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Will COVID-19 upend our notions of soft power?

India’s rich and powerful have in the past always rushed to the US for treatment of serious diseases. Now they will think twice.
Nov 15, 2020 / 08:35 AM IST

For years, aesthetics, culture, friendliness and nightlife have been important markers of the soft power of nations. In the world of tomorrow, as the worst health crisis in the last 100 years forces a re-evaluation of the perceived strengths of countries, these may not apply any more.

Even a year ago, our perception of Brazil was that of a land of joie de vivre, influenced by the magical boots of its footballers, its beautiful beaches and the annual carnival. That image has definitely been dented by the irresponsible actions and utterances of its president Jair Bolsonaro.

Jair Bolsonaro (Image: Reuters) Jair Bolsonaro (Image: Reuters)

Similarly, the sight of millions of migrant workers walking miles to get back home will forever be a blot on India’s image.

How leaders and citizens of various countries behaved during the course of this on-going pandemic has been a real eye opener to the rest of the world.

COVID-19 Vaccine

Frequently Asked Questions

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How does a vaccine work?

A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

How many types of vaccines are there?

There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.

What does it take to develop a vaccine of this kind?

Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.

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In the world that we have surely left behind, France’s heft was huge thanks to the culture and cuisine that we associated with the country. Last year it topped the Soft Power 30 rankings put out by Portland Communications and in 2018, after winning the FIFA World Cup, the country was ranked number one on Monocle magazine’s annual soft power survey. That same survey placed the US and the UK in the top 10 list but not New Zealand. India was in the top 20 but not Vietnam.

Then came a virus that cruelly exposed the hidden vulnerabilities of these superpowers. Earlier notions of their inherent strengths based on factors like robust democratic processes, diplomatic muscle, aesthetics, charm, attitude towards foreigners, were cast aside as the only thing that came to matter was saving the lives of people or at least mitigating their suffering. As we watched traditional powerhouses flounder in dealing with this cataclysmic event, their attraction to outsiders also suffered a blow. India’s rich and powerful have in the past always rushed to the US for treatment of serious diseases. Now they will think twice.

Coronavirus Coronavirus

Instead, almost overnight, our curiosity has been piqued by the likes of Taiwan, New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. Taiwan hasn’t recorded a locally transmitted coronavirus infection in about seven months. With minimum fuss, the country learnt from the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak which led to 180 deaths, and had health protocols in place at the earliest which its people followed scrupulously.

In New Zealand, which had already impressed the world with its 2019 handling of the aftermath of the horrific shooting by a white supremacist that left more than 50 people dead, it was once again the leadership of Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that was tested as the virus spread. Skillful management and the trust of its people ensured that the small island nation is already among those that have controlled the spread of the virus without major loss of life. In Taiwan and South Korea it was the institutional framework of scientists, doctors and local administrators that emerged as the face of their successful fight against Covid.

It’s a far cry from a world in which Finland earned its spurs in the soft power ranking for hosting a summit between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in 2018. Today, Trump is a disgraced president under whose watch nearly 250000 Americans have already died in what was believed to be the world’s most powerful country. Putin’s Russia too saw 1.86 million cases and 32000 deaths.

In sharp contrast, Canada, next door to the US, was not only able to keep the virus in check but also gave generous weekly support to its citizens at the peak of the crisis. It also anticipated the second wave and sagely continued with the program till the time the virus showed signs of ebbing and economic activity could restart.

The country’s prime minister Justin Trudeau who won a second term in a hard fought national election last October told Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf in a recent interview that he believed dealing with the pandemic was the best way to protect the economy.

Clearly, political leaders who leveled with their people even at the risk of becoming unpopular and maybe even losing the next elections, enhanced their own image and were ultimately instrumental in flattening the curve in their countries. Thus, Angela Merkel refused to take the easy option of letting things drift and Germany alone among the major European nations has been able to stem the rise in numbers as winter sets in. By contrast, Boris Johnson’s cavalier attitude in the first few months cost lives and added to our growing sense of the steady emasculation of the nation.

It wasn’t just how they dealt with the virus at home but how in this moment of civilisational crisis countries dealt with the rest of the world that will have a long term impact on how we see them. China may have arrested the spread of the virus at home but its opacity in the matter which allowed the pandemic a free run of the world, will ensure that its leadership will always be viewed with suspicion. Likewise, the US’s treatment of international students, once the bedrock of much of its soft power, will have an impact much deeper and longer than the immediate dip in enrolments at the country’s universities.

Hard power has always been easy to define. Essentially it is a combination of the economic might of a country and with its military prowess. Soft power has been much harder. Joseph Nye, the originator of the concept, saw soft power emanating from a country’s political values, its culture, and its foreign policy.

In the post-Covid world that definition is bound to change to include more relevant issues like handling of the environment, providing high quality healthcare to citizens, and vitally the level of trust a country is able to build with the rest of the world.
Sundeep Khanna
first published: Nov 15, 2020 08:35 am

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