Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] COVID-19 and Social Contract Theory

The pandemic crisis can be overcome only when a state is sensitive, has decentralised steps and ensures empowerment of the common people.
By IASToppers
July 09, 2020


  • Introduction
  • Finding cause
  • Social contract theory
  • Consolidating power
  • The case of two Indias
  • Impacts in an unequal society
  • Limitations of the social contract
  • Way Ahead

COVID-19 and Social Contract Theory

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The coronavirus pandemic has affected the lives of many and its impact goes far beyond the disease itself. Governments across the world have dealt with the problem in different ways. Some small countries have claimed victory in containing the impact of the disease, but their claim appears to be myopic; the fact is that these countries are affluent, and have sealed their boundaries.

Finding cause:

  • The world does not seem to have answers to many of the problems thrown up by the epidemic, especially those faced by the poorest of the poor.
  • Is the pandemic’s impact the result of the failure of individual governments?
  • Or is it due to the failure of the bipolar ruler-and-ruled dynamic of governance structures across the world?

Social contract theory:

  • Mankind’s ancestors, in the course of evolution, formed the concept of social groups and resultant rules they would abide by.
  • This is known as the social contract theory.
  • The social contract comprises two distinct agreements:
  • people agreed to establish society by collectively and reciprocally renouncing the rights they had against one another in unbridled nature.
  • They agreed to confer upon one (or more) among them, the authority and power to enforce the initial contract.
  • Thus social contract comprises people agreeing to live as one under common laws and in enforcing those common laws justly.
  • When monarchies and empires prevailed, it was easy to understand a social contract.
  • But democratically elected governments have found it more difficult to derive the same legitimacy.

Consolidating power:

  • Modern society and modern governments also use the social contract theory to claim legitimacy for their actions.
  • Their fundamental credo is that society is best served if a government or other type of institution takes on the executive or sovereign power, with the consent of the people.
  • We have seen governments go still further and use the power democratically invested in them to decide what is in the best interest of the people.
  • Thus, there is a bending of individual free will towards the collective will.
  • So, the social contract is being used by modern governments to justify greater aggrandisement of power in the hands of the sovereign, under the garb of the public good.

The case of two Indias:

  • The COVID-19 pandemic throws light on inequality in the country.
  • Example: The Access to information about this pandemic, access to resources to avoid the disease and access to treatment has not been equal.
  • First India observes social distancing, buys its groceries and provisions by observing all precautions and largely obeys governmental directives about COVID-19 prevention.
  • The second crowds’ railway terminals to travel long distances, to get back to native towns, and when that fails, decides to resort to the drastic step of even walking those hundreds of kilometres, defying all governmental directives.
  • It is for second India that the impact of COVID-19 has hit hardest and the impact has nearly nothing to do with the disease.
  • Social distancing was a stirring phrase and call for who are privileged, but there were the others for whom mandated distance of separation of 6 feet was and still is an impossibility; an abstract concept.

Impacts in an unequal society:

  • Professor H.L.A. Hart once said, “freedom (the absence of coercion) can be valueless to those victims of unrestricted competition too poor to make use of it; so it will be pedantic to point out to them that though starving they are free”.
  • The pandemic-caused crisis has shone a light on how governmental methods to deal with a crisis largely come to the aid of only those with a voice.
  • All societies have some measure of inequality. Deeply unequal societies (where the Gini Coefficient exceeds 0.4) have different strata of society with very different needs to deal with a crisis of this nature.
  • Societies with lower Gini Coefficients deal with the crisis far better because a uniform approach works perfectly when society is perfectly equal.

Limitations of the social contract:

  • In moments of crisis, people look to the state for guidance and taking them to safety.
  • This has led to some sections of society seeking a strong response from a strong leader.
  • But, when the source of power in an unequal society is centralised, the response to the crisis will result in unequal relief to different strata of society.
  • The more unequal the society, the more decentralised the response should be.
  • The social contract which imbues a centralised sovereign with overreaching powers has failed on this occasion and will continue to fail every time a similar challenge is posed.
  • The centralised sovereign will work well against a mighty external aggressor, but not against a microscopic pathogen.

Way Ahead:

  • To deal with the situation, there is a need for a decentralised approach.
  • It requires a state which is sensitive and responds not only to the needs of those who cry out for help but also meets the requirements of those who are voiceless.
  • Thomas Hobbes described the mighty state as a Leviathan which would rule by the will of the majority.
  • He argued that once a ruler is chosen, citizens lose all rights except those the ruler may find it expedient to grant.
  • While no elected government would publicly espouse such a position, it is the unwritten premise underlying every rule and diktat which is issued.
  • The Leviathan state has its uses in times of war or a fight against terrorism, but it cannot defeat the novel coronavirus.
  • COVID-19 can only be defeated by an empowered populace and needs fundamental introspection and rethinking by the governing classes including bureaucrats.
Mains 2020 Editorial Notes

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