Countries around the world have undertaken a wide range of strategies to halt the spread of COVID-19 and control the economic fallout left in its wake. Rural areas of developing countries pose particular difficulties for developing and implementing effective responses owing to underdeveloped health infrastructure, uneven state capacity for infection control, and endemic poverty. This paper makes the case for the critical role of local governance in coordinating pandemic response by examining how state authorities are attempting to bridge the gap between the need for rapid, vigorous response to the pandemic and local realities in three Indian states – Rajasthan, Odisha, and Kerala. Through a combination of interviews with mid and low-level bureaucrats and a review of policy documents, we show how the urgency of COVID-19 response has galvanized new kinds of cross-sectoral and multi-scalar interaction between administrative units involved in coordinating responses, as local governments have assumed central responsibility in the implementation of disease control and social security mechanisms. Evidence from Kerala in particular suggests that the state’s long term investment in democratic local government and arrangements for incorporating women within grassroots state functions (through its Kudumbashree program) has built a high degree of public trust and cooperation with state actors, while local authorities embrace an ethic of care in the implementation of state responses. These observations, from the early months of the pandemic in South Asia, can serve as a foundation for future studies of how existing institutional arrangements and their histories pattern the long-term success of disease control and livelihood support as the pandemic proceeds. Governance, we argue, will be as important to understanding the trajectory of COVID-19 impacts and recovery as biology, demography, and economy.

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