Issue 5

Circus of Books

Circus of books is a documentary film directed by Rachel Mason. Mason looks at “Circus of Books” a bookstore and a gay pornography shop in West Hollywood, California. The store was owned by her family when she was younger. The film while being about porn and LGBTQ culture also looks at relationships, family and healing. The Mason family dynamic is clearly displayed through the course of the documentary and Rachel does an elegant job while interviewing her family members. She never hides her relationship with the interviewees but instead leans into it, using emotions as a tool. The film shows us the blurred lined between family and business in the Mason family and sheds light on LGBTQ culture (and the taboos surrounding it).

Issue 5

Bidenomics For America and The World

Say all you want about President Donald Trump, one thing you can’t deny is that the US economy soared under his reign – that is before the pandemic…

Prior to the pandemic the American GDP grew in a sound manner, the stock market reached record highs, unemployment rate fell drastically, wages continued to rise and poverty rates were comparatively very low. Donald Trump also successfully challenged the rising Chinese influence over the global economy by calling them out for their intellectual property theft. While Trump did tilt towards protectionist economic policies, it worked in the interest of the American people. His focus on deregulation helped American manufacturing operate at a higher level of economic efficiency. 

President elect Joe Biden seems to have very different views from President Donald Trump on most socio-political issues, and his economic policies seem to be very different as well. So what will Bidenomics mean for America and the world? 

Biden has a history of being a supporter of free trade, he has often described Trump’s protectionist policies as ‘reckless’ and ‘disastrous’. This brings to question whether Biden will get rid of protectionist policies after he has been sworn in. While the shift from protectionist policies to those revolving around free trade seem like the most probable step, there are political and economic restrictions that will not allow Biden to make the move quite so smoothly. The trade war with China was one of Trump’s most significant moves as president, and Biden has been criticised for taking it easy on China. While the trade war has disrupted global trade it is widely supported by the American population, hence pushing Biden to practice protectionist policies. While Biden will probably continue the trade war with China, he will propagate global cooperation with the rest of the international community. Biden claims that forming a coalition with allies and partners is a better strategy instead of the unilateral tariffs imposed by the Trump administration.

Biden’s plan to reverse Trump’s tax cuts on corporations has been championed by the leftists, but how effective is this policy going to be in its implementation?  Biden’s tax policy wants to raise the top income tax rate to 39.6% from 37% and the top corporate income tax rate to 28% from 21%. This move will allow the government to collect a tax revenue of approximately $4 trillion by 2030. While this move sounds good on paper, its effective implementation has several obstacles. Corporates with major accounting teams and an army of lawyers have continued to find safe havens and loopholes in tax laws to legally avoid paying taxes. A tax hike of this rate also increases the probability of tax evasion and tax fraud, which will undoubtedly lead to the creation of a larger shadow economy. Additionally in a post covid world that has witnessed large scale unemployment, increasing taxes on corporations and high bracket earners is gonna push firms to cut costs, thereby creating disincentive for hiring. The increase in taxation may also push firms to switch gears and focus more on international markets such as Hong Kong or Singapore that offer lower corporate tax rates. While progressive taxation is ideally the way to go, the Biden government must ensure that its implementation takes into account all the limitations of the current system.

The Trump administration focused on deregulation in the manufacturing sector to ensure productive and economic efficiency, Biden on the other hand takes a different stand – promising to focus on sustainable development instead. Biden as part of his election campaign has released a 10-year, $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan. The plan aims to move the U.S. to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Bidens climate change plan in total will cost the US approximately 2 trillion dollars, and he aims to fund it by reversing Trump’s excess tax cuts on corporations and ending subsidies for fossil fuels. While Trump focused on short term economic efficiency, Biden’s plan is for the future. Switching to sustainable means of manufacturing is going to undoubtedly drive up costs for the American economy, but will also create middle class jobs and ensure environmental conservation. This move towards building sustainable infrastructure also displays that America will be joining the global fight against climate change, after Trump pulled them out of the Paris Accords.

Biden also aims to tackle student loans and flaws in the health care system through his economic plan, and has extensively criticised Trump’s approach towards the same. Biden aims to insure around 97% of the American people through his healthcare plan, and doesn’t shy away to take credit for the Affordable Care Act  introduced by the Obama government. Biden also wants to cancel a minimum of $10,000 of student debt per person. He proposes forgiving all undergraduate, tuition-related federal student debt for low-income and middle class individuals (earning up to $125,000). Biden plans to fund this through the hike in corporate tax. The healthcare and student loan support by the government has been a campaign promise by almost all democrats including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Biden hence seems to be catering to his key demographic.

While Biden and America seem to be optimistic about these economic policies, it can be a cause for great concern if not implemented with caution. An increase in corporate taxation in the midst of an economic crisis can lead to tragic consequences for the American economy. Biden plans to fund sustainable infrastructure, stimulus packages, healthcare, and student debt through his tax plan, while the plan isn’t as optimistic as “Mexico will pay for it”, it still is somewhat overreaching. Even though some may be doubtful about whether Bidenomics will be successful for America, the reversal of the globalisation backlash that we witnessed in the last few years brings some hope for the international community.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 5

Is COVID over? – Why we have stopped talking about COVID-19

“This second and third wave is strong like a tsunami,” said Uddav Thackrey, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, in his address to the state on Sunday. He also expressed his disappointment at the people of the state, urging them to stop flouting restrictions post-Diwali, as COVID-19 threatens to surge once more. The picture above was taken in his own state on the night of his address, in a KFC outlet in a mall in Aurangabad. Only a handful of people were wearing masks and still fewer maintaining social distancing protocols as the restaurant was running at full capacity without any sanitisation protocols being followed barring in the kitchen. Restaurants, hotels and gyms have been found to carry the highest superspreader risk for the virus. Yet we see an exponential increase in people starting to go to restaurants, on vacations and getting back to their gym routines. Much of Europe and parts of Asia are seeing another wave of lockdowns, and the US is seeing its biggest surge in the number of cases yet. As the holiday season approaches, there are increasing fears of superspreader events in family gatherings. With second and third waves of infection occurring around the world, COVID shows no signs of ending. Why then, has it all but disappeared from our conversations?

Prime Minister Modi initially claimed that even stepping outside your house could kill you. This was in April. Slowly, as signs of massive economic downfall became apparent, it was clear the nation could no longer remain in a state of lockdown and thus began a multi-step reopening. The country is currently at the last stage of reopening with Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and some other states set to open schools and colleges. The government’s rhetoric drastically changed from “leaving home will kill you” to “you are safe if you wear a mask and maintain social distance. In fact, an advertisement featuring actor Akshay Kumar encouraged people to go back to work by saying “if doctors can do their part, so should we.” The conversation at the national level and especially from the PM has been one of reviving the economy. Studies have shown that in spite of one’s logical convictions, one is always susceptible to the words of one’s favourite leaders. Thus, even if one believes the virus to be a threat, they will ultimately believe the messages being propagated by the leaders they trust, which in this case prioritise economic revival and trivialise the virus. Since our leaders have stopped talking about the virus, so have we.

In a similar vein is the idea of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Staunch supporters of Modi and his government believe that all steps are being taken to minimise and eliminate the virus. Statistics clearly show otherwise. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort one feels when belief and behaviour contradict each other. To reduce this discomfort, one will have to change either their behaviour or beliefs. For instance, when a smoker knows that “Smoking causes cancer”, she will either have to quit smoking or convince herself she hasn’t smoked enough to suffer from its effect. 

Currently, people either have to reconcile with the fact that the virus is still raging or justify their belief in the government’s handling of the disease by living life pre-COVID style, even at the expense of exposing themselves to it. Many people seem to have chosen the latter option. They also seek out news that confirms their belief. Because people want to believe COVID is over, the conversation around it is fast dying out as well.

An article on VICE talks about the hazards of Optimism Bias. It is the belief that around 80% of people have, where we think positively about the future and overestimate the potential of life. The downside to this is underestimating risks or believing that “It won’t happen to me.” It promotes risky behaviours, in this case, exposing oneself to the virus to continue one’s normal life. Additionally, we have been shown statistics of mortality rates which generally seem to be within a 1-2% mark. Recovery rates in India are being declared as the highest in the world, at around 86%. While these statistics paint a positive picture at first glance, we fail to take into account that even 1% of India’s population is roughly 13 million people. Also, being the best in the world doesn’t have an effect on how one recovers personally. But these statistics, in combination with a tendency for optimism bias spells disaster for virus management. Since people do not feel endangered by the virus, it has stopped being a major talking point.

A study conducted in the US points out that the media is still giving the virus much attention — as it did when cases spiked over the summer. But audience engagement is the lowest it has ever been. In India, the media is rather divided on political lines, and a majority of pro-government channels run COVID news that is favourable to the government. Thus, news about rising numbers and dangers of the virus is limited, since it portrays the government in an unfavourable light. Additionally, as the above-mentioned study finds, people are experiencing an information overload and consequently, fatigue. This fatigue leads people to reduce their news consumption, especially upsetting news. Thus while media coverage might be high, people actively avoid interacting with this information to protect themselves.

Media trends have historically shown how crises leave the news cycle. Wars and pandemics and disaster management and mitigation, in general, are threatening events for a standing government. If they fail at handling these properly, they face the threat of being replaced. In order to avoid this, governments have pressured journalists and media groups historically, to run propaganda they see fit. An article on The Nation mentions how the Irish government forced and threatened newspapers to stop running news about the polio epidemic in the 1950s, even when it was at its highest. They instead claimed false victories and undermined the scale of the virus to save face and calm justified public panic. While this had the unintended consequence of increased unrest and disbelief of the government, this strategy continues to date. Donald Trump recently used conservative American media to propagate his victories of having controlled the virus and ended the crises, even when evidence overwhelmingly suggests otherwise. Thus, the media is unfortunately highly susceptible to government control. In COVID times, we have seen leaders from Modi to Trump claiming falsehoods and wrongful victories. Most news publications either voluntarily or by force run this propaganda. Thus, we have seen a rapid decrease in discussions around this virus.

Lastly, this year has been a never-ending downward spiral. One outlet says of the 2020 news cycle, ‘We’re drinking out of a fire hose every night.’ There hasn’t been a slow night, with some days having multiple headline stories simultaneously. Even when COVID has dominated our lives, there hasn’t been a dearth of other major events, like the Anti-CAA protests, riots in North Delhi, Bihar elections, US elections, Bollywood drug busts to name a few. Many of these, like the now-debunked drug scandal, have been used by the media to divert our attention from COVID. And even when they weren’t actively used for these purposes, many of these events were worthy of our attention. COVID coverage got lost in this tsunami of news, and we were too busy trying not to drown to stop and filter out what was important.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 5

Family Law: UAE’s New Marketing Strategy

‘Progressive’ isn’t the first word that comes to mind when speaking about the middle east. But the recent changes made in the UAE family laws, shows that the country is adapting to norms of the 21st century. The recent changes to the UAE family law addresses divorce, inheritance, cohabitation, alcohol and harassment. 

The UAE has been a champion of globalisation, attracting foreign direct investments and hosting people from over 200 nationalities. Almost 90% of the Emirates’ population are foreigners. This mixed population includes low-paid laborers from South Asia, and professionals from the United States, Europe and other countries. This diversity of culture and religion has been in conflict with the country’s laws that are heavily based on Shariah law.

The changes in family law will be significant in ensuring that UAE continues to be a destination for foreign direct investment and people from around the world. 

UAE divorce law now states that couples who were married in their home country but want to get a divorce in the UAE would be allowed to deal with the divorce in accordance to the laws of the country where the marriage took place. Additionally instead of having assets divided by Sharia law, the law of a person’s citizenship will determine how assets would be divided, unless there is a written will. 

Cohabitation of unmarried couples has been legalised for the first time in the UAE. It was initially illegal for an unmarried couple, or even unrelated individuals to share a home in the UAE. 

Drinking alcoholic beverages for those older than 21 years has been decriminalised. The penalties for the sale and possession of alcohol without a license in authorised areas has been removed. Muslims who initially were not allowed to procure alcohol licences are allowed to drink alcoholic beverages.

The new laws decriminalise suicide and attempted suicide. Police are now supposed to provide vulnerable individuals mental health support. Assisting a person in attempting suicide, remains a crime and can carry an unspecified jail sentence.

Men could initially get away with assault and abuse of women that brought “dishonour” to the family by disobeying religious scriptures or promiscuity. Such acts of assault and abuse will now be treated like any other crime, with no special privilege. 

Additionally the law calls for stricter punishments for men who subject women to harassment, including stalking and cat calling. The punishment for the rape of a minor or a mentally challenged individual will be execution.

The UAE has become a hub for foreign investments and has also grown to house individuals from various nations that contribute heavily to their economy. The country has been trying to make its mark on the international community as an economic centre, and the easing of family laws to accommodate people of various nationalities is a move that is bound to help the country achieve its economic goals. 

The new laws can also be looked at as a step to improve the country’s image ahead of Expo 2020, which was scheduled to be held in Dubai during the month of October but has now been postponed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The UAE also normalised its relationationship with Israel, and is hoping to host Israeli investors at the Expo.

The world has been dealing with internalisation and a globalisation backlash, this change in family law brings new hope to those that champion globalisation. While countries like the USA and Britain who initially preached globalisation are strengthening immigration policies and are taking measures to internalise the economy – the UAE is taking measures to give non-Emiratis better representation. The UAE has now developed the most diverse economy in the Gulf, and measures such as this can ensure that it holds its status.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Liberalization at the Margins in Hard Times

Observing a world where the global momentum towards democracy is stalling, I asked in my book what donors can do to nudge aid recipients towards democracy. The audacity of the question stems from the fact that we are living in an era characterized by feckless democracies and resurgent authoritarianism.  These are hard times. If we are not to despair, we should examine our political constraints realistically. 

In democracy promotion, I argue we should take both the reluctance of Western donors and the pushback by recipients seriously. Unlike other approaches to democracy promotion, I do not assume donors value democracy promotion as much as they say they do. Neither for that matter do I assume that authoritarian regimes will give up power voluntarily. The reforms that donors seek are painful for autocrats. Which self-respecting dictator will voluntarily give up power? Instead of democratization, our smart autocrat can be expected to offer alternative policy concessions in exchange for the desired aid. This means some recipients like Egypt, will have leverage against the West and are effectively immune to donor pressure to liberalize. I label such countries, “primary recipients” in my book. Primary recipients can push back and as such are not suitable targets for democracy promotion. It also implies that some recipients, like Fiji, will lack the attributes to make counteroffers attractive enough to the aid donors. I label this group the “secondary recipients” in my book.  Secondary recipients, precisely because they have little else to offer to donors, are more likely to liberalize in exchange for the needed aid. Notice what have been theoretically achieved, I just spelt out a path that works around both the disinterest by democratic donors and the resistance by authoritarian recipients for focusing on the leverage of recipients. If my theory is correct, it follows that a strategy of targeting secondary recipient is a way to promote democracy. 

A not uncommon response to this strategy is to assert that it has been invalidated by the Trump administration, with its lack of interest in democracy promotion. Behind this stance is a sense that Trump’s foreign policy is radically different from those held by previous American presidents.

When evaluating foreign policies of any country, it is important to go beyond their rhetoric and look at their actual behavior. A politician, a country or any actor can claim a commitment to a lofty goal. It does not mean they will allocate the resources necessary to realize such goals. The verbal commitment is cheap talk. The actual spending of resource is a costly signal. We focus on the later. It is true that Trump’s foreign policy does not follow traditional Republican principles such as the promotion of free-market capitalism, democracy and the liberal world order. Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is an eclectic mix of realism, protectionism and personal expediency.  Under this approach, any deal is judged acceptable so long as the US or Trump himself personally benefits more than the other negotiating party. 

Trump’s approach is also distinctive in that he is indifferent to the identity (read regime-type) of his negotiating partners. Liberal democracies are treated no different from authoritarian regimes. Long standing NATO allies (such as Germany, France) and trade partners (Canada, Mexico) have to pay their share or they risk US tariffs. Trump demonstrated a personal affinity for populist leaders (including Brazil’s Bolsonaro, India’s Modi, and Hungary’s Orban) and found common course with authoritarian leaders (notably Russia’s Putin, North Korea’s Kim and Saudi Arabia’s MBS). Authoritarian regimes, such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, that provide tangible benefits to the US (or to him personally) were given a free pass in human rights abuse and democratic backsliding.   

These imperatives of Trump do not consider the secondary consequences for the international order or the impact on the US credibility as an ally. The result is predictable. William Burns, a former Foreign Service Officer, and the President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, made the following memorable observation: 

For dictators, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving, a non-stop advertisement for Western self-dealing (Foreign Affairs 2019). 

This verdict is devastating for US prestige, what does it imply for democracy promotion?  The key is to recognize Trump’s foreign policy is transactional. Under Trump, every relationship of the US, regardless of whether they are with democracies or autocracies, has to offer value to the US in direct monetizable terms. Primary recipients, by definition, have lots to offer to aid donors. They, by virtue of their policy concession to the US, remain unsuitable targets for democracy promotion – just as my theory predicts. More importantly, secondary recipients, who have less leverage because they have little to offer to donors, remain the group that is more suitable for democracy promotion.  

It is plausible that recipients who have no direct monetary value to the US might fall beneath the attention of the White House. This may allow for aid agencies such as the US Agency International Development (USAID) to work behind the scenes and quietly push for liberalization.   

If, by way of a counterfactual, I had argued that there was a time when the US values democracy promotion above all, then the current Trump administration would present a severe challenge since they prioritize interests that are immediately monetizable.

Instead, I observe that the US is not that invested in democracy promotion, if doing so entails the sacrifice of other strategic or commercial interests. The Trump administration, as negative as it has been for democracy promotion, does not represent a fundamental break with the past behavior of the US (recall the distinction on costly signals); there was simply no Golden Age of democracy promotion to harken back to. A transactional US does not fundamentally alter a strategy of liberalization at the margins. This holds true even if Trump wins a second presidential term

The bad news is that “we the people” do not care enough about international democracy promotion to prioritize it over other policy concessions we might get. We have to recognize the political limits, such as they are, and work around them. The good news is that there is a way forward.  We can filter recipients by their leverage. This suggests a focus on secondary recipients as the path to democracy promotion. Liberalization at the Margins, as it were. 

Bann Seng Tan is an Assistant Professor at Ashoka University. His first book is on the strategic use of foreign aid in democracy promotion (

*The author retains copyright over this article

Issue 2

A Vote for America’s Soul

Since 2016, American politics and governance have been marked by a disappointing lack of trust in institutions, both international and domestic. Now, amidst the pandemic and during the run-up to the presidential elections, most of the world has been looking at the United States with a mix of shock, bewilderment and exasperation. Even as the diminution of America’s image and it’s power began before the pandemic, it has come into sharp focus this year. The country’s reputation seems to be in a free-fall. The perception of the USA seems to be that of a first-world country increasingly acting like a third-world country. A Pew Research Center poll of 13 countries (such as Japan, Australia, and Germany and Canada) found that its populations have been looking at the United States in its most negative light in many years. In all the countries surveyed, most respondents thought that the United States was botching its pandemic response.

As a candidate starting in 2015, President Donald Trump prioritized “America First”, in what he promised would be the “major and overriding theme” of his administration. By doing so, he pushed for nationalist, and anti-interventionist policies at the global stage. Nearly five years later, it is evident that we are now living through arguably one of the worst presidencies in modern history. For Trump, “America First” seems to stand for Trump first, America second, and Americans all alone. Starting with the global financial crisis, and exacerbated by the stewardship of Donald Trump, the USA evidently no longer occupies the position of the undisputed leader of the free world. International accords have been snubbed, policy agreements have been left unsigned all in the name of an America First policy. In 2017, the US pulled out of the 2015 Paris Climate deal, originally signed by 196 countries, to widespread condemnation. Donald Trump also weakened NATO by not publicly announcing USA’s compliance with Article 5 of it’s charter. His refusal to support the idea of collective defence commitment shook the base of the military alliance. The culmination of the last 4 years, compounded by the gross mismanagement of the pandemic, is that the status and power that American citizens have enjoyed is rapidly waning. Commensurately, the passport of the United States has lost the enviable status it once enjoyed, with a large swathe of countries disallowing American citizens. President Trump’s handling of the pandemic has automatically implicated US citizens with his racist and anti-science perspective. 

Within America itself, the presidency and Mr. Trump’s businesses have lost logical and moral separation. He makes money by visiting his own golf resort in Mar-a-Lago as a sitting President. The Trump International Hotel in Washington has become a meeting site for conservative politicians and lobbyists, for those currying favor in Republican halls of power. Donald Trump’s reluctance to release his Income Tax returns, and the subsequent leak by the New York Times paint a worrying picture of his financial liabilities, amounting to more than 420 million dollars. The President has reportedly only paid taxes in 11 out of the 15 years with available data. In 2016 and 2017, he only paid 750$ in Federal taxes. Additionally, The Justice Department has been transformed from a public affairs apparatus to a partisan instrument of the administration. William Barr, the Attorney General has taken strides to diminish the reputation of his department, one that is supposed to be a legitimate arm of the government that seeks public trust. As the commander-in-chief, Trump has also repeatedly disparaged the military and servicemen, calling them “sore losers”.

Worryingly, Mr. Trump refuses to commit to the American populace a peaceful transition of power after November 3rd, raising fears that he would mount an unprecedented effort to wield power after an electoral loss, leading the nation into unchartered territory at a historical moment defined by national and international tensions. Poll predictions of the race have remained steady, with Biden continuing to hold a significant lead. This has been sustained through all sorts of turbulent developments and drama that are characteristic of Donald Trump. 

Joe Biden’s electoral campaign has been centered around a referendum on Donald Trump. Through a 47-year long career as a Senator, Joe Biden has had a mixed record on issues, and has hardly been progressive. His redemption, however, comes with his willingness to consult, listen to and follow through with the advice of experts on issues ranging from healthcare and climate change, to policing reforms. The Democratic Party continues to deliver searing moral rebukes of Trump’s 4 year tenure in the White House, a stance that doesn’t seem far removed from the truth. Delivering to Donald Trump 8 years at the helm of the country will result in fundamentally altering the idea of America. His personal contempt for American values and institutions might convince Americans that democracy and checks of power do not work. The scary implications of a second Trump term justify this election as a test of America’s moral pulse, the trajectory of the country, and the world. 

The triumphs of globalization seem to be firmly in the past. Countries across the world are struggling with widening inequality and mercantilist impulses. Isolationist stances by leaders are becoming common. Democracy and its institutions seem to be in a decline across the world, and nationalism is apparently the flavour of the day. International institutions, the bastions of a coordinated global society are paralyzed by those initially championing them, by too much bureaucracy and evidently too little investment. All this is occurring as the clock of climate change ticks at an accelerating rate. To navigate this, the United States will need to move beyond the recklessness emblematic of this administration. America still has the world’s strongest military, the most influential economy, widest-ranging alliance system, and with it the most potent soft power in the world. However, a reinvention is needed to figure out America’s role in the world. That begins with the election of 2020, and recognizing it as a vote for the soul of the country.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

National Digital Health Mission & Privacy: Should we be worried?

On the 15th of August, Prime Minister Modi announced the new National Digital Health Mission and its pilot launch in six government territories. According to the policy draft, this new mission will radically change healthcare – lowering cost, increasing transparency, and bringing healthcare services even to the most remote corners of the country. However, ever since its announcement, many have been voicing privacy concerns. 

While some believe that this will be a revolutionary change to India’s Healthcare system, making all things healthcare easier than ever before, others argue that such a program is unnecessary and distracts us from real issues. According to the Indian Medical Association, such a plan may distract us from real problems such as the lack of sufficient and proper medical health structure. The association also said that strengthening public health infrastructure and addressing social determinants of health should be our priority right now, and the new plan will possibly divert funds from these issues, further jeopardizing public health care. The biggest concern, however, is confidentiality and privacy. 

Confidentiality and health privacy of patients is one of the most fundamental principles of Healthcare. This is not only to protect the patient from any kind of stigma and discrimination but also to establish trust between health facilitators and patients. Another important cause for this is the idea of self-ownership and bodily integrity; as rightful owners of our bodies, only we have the right to own our biological data and decide with whom our data is shared. The Digital health mission repeatedly emphasizes its stringent security and consent-based shared guidelines on the policy document but many still believe that the national health mission could pose a grave threat to the privacy and security of citizens. 

One reason behind this is the numerous privacy breaches of the past. With data as sensitive as this, how can we trust the government to believe the same will not happen again? The Aadhaar, for example, has been a subject of data leaks on far too many occasions, yet there is still no accountability from the government. Furthermore, if our Health IDs will be connected to our Aadhaar, the risks of our personal health data being accessed and misused by an unauthorized person or entity further increase. Similarly, with the Aarogya Setu app, there was no transparency on whether data collected was being deleted after patients recovered and how the app functions on the phone due to the code not being open source. 

Another area of concern is the possibility of our health data sold off to private companies. According to the National Health Data Management policy, anonymized, de-identified, and aggregated data may be made available to organizations (page 21). In the past year alone, there has been an explosion in the number of cases of big tech and pharma companies collecting personal health data. The NHS was found to be providing data to Amazon, Google bought the health records of 50 million Americans from insurance companies, and pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline paid DNA testing company $300 million for customer data. Big companies are chasing after our data, and with the implementation of the National Digital Health Mission, India might become a new market for getting such data. 

Big tech companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple are collecting health data for the use of building their own AI Health technologies. While these AI health technologies could prove to be highly useful and beneficial in the future, there are still concerns about whether these companies are using this data ethically. For example, last year when Google bought personal data from insurance companies and medical institutions in the USA, we found that even though those records were stripped of identifying details such as name, contact information. Google combined these records with the information Google already had from the database. This included all personal information collected form smartphones that could easily establish the identity of the patient’s medical records. This is not just true for big tech companies, research has shown that even anonymous information can be easily re-identified, even if data sold is anonymized and aggregated. How do we know that big tech companies will only use this research as they claim, and not for profit? Although tech companies say this data will only be used for research, an anonymous whistleblower has claimed Google does use this data to mine patient information, run analytics and then sell this data to third parties to be able to target healthcare ads based on the patient’s medical history. 

The truth is that there is no guarantee of how this data will be used. Although personalized healthcare ads might be a relatively light issue, we cannot even comprehend how this data could be used and what harm it could cause to us in the worst-case scenarios. The Cambridge Analytica scandal is one example of how our data was used against us to sway elections. With our sensitive health data involved and big tech companies beginning to work on AI based healthcare, the implications of possible data misuse could be even graver. 

Besides big tech companies, pharmaceutical and insurance companies are chasing after our medical data. Pharmaceutical companies have also been found to use digital record-keeping systems in hospitals to gather information and use it to sell drugs. There are also some findings that insurance companies are beginning to gather data on race, marital status, how much TV you watch, and even the size clothing you wear. With our entire medical history available, insurance companies would have more power than ever before, patients could be denied health coverage or be charged higher based on their medical history or even one’s genetic data. 

While it is true that digitizing the healthcare ecosystem in India could be beneficial for streamlining healthcare, the privacy concerns are difficult to ignore. Along with bringing transparency and accessibility, it also opens new doors for data misuse and possible stigma and discrimination. Without a data protection law in place and actual technological infrastructure to protect our data, the implementation of this project is dangerous. 

Aradhya is a psychology major at Ashoka University. In her free time you’ll find her reading books, drinking chai and cycling at odd hours.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

Issue 2

Give Me Liberty, COVID, or Cow Urine

Before 2020 the idea of the world coming together against a large-scale disaster was placed in the distant future, possibly once climate change had an apocalyptic effect. Natural disasters were far more localised, with only parts of the world being affected at any given point in time. The rest of the world stayed unaffected and in a position to provide support to affected areas. COVID-19 changed that. Suddenly, entire countries, and to some extent, the entire world had to come together to successfully control the disease. And we as a society proved our inability to do so. People around the globe continue to deny the dangers and at times even the existence of this virus which has already claimed more than 1 million lives.

Handling a disease at policy and personal levels requires a certain scientific temperament. One needs to accept advice from expert sources and follow safety measures. The basic prerequisite to this is believing in scientific evidence. In the current scenario, one can observe a lack of this temperament with too many Americans openly defying safety measures and even denying the existence of the virus. How do we understand Americans denying the virus even as their country has registered the highest number of COVID deaths in the world?

April 2020 saw widespread anti-lockdown protests across America. In Michigan, one of the hardest-hit states, protesters called their Governor a tyrant and compared her to Hitler.  Almost all the protests called for freedom, with slogans like “Give me Liberty or Give Me COVID-19” and “Freedom over fear”. Protestors ranged from those simply wanting to reopen businesses to COVID-deniers and anti-maskers. The general sentiment amongst the protestors was that stay-at-home orders and the closure of businesses were un-American because they did not respect individual choice and liberty and that the economy could not be threatened for public safety.

A common thread among these protestors was their political orientation — they were overwhelmingly conservative. Almost all the protests had Pro-Trump and MAGA posters, guns and confederate signs, and even anti-abortion signs. President Donald Trump praised these protestors, as people who “love our country”. 

Political Psychology may hold the answer to why these people underplaying the crisis were largely conservative. Decades of research on personality types has led to an understanding of conservatives as people who are fearful of change, of unfamiliar people and places. They try to maintain a sense of familiarity and comfort by following rules But by this logic conservatives should be more inclined to following government guidelines for COVID control.

Needless to say, there is a lot more nuance to the connection between our scientific temperament and political ideologies. A 2013 poll found that while liberals believed in the primacy of science during the policymaking process, conservatives were more moderate in their approach towards science. Additionally, there is a divide in the kinds of scientists either sides prefer and by extension the issues on which they will regard scientific advice as important and necessary. Liberals trust scientists involved in areas of regulation, like public health and environmental science while conservatives prefer those involved in economic production — food scientists and petroleum geologists for example. 

These nuances can help us better understand the reaction of conservatives towards COVID-19. ABC News has quoted a Michigan conservative leader as saying “bankrupting the state is not going to cure this virus.” Another protestor is quoted saying “…I don’t think that we need the Constitution suspended in order to be safe.” As we can infer from the studies, conservatives are inclined towards economic interests and are not very trusting of public health experts. They are thus more concerned with protecting their businesses, even when they acknowledge the threat posed by the virus. They are also inclined towards protecting the law and thus extremely protective of their constitutional rights, which they feel are being threatened by impositions of lockdown. It isn’t a case of dismissing science as much as it is a case of misplaced priorities.

The most important factor influencing conservatives is political propaganda. Conservative news outlets, politicians and most importantly President Donald Trump have been consistently underplaying or outrightly denying the virus, touting it as a Chinese or Democrat conspiracy to undermine Trump’s rule by crushing the economy. The virus has become a political issue rather than a scientific one. Human beings have a tendency to think emotionally more than logically. It has also been found that one can be persuaded of anything if the correct language is used, and if exposure to any kind of information is high. When one is exposed to such propaganda, one has an emotional instead of rational response to it and will be prone to believing it if it fits with one’s values. Since conservatives are being told that the virus is a conspiracy to undermine their leader, they believe this over their already weak scientific beliefs. Political propaganda and a desire to fit in has ultimately won over scientific temperament in conservatives.

It is interesting to examine India’s scientific temperament in its reaction to COVID. While American conservatives undermined the virus to align with and protect their political leaders and beliefs, Indians acted in a very different manner for similar ends. In recent times, India has become increasingly conservative with a rise in Hindu-nationalism. These ideas follow from the nationalist ideologies of the ruling political party, the BJP. PM Narendra Modi of the BJP has enjoyed immense popularity in recent years and has gained the support of a majority of conservative and right-wing groups in the country. 

Unlike Trump, Modi insisted on the dangers of the virus and the necessity for a nationwide lockdown. In his speech announcing the ‘Jantacurfew’ in India in March, he asserted, “one step outside can make way for coronavirus into your house” and “Experts are saying that ‘social distancing’ is the only way to tackle coronavirus”. His response created a sense of fear about the virus. His supporters followed his advice, but this had more to do with their trust in him than with their scientific temperament. 

This was apparent in the paranoia that followed. While Modi simply insisted on the importance of following safety guidelines, paranoia around the virus was at its peak despite the number of cases being at a few thousand. There were reports of people denying cremations to COVID patients and ostracising the ones that lived. Doctors and nurses were forcibly evicted by landlords. These behaviours continued even after the government issued notices asking the public to fight the disease and not the diseased. Unlike American conservatives whose fear was expressed through denying the virus, Indians reacted with heightened fear responses.

In addition to paranoia, scientific temperament was challenged by the government promoting traditional medicine. There were countless WhatsApp forwards about alternative medicines claiming approval from the WHO. These ranged from “Kadhas” (broths) of turmeric, honey, black pepper, cloves and every popular ingredient used by Indians to treat common colds. There were claims of methylxanthines, found in tea, declared as a cure by the Chinese doctor responsible for raising alarm about COVID early on in Wuhan. Using the WHO and names of chemicals helped legitimise these myths. Union AYUSH Minister Shripad Naik stated that COVID-19 can be treated by Ayurveda and that 60-70 percent of COVID cases in India were cured by Ayurveda, Unani and Siddha prescribed home remedies. He claimed that Ayurveda would boost one’s immunity and prevent the virus from attacking. A peculiar solution was found in cow urine, which was said to strengthen lymphocytes in the blood and be rich in antioxidants. The cow is considered holy in Hinduism and is being used as a violently nationalist symbol by the Indian right, with a leader claiming touching one helped cure her cancer. COVID gave these groups another opportunity to promote the cow. Thus followed cow urine-drinking parties organised by senior leaders of the Hindu Mahasabha. The consumption of cow urine surged to 6000 litres per day in the state of Gujarat.

Like the cow, Ayurveda and Indian home remedies have also been used as a political tool to claim the supremacy of Indian, specifically Hindu culture and tradition. The BJP and the Indian right have been trying to invoke pride in an ancient Indian history that is rooted in Hinduism, before the “invasion” by Mughals and the British, to increase nationalistic pride.

In the USA, scientific temperament was challenged by a preference for economic stability by conservatives, and by Republicans to protect the reputation of their leader Donald Trump as a saviour of the American economy. The Indian right used traditional medicine as a tool to battle coronavirus and further nationalistic sentiments. Whatever the end goal, the casualty was the same — the death of scientific temperament.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

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