How COVID-19 exposed world leaders
The global spread of COVID-19 produced deleterious effects on the masses and exposed the performance of many world leaders. The disease posed a complex set of challenges, making governments impose restrictive regimes on the movement of people, secluding infected individuals, and shutting down business activities. Not all administrations took the pandemic seriously, however, by employing a well-thought-out strategy to work toward its eradication.
Broadly speaking, national leaders can be grouped into three categories in terms of their handling of the crisis. In the first one, leaders decided to take the bull by the horns, addressing the calamity with the cooperation of their people. This required high quality leadership along with a significant level of trust between governments and their people. Many of the countries that managed to pull off the challenge had relatively small populations and were surrounded by water. New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea and the Scandinavian countries largely fall into this category.
The exception, however, is China. Despite its population density, it was able to control the spread of the pandemic through exceptional self-discipline and cooperative spirit exercised by its citizens.
The second category includes the countries that were reactive in their approach and managed to control or minimize the spread the disease after experiencing initial setbacks. Saudi Arabia and Pakistan are among these states, and so are the United Arab Emirates, Indonesia, Malaysia and a few other states. The encouraging aspect in this category is that governments at some point realized the significance of disciplining their populations. That helped in flattening the curve and controlling the virus, albeit at a cost.
On the other extreme are countries such as the United States, Brazil and India, which have huge populations and where leaders remained in a state of denial while facing the pandemic. They are today the engines of the virus with their people its victims in large numbers.
What does it say of these leaders, and what were they trying to accomplish by taking such a relaxed approach? It is obvious that they did not take the advice of medical experts seriously and were dictated by narrow ambitions of focusing on the economy by maintaining an environment of business as usual.
Furthermore, there was a common thread running in their policies: The pursuit of their immediate agenda even if it produced negative effects in the long run. For them, quick economic returns and short term political gains remained the foremost priority. They failed in reviving their economies and are now paying a heavy price since the infection rates are rising in their countries along with the number of related deaths.
Let me add, however, that there were certain distinct variations in the approach of the leaders in these three countries, though they were all looking for quick solutions and lives did not seem to take priority for them over pursuit of economic continuity and growth: US President Donald Trump has set his eyes on the next presidential elections in November this year; Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is promoting the interest of his Hindu nationalist base; and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is ignoring serious medical advice to promote his faulty economic policies while making his country face the worst effects of the pandemic.
If the spread of the virus has to be brought under control, leaders will have to win the confidence of their people and be sensitive to their sentiments. Divisive politics in these circumstances will only lead to rapid spread of the pandemic.
As a recent write-up aptly noted: “Of the countries with the most coronavirus cases globally, all of the top four have right wing leaders who espouse populist or anti-science views.” President Trump’s frequent remarks regarding the coronavirus and his policy to combat it confirm this assessment. The same thing can also be said about the leaders of Brazil and India.
The article also pointed out that among the countries reporting maximum number of cases globally, six out of seven are middle-income states and emerging markets. If they fail to arrest the spread of the virus, their economies will suffer and their people will slide back into poverty. In fact, the impact of the disease will be so drastic that it will take them years to recover.
Apart from the economic and political consequences, the disease may leave long-term psychological effects on societies based on the approaches their leaders took while dealing with the virus. Interestingly, the way individuals have been processing the pandemic is also unique. As someone remarked, “The storm is the same but the boats are different.”
Some people have been unfortunate and suffered grief. Some have gone through stressful situations related to loss of loved ones and unfulfilled aspirations such as going abroad for education or performing Hajj. The disease has also caused physical disconnection and an inability to touch other humans which obviously goes against human nature.
Do most national leaders realize the impact of the trauma many of their citizens are experiencing? If the spread of the virus has to be brought under control, leaders will have to win the confidence of their people and be sensitive to their sentiments. Divisive politics in these circumstances will only lead to rapid spread of the pandemic.
– Talat Masood is a retired Lieutenant General from Pakistan Army and an eminent scholar on national security and political issues.
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