, European Union, China and India in a post-coronavirus world order?
It is important to understand that this crisis will be with us for a very long time. It is not a sprint race but an ultramarathon. It is too early to say what the implications will be for the world order. We do see that some tendencies, which were there before, are being accelerated. The US is reluctant to take leadership and disengaging from global cooperation, for example WHO. China is active but is facing growing caution and in some places a push-back; the EU initially failed its own principles of solidarity and free movement, but is slowly covering lost ground and acting in concert.
India must handle the massive challenges at home, but at the same time have a clear strategy for how to act in the new situation. It will not be business as usual. Bilaterally, its engagements abroad must be based on its internal capacity with a clear idea of how such activities can contribute to its needs. Multilaterally, it can engage from the perspective of how it wants to participate in forming the milieu for future international cooperation. These engagements should move beyond status, and be driven by a realization that India could help create an environment for international cooperation that can work to its advantage.