• Hamsini Hariharan

What mass testing tells us about state capacity

This article first appeared in CNBC TV-18 on October 26, 2020 and can be accessed here.


At the slightest hint of a COVID-19 case, entire Chinese cities are being tested. Just this weekend, the city of Kashgar (the size of Kochi) in Xinjiang reported that all 7 million of its residents would be tested for the virus. In mid-October, over two weeks, the Chinese government tested all the residents of Qingdao, a coastal city in Shandong province whose population is comparable to Bangalore’s.

In June, all ten million Wuhan residents were tested, so were the 2.8 million residents of the smaller city of Mudanjiang near the Russian border after reports of imported infections.

China is testing so many people by using a batch testing method, but its reasons of doing so are tied to the narrative the government is portraying. It wants to demonstrate that it has the state capacity to tackle the disease to squash criticisms that it did not do enough to deal with the outbreak in its initial stages. Whether it is building a hospital in ten days or putting entire cities under lockdown effectively, or testing millions of people at a time, China wants the world to know that it can deal with any contingency.

One way to think of state capacity is to take Francis Fukuyama’s definition, which is “government’s ability to make and enforce rules, and to deliver services, regardless of whether that government is democratic or not.” State capacity has become a measure of how well governments function. In China, the state capacity to deliver on economic growth has become its barometer for legitimacy. By co-opting local governments, and strategic groups like entrepreneurs and multinationals, the Chinese government has linked state-power and state capacity, unlike anywhere else in the world. While it also uses this state capacity to stamp out opposition, it also recognises that aligning incentives is an integral part of being recognised as a “good government.”

Indian state capacity is difficult to categorise because the state can carry out relatively complex functions like organising elections and census, carrying out events like demonetization, or even running a huge, apolitical army. However, it cannot carry out relatively more straightforward tasks such as delivering essential public services efficiently.

Even with the pandemic, the Indian government’s response is lopsided and ineffective. As Pranay Kotasthane notes, “There’s no denying the large part played by India’s poor administrative capacity. This has meant a series of failures - lack of a wider consultation before announcing the lockdown, poor data analysis and response mechanism, patchy coordination between union and states, a bungling bureaucracy that floods us with circulars, clarifications and retractions, and the usual distrust of seeking help from the private sector in managing the response.” While the number of coronavirus cases is finally falling, this may be a temporary lull considering the upcoming festival season and winter.

Both the Chinese and Indian governments have made mistakes during the pandemic. Pratap Bhanu Mehta describes the contrast between the two countries, “India has a representative government that is not responsive. China has a government that, by virtue of not being representative has had to try harder to be responsive.”

As politicians promised a free vaccine to all people in election-states like Bihar and Tamil Nadu, the Chinese government announced that it expects to produce 610 million vaccine doses by the end of the year. This is the difference between the two states' capacities that are being driven home during the pandemic.