LEADERSHIP IN A TIME OF CONTAGION
The need for effective political leadership heightens during a national crisis. Citizens expect their governments to rise to the challenge and make wise choices. This puts the political judgments of presidents and prime ministers under the spotlight. The populace expects them to provide concrete solutions to serious threats.
The once-in-a-century COVID-19 pandemic has forced leaders to make diabolical choices, creating a watershed moment in politics. According to one academic, not since the height of the Cold War have the stakes been higher. Governments are making finely-balanced decisions which represent stark trade-offs between life, death and the economy.
This burden weighs heavily on political leaders and, for many, it represents their ultimate leadership challenge. Decisions need to be made rapidly and if you get it wrong, you will negatively impact the lives and livelihoods of millions of your fellow citizens. The COVID-19 mega-crisis has tested the mettle of all world leaders and some have failed abysmally.
Every drama needs at least one villain and four political strongmen stand out for special condemnation. The autocratic leaders of Brazil, Belarus, Nicaragua and Turkmenistan denied the threat that the coronavirus posed to their nations. This resulted in them being dubbed the “Ostrich Alliance” by a Brazilian professor of international relations due to their head-in-the-sand attitude.
As the dreaded COVID-19 ripped across the world, these shameful presidents showed disdain for coronavirus science and failed to take defensive measures against the pandemic. The coronavirus crisis has laid bare their collective incompetence with their flawed responses unnecessarily killing many of their respective citizens.
Standing above these four ostrich leaders is our archvillain, Donald Trump, who has also refused to take the pandemic seriously. He was castigated for his dismissive early response to the health warnings about an imminent threat. Trump’s contempt for science is no secret and his failure to implement a nationwide mitigation strategy has cost his nation dearly.
The US has the ignominious honour of having the world’s highest COVID-19 infection rate with over two million confirmed cases. As of this writing, over 114,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 and the death toll is expected to rise. These tragic figures are the direct result of Trump underestimating the virus’ contagion and deadliness.
While no one expected inspired leadership from the president, his disastrous handling of the crisis has put him in a league of his own. His presidency has turned deadly with many of his citizens dying needlessly due to his breathtaking denial and delay. Trump’s irresponsibility is almost criminal with his erratic behaviour proving that he is clearly out of his depth.
Three other heads of government have not covered themselves in glory in response to the threat. Mexico’s President, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, urged Mexicans to “live life as normal”. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo peddled nonsense about “herbal remedies”. Meanwhile, Philippines’ President, Rodrigo Duterte, issued orders to kill (“shoot them dead”) quarantine violators.
Not surprisingly, the lack of transparency displayed by China has generated much disquiet. The Chinese government is accused of acting too slowly during the early stages of the outbreak. China was subsequently praised by authorities for implementing unprecedented measures including quarantining the entire city of Wuhan to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
European leaders do not escape criticism. In the grimmest of league tables, Britain has the second highest rate of COVID-19 deaths in the world while Italy comes in fourth. Boris Johnson and Giuseppe Conte both botched their initial responses. Johnson gave the virus insufficient attention as he was focussed on Brexit while Conte underestimated the potential spread of the virus.
It is instructive to note that many of the world’s inept leaders are populist politicians. According to two Australian academics, populist leaders – such as Donald Trump in America, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Joko Widodo in Indonesia – have an incentive to mobilise fake news and information as:
… they are not capable of adopting evidence-based deliberation as a strategy. Their ignorance of science reaches a point where truth and lies have no clear boundaries. In catastrophes, the use of such ambiguity to promote a political agenda is magnified. … Populist governments are infamous for “silencing” science. This is because evidence-based policy is not compatible with their approach to public policy.
With regard to Sweden, its unique response to the novel coronavirus has been greeted with mixed reactions. Under the leadership of prime minister, Stefan Löfven, the Swedish government has taken a hands-off approach to managing the pandemic. Rather than declare a lockdown, Sweden asked its citizens to practice social distancing on a mostly voluntary basis while keeping schools, restaurants and most businesses open.
Swedish authorities have not officially declared that herd immunity (when more than 60 per cent of the population has had the virus) is their underlying goal. But many believe that augmenting immunity is part of the government’s strategy. With one of the highest COVID-19 mortality rates in the world, Sweden has been accused of playing Russian-roulette with citizens’ lives.
While the pandemic brought out the worst in some leaders, it provided a stage for many others to shine. This is particularly the case for the Global First Movers Group. This elite club consists of an eclectic group of countries – Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Denmark, Norway, Greece, the Czech Republic, Israel and Singapore – that adopted a “go hard and go early” strategy to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The club is led by Austria and all members have done exceptionally well in suppressing the coronavirus outbreak. Austria is one of the standout countries in dealing with the virus. Singapore too won plaudits for its aggressive testing and tracing campaign. The efforts of Australia and New Zealand have also been hailed with both nations recording a case-fatality rate below 1.5 per cent.
Another way to look at the effectiveness of political leadership during the pandemic is through the lens of gender. It is claimed that female leaders around the world rose to the occasion by acting boldly and swiftly in making the unpopular call to shut down life as we knew it. A Forbes article titled – What Do Countries With The Best Coronavirus Responses Have in Common? Women Leaders – provides a precis of how women have managed the crisis with aplomb. Forbes noted:
Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, stood up early and calmly told her countrymen that this was a serious bug that would infect up to 70% of the population. …
Among the first and the fastest responses was from Tsai Ing-wen in Taiwan. …
Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand was early to lockdown and crystal clear on the maximum level of alert she was putting the country under – and why. …
Iceland, under the leadership of Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, is offering free coronavirus testing to all its citizens, and will become a key case study in the true spread and fatality rates of COVID-19. …
Sanna Marin became the world’s youngest head of state when she was elected last December in Finland. It took a millennial leader to spearhead using social media influencers as key agents in battling the coronavirus crisis. …
Norway’s Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, had the innovative idea of using television to talk directly to her country’s children.
Around 10 per cent of countries are led by women who preside over just four per cent of the global population. While the performance of countries with a female head of state is a very small category, it can be safely suggested that their performance has been quite positive. In the words of The Guardian, “Plenty of countries with male leaders have done well. But few with female leaders have done badly”.
It is axiomatic that not all heads of state have passed the COVID-19 crisis management test. The pandemic has exposed feeble leadership among world leaders with the US paying the highest price for its gross negligence. A combination of slow starts and mixed messages have seen many leaders erode trust and unleash unrest.
No wonder the coronavirus leadership test has come back negative for some.
Paul J. Thomas
Chief Executive Officer