Coronavirus – Health and Governance Issues

Rewriting the social contract to deal with the pandemic


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Gini coefficient

Mains level : Paper 2- Governance in pandemic, role of the government,

The article examines the theoretical basis on which the governments exercise power. That basis is encapsulated in the ‘social contract theory’. The role of government, however, came under the scanner in the pandemic in which the impact of pandemic was different for the different people.

Social contract theory: Then and now

  • In the course of evolution, formed the concept of social groups and resultant rules they would abide by.
  • This is the most rudimentary form of what is known as the ‘social contract theory’.
  • 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.
  • Modern society and modern governments also use the social contract theory to claim legitimacy for their actions.
  • The social contract comprises people agreeing to live as one under common laws and in enforcing those common laws justly.

Modern-day governments’ approach

  • Modern-day governments fundamental credo is that society is best served if a government takes on an executive or sovereign power, with the consent of the people.
  • Governments also 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.

Governments role in pandemic and social contract

  • The novel coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the falsity of this image.
  • Access to information about this pandemic has not been equal.
  • Access to resources to avoid the disease has not been equal.
  • And, of course, access to treatment has not been equal.
  • All this led to uneven impact of the pandemic on people belonging to the different strata of the society.

Inequality and the impact of pandemic

  •  All societies have some measure of inequality.
  • However, in deeply unequal societies, where the Gini Coefficient exceeds 0.4, for instance, different strata of society will have very different needs to deal with a crisis of this nature.
  • We have seen societies with lower Gini Coefficients deal with the crisis far better.
  • This is because a uniform approach works perfectly when society is perfectly equal.

Centralised or decentralised approach: Which is better to deal with pandemic?

  • The social contract which imbues a centralised sovereign with overreaching powers has clearly failed on this occasion.
  • The centralised sovereign will work well against a mighty external aggressor, but not against a microscopic pathogen.
  • What is required is not just a decentralised approach but also a state which is sensitive.

Consider the question “The COVID pandemic has impacted the people with varying intensity and its impact was more on societies with more inequality. This highlights the centrality of the government. Critically examine.”


The novel coronavirus cannot be defeated by a centralised government. COVID-19 can only be defeated by an empowered populace. The social contract requires to be rewritten. It does not require anything drastic such as a revolution or anarchy. Rather, it only needs fundamental introspection and rethinking by the governing classes including bureaucrats.


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