Gasping For Breath: Oxygen for Living Governance Systems

Rajesh Tandon

Human life depends on ‘breathing in’ oxygen continuously and seamlessly. Reduction in supply of oxygen from the external environment ‘chokes’ breathing, and cripples human life. All life requires a continuous inflow of oxygen to sustain and develop. Life is severely affected by not just the quantum of supply of oxygen, but also its purity. Pollution in the surrounding air obstructs inflow of required oxygen for a ‘healthy’ life.

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According to systems theory, all organisations, communities and societies are living systems. They ‘breathe in’ energy and information from their environment, utilize the same for sustenance and growth. All living systems, therefore, require regular information and feedback from their environment to remain and grow as ‘living’ systems. Feedback of information about their actions and reactions is critical for their continued ‘health’ as living systems.

A man with a breathing problem receives oxygen support for free inside his car at a Gurudwara (Sikh temple), amidst the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, India, April 24, 2021. Picture taken April 24, 2021. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Governance institutions can thus also be viewed as living systems. Effective governance of organisations, communities and societies requires functioning as a living system, drawing energy and information from its environment. This is where authentic, timely and regular information flow from the environment to the governance nodes becomes critical for its effective and sustained functioning.

Laws of thermodynamics also teach us that entropy is inevitable when energy escapes the system. Over time, disruptions from outside the living system speed up entropy, thereby infusing chaos and disorder in the functioning of living systems. Like entropy, living systems face periodic uncertainties, disruptions and disorder. Their capacity to sustain effective ‘living’ is linked to their ‘inhaling’ of oxygen from the environment. Regular, timely and authentic information forms the feedback loop for the continued effectiveness of living systems.

The crisis of governance responsible for current distress, disorder and chaos in responding to the second wave of coronavirus infections in India can be understood from this lens of living systems. Information about the infections, its impacts on different communities and the status of health systems to respond did not become available to governance nodes in Delhi, and beyond. Several channels of feedback from the ground were denied, blocked, silenced or harassed over the past weeks.

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When health care professionals shared information about ‘new’ variants, it was dismissed as ‘unproven’. When families began to complain about shortage of beds for infected persons in hospitals, they were told that information is already in public domain, on digital platforms or through helplines. When families of patients began to call hospitals and telephone helplines, the phones were always busy or not picked up. When hospitals began to ask for more and regular supply of oxygen, they were ‘assured’ it is on the way. When loved ones of persons who died because of lack of oxygen started speaking on social media, they were told not to spread rumours.

As a consequence, the capacity of governance nodes in managing the Covid crisis in Delhi (and India) has been severely constrained due to the absence of required levels of ‘oxygen’ of authentic information and feedback about ground realities in each locality and community. Because of ‘pollution’ created through a culture of ‘blaming the victim’ and perpetual denial, whatever information/feedback ‘oxygen’ is available is also of poor quality. So mis-information, dis-information, no information has blocked the feedback loop of fresh, pure ‘oxygen’ essential for ‘breathing’ life into governance systems responsible for the health of its citizens.

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In such a situation, the theory of living systems teaches us that survival and growth of living organisms can be ‘repaired’ through fresh supply of pure ‘oxygen’ of information and feedback from all parts of its environment…local, immediate and distant. If governance of present crisis of corona pandemic in India is to be ‘repaired’, its capacity to ‘procure cylinders of pure oxygen’ through listening, valuing and attending to information and feedback from the environment….(from all health care staff, hospitals, families, patients, journalists, local civic leaders, officials from all parts of the country and beyond)…must be immediately enhanced. Blockades by ‘political valves’ that obstruct easy flow of information/feedback to governance nodes must be cleaned up quickly so that ‘oxygen’ can re-start to flow for energizing the living system of governance of the pandemic.

The widespread ‘air pollution’ fueled through a ‘culture of up-manship & denial’ systematically unleashed over the past years needs to be immediately arrested through ‘filters based on humanistic technology’, historically readily available in our many local communities around the country.

These measures may enhance the effectiveness of living governance system responsible for dealing with the pandemic provided its nodes are willing to take expert advice seriously. Present ‘breathlessness’ of governance nodes responsible for the health of Indian citizens, therefore, requires sustained, regular and uninterrupted supply of ‘trains of oxygen’ of information and feedback from the ground up. Similar to unclogging of ‘oxygen wagons’ near railway stations, how is it ensured that such fresh supply of informational oxygen does not ‘choke’ the governance node itself?

This article first appeared on Times of India: Oxygen for living governance systems, on April 30, 2021.

About the Author

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Dr Rajesh Tandon, Founder President, PRIA, New Delhi

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