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India in Transition

Securitizing Health and Suppressing Democracy: COVID-19 Policy Measures and Political Implications

Vivek N. D.
August 30, 2021

On March 24, 2020, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement about the nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the four-month-old sit-in protest site in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, where dadis and nanis, children, students, and concerned citizens challenged India’s controversial Citizenship Amendment Act and National Register of Citizens, was bulldozed by the Delhi police. The Shaheen Bagh protest was the focal point of the citizenship law demonstrations across India. What was unique about the police crackdown was that it was ostensibly done as a precaution to the COVID-19 pandemic, which had infected at least 524 people across India at that time. In this instance, the State used the pandemic as justification to clamp down on dissenting forces. Police brutality in multiple states during the lockdown, highlighted in the media by graphic videos of police assaulting individuals in response to violations of safety protocols, lead to at least 15 deaths.

To be fair, India was not alone in adopting stringent measures on protesting citizens. Kenya, South Africa, and the Philippines had also used similar methods. The issue at hand was that India, touted as the “world’s largest democracy,” seemed to have gone back on its democratic principles through securitization measures that were largely unquestioned. In the second wave, these securitization measures led to the arrests of journalists exposing data inconsistencies in the statistics collected by the State on the number of infections, arrests of students and other activists, and threats meted out to prominent intellectuals. As it turned out, the pandemic provided the State a ready excuse to impinge on democratic processes with little resistance; a state of exception in requiring such measures, seemingly, for the good of the citizens.

Defining Securitization   
Securitization refers to the process by which a certain issue is characterized as an existential threat, thus framing it as a security issue, leading the State to enact extraordinary policy responses that bypass usual democratic protocols. To be sure, the general populace would not agree to the enactment of such measures under normal circumstances. Securitization has been conceptualized by Barry Buzan, Ole Wæver, and Jaap de Wilde in their seminal work, Security: A New Framework for Analysis (1998) as the existence of a threat which precludes and justifies “actions outside the normal bounds of political procedure.”

State Responses and “Securitizing” of Health
The securitizing of health in states across India has been in line with administrative directives from the union government. Restrictive and punitive measures adopted by states include the imposition of various fines for flouting guidelines aimed at reducing COVID-19 spread rate among individuals. The University of Oxford’s COVID-19 Government Response Tracker termed India’s lockdown among the strictest in terms of its stringency index. Along with the provision of open data by states, the press and the media are a central pillar in a democracy—its role in the communication of administrative directives and other guidelines to the public is critical and necessary, especially during a health crisis.

In its searing report, “India: Media’s Crackdown During COVID-19 Lockdown,” the New Delhi-based human rights advocacy organization, Rights & Risks Analysis Group, was very critical of the State’s use of excessive force in clamping down on the media during the lockdown and beyond. 55 journalists faced legal notices, arrests, and even assault and intimidation for reporting on COVID-19 and exercising their freedom of opinion and expression.

Various states invoked the colonial era Epidemic Diseases Act (EDA) 1897 to curb all non-essential public movement, which gives full protection to state officials acting under the EDA. Section 4 mentions, “No suit or other legal proceeding shall lie against any person for anything done or in good faith intended to be done under this Act.” In early August 2020, the Jharkhand state government enacted the Jharkhand Contagious Disease Ordinance 2020. It laid down a jail term of up to two years and a fine of up to Rs. 100,000 for flouting safety protocols. In a country where 83 percent of the workforce is in the informal sector, these punitive measures adversely affect those without socioeconomic safeguards.

With India’s “second wave” starting in April 2021, almost all states reinstated a curfew under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, with varying times for the curfew and often with confusing and contrary instructions on what qualifies as movement for essential services. Movement of individuals between states required clearance through a quagmire of testing and tracing apps, including the union government’s Aarogya Setu smartphone app, as well as other apps developed by individual states and district and municipal authorities. Individual movement between districts in various states was also barred. Citizens were forced to negotiate directives that constantly changed, including securing special COVID-19 e-passes from the police.

Management of public perception continued to be a prime concern of the governments. In the second wave, the union, as well as state governments, especially Uttar Pradesh, took to punitive orders and legal threats to dissuade people from using social media to seek health care and medicines. They deemed such activity as creating panic and tarnishing the image of the State.

Ruse for Techno-Policing
Governments across states have also adopted digital technology and surveillance measures to manage the COVID-19 situation—in clear violation of the current legal framework—without examining local socioeconomic realities. One of the digital tracking and tracing tools included the Aarogya Setu smartphone app developed by the National Informatics Centre under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. Various states developed apps for use in their respective states and languages. A minimum of 62 apps, developed by little known private IT firms, have been launched by official bodies such as the union and state governments, government-run health agencies, municipal authorities, and the police. None of the apps have clear guidelines on how the issue of individuals’ privacy and the collection of information through the apps will be handled. Aarogya Setu, touted as a “community-driven contact tracing app,” collects data on gender, age, and personal address to calculate the user’s risk of  contracting COVID-19 from other users in the vicinity. The data is then analyzed on a separate platform, Integrated Hotspot Analysis System, which is under the control of the union government, and shared with state and district authorities in anonymized formats. However, as mobile numbers are shared with authorities for contact tracing, privacy cannot be maintained and can be shared with other agencies such as the police, intelligence agencies, or other private entities for commercial purposes.

With India’s Personal Data Protection and Privacy laws yet to be enacted, the Aarogya Setu app has faced strong criticism on a number of counts. These include accountability of the app-makers (given the app was developed through a public-private initiative with volunteers whose affiliations have not been made public), compulsory installment of the app for air/rail travel, and the huge costs incurred without any substantial effects in mitigating the pandemic. 

Despites assurances by the government that the app will not be used after the pandemic, it could also be pushed as a blueprint to set up the National Digital Health Mission to digitize health data on a national scale. This brings with it a variety of privacy issues and ethical challenges in providing and accessing health care. Under the guise of securitization, the government’s large-scale collection of health data of populations without proper safeguards and oversight could become a normal feature of India’s democracy. Other tools to track people’s movements include drones, CCTV footage, and facial recognition software that alerts police on the movements of individuals who disregard quarantine protocols. Tragically, this health emergency is giving rise to the State’s abuse of power in the deploying of measures and technological tools with minimum levels of transparency or legal safeguards.

India’s second COVID-19 wave has literally left the nation breathless for lack of oxygen, life-saving medicines, and the absence of a comprehensive public health policy. It’s clear that during India’s first wave, when union and state governments had the opportunity to build health care resources, they were, instead, bent on securitizing health and stifling democracy. With the public health sector historically being an underfunded and understaffed non-priority, the true priorities of a dominating union government and the choices of India’s leaders indicate a structural and long term effect when it comes to this pandemic: risk the lives of countless citizens while normalizing extreme measures that shirk democratic values.

Vivek N. D. is an Assistant Professor at the School of Law, Mahindra University, Hyderabad, where he teaches Politics and Public Policy.

India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI.

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