Our present is tomorrow’s history. As such, it deserves equal scrutiny.
Leaders around the world have long relied on misinformation to hold onto their power. This is maintained by encouraging relative ignorance among the people concerning their criticisms of their leaders. This past week, India felt the effects of leaving the populace in the dark as politicians placed efforts to maintain their public images over acknowledging their mistakes and offering aid to help fight the rise of COVID-19 cases.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi prematurely lifted lockdowns to supposedly support the people as their lives return to normalcy. But rather than holding himself responsible for underestimating the virulence of the coronavirus, he attempted to block efforts at public discourse. As COVID-19 cases started to rise in April, the leader of the world’s largest democracy chose to prioritize a false image of success and stability. To this end, social media executives allowed Modi to take free reign over which posts to allow and which to ban on platforms such as Twitter. Instead of recognizing the issue and proactively trying to increase access to equipment such as oxygen tanks and ventilators, he attempted to cover up any reporting on the failures of India to stall the spread of COVID-19. Modi waited for days as deaths piled up and hospital beds reached maximum occupancy. Only when beds became deathbeds did he decide to contact other world leaders like President Biden for support. A man so motivated to maintain his image among the people abandoned this very proactivity when those who propped him up became sick.
This failure is highly reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s attempt to cover up the Chernobyl disaster which happened exactly 35 years ago this week. In Chernobyl, evacuations due to a nuclear leak and subsequent explosions were stalled by more than 12 hours as the government focused on controlling coverage of the incident. Rather than deploying all efforts to control actual damage in a city of 50,000 after exposure to radioactive material, good press took precedence.
Such practices of placing media coverage over addressal of policy have left marks in other aspects of world politics such as oppression. Rather than focusing efforts on the safety of their people from disease and oppression, via preventative and curative tactics, they hoped to ignore the people’s plight. This week alone we saw two separate instances where Israel and Colombia attempted to cover up horrid policies until they became too large to keep hidden. Only after hundreds of Palestinians were terrorized and faced evictions did Israel propose discussions, though they have promised no action. Only after Colombians were enlightened on taxation, did the government stall tax hikes, addressing only one of several concerns. From the colonization of Palestinian homes in Sheikh Jarrah to tax-policies in Bogota, the people suffered first, the government acted second.
Some blame the constituents of these leaders for bolstering propaganda machines, but shifting blame like this only further allows these heads of state to shirk responsibilities for these grave events. The people never voted for disaster to turn their lives upside down. So when tragedy or change does strike, it is the responsibility of public servants to state the truth and nothing but the truth. Positive public opinion should be earned via political transparency and care for the people, not by active cover-ups.
Art by Angela Liang for the UC San Diego Guardian.