COVID-19 and Governance

In your own language

Eduardo del Buey
Photo: Afp
La Jornada Maya

Wednesday March 25, 2020

For the foreseeable future, most of us will concentrate on surviving the COVID19 pandemic and restructuring our lives – some for a time and others for always.

Yet, there will come a time when we will all engage in lessons learned, and many leaders and institutions will come out looking terrible.

From a leadership point of view, the worst off will be Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has impressed few.

Its Director General has faced much criticism for coming on board too late and appearing to be divorced from reality. According to the Foreign Policy edition of February 15, 2020, “It (the pandemic) has spilled over onto WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has faced sharp criticism—even a recall petition—for his meetings with Xi and other Chinese leaders and his apparent reluctance to declare the outbreak a global health emergency”.

U.N. agencies can argue that they are limited by the mandate that they obtain from member states. But this does not absolve their leaders from the responsibility for managing crises, exercising strong leadership in the face of political pressure from member states, and calling them out when they lie or obfuscate, as the Chinese did when the pandemic broke out.

A strong multilateral system must be empowered to manage crises that endanger all of humanity regardless of their source and despite national interests or the personal interests of one or more leaders.

If the international system is to function for the benefit of all, national leaders must balance their personal and national interests with the interests of humanity and strengthen the ability of multilateral institutions to manage crises effectively and forcefully.

Xi and different levels of government in China hid the pandemic from the world for six weeks, arresting and jailing doctors who called attention to the crisis, silencing the media, and depriving the global community of the head start needed to mitigate the effects of the outbreak from the start.

All because the Chinese leadership did not want to disrupt a major congress of the Communist Party taking place at the time in Wuhan, seat of the outbreak. The Chinese medical community was muzzled, the highly controlled media and the political and technocratic class silenced.

The Chinese government finally came around when the death toll became too high for the regime to hide the situation from the Chinese public or from the global community.

To make up for its initial shortcomings, China is airlifting significant amounts of vital medical equipment (masks and respirators inter alia) to hard-hit targets like Italy and Spain. This may help to improve somewhat China’s damaged reputation and is an excellent example of soft power and public diplomacy. This is especially pertinent given China’s massive infrastructural and manufacturing investments in Italy. Chinese tycoon Jack Ma has himself donated millions of dollars’ worth of medical equipment to stricken countries.

Looking at the United States, we have all seen that President Trump denied reality for a long time, criticized the media and the scientific community, and blocked his authorities from addressing the crisis in a timely manner.

Wary of bad news during an election year, and resistant to a major collapse of the stock market that would affect voters in November, he preferred to label the outbreak as an attempt by his Democrat opponents to make his administration look bad, and mainstream media coverage of the potential dangers as “fake news” and a “hoax”. In this, he was ably assisted by FOX News who carried these messages proactively to his base, who seem only all too willing to believe them after three years of conditioning.

As usual, Trump lied and dissembled until the situation became untenable and his own experts had to walk a thin line between parroting the President’s views and following their own personal and professional consciences. Trump was finally forced to admit the seriousness of the situation and completely reverse his position on the pandemic in mid-March, and FOX News followed suit immediately.

In January, Trump publicly refused to accept the World Health Organization’s (WHO) offer of testing kits lest tests confirm that the pandemic was indeed real and dangerous to the U.S. public. He now claims that he never did

It is reported that the Trump administration subsequently offered large sums of money to access COVID19 research from a German company, CureVac, and move its research work to the US possibly for exclusive U.S. use.

Once again, Trump placed his personal interests above those of humanity, and once again he debased the office of President of the United States.

Other leaders fared better, although almost all, with the exceptions of Singapore, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, reacted far too late to make a great difference in controlling the virus’s exponential spread in their territories. Although too late to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, Italian and French leaders took strong measures to close borders and quarantine their populations, and other European countries eventually followed suit.

In Canada, the United States, and Mexico, state, provincial, and local governments are playing an important and, in some cases, a critical leading role in ensuring that concrete steps were undertaken to address the pandemic. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds daily press conferences that are followed by audiences around the world, hungry for facts and accurate information from a leader who, unlike the Trump, neither seeks nor needs self-aggrandizement or false praise from sycophants but makes his points succinctly and factually.

The European Union has seemingly been absent during this crisis, leaving it to individual member states to deal with the pandemic and to decide on their own how they regulate the flow of people into and within their territory. The result has been a hodge-podge of different approaches, leaving one to wonder if the EU has been irreparably weakened after BREXIT on the one hand and the continuing challenges posed by illiberal democracies like Hungary and Poland on the other.

Global leadership has been mixed at best, late or non-existent in many cases, and uncertain given the Rubik’s Cube impacts on a variety of levels.

On an economic level, supply chains are broken and major losses are being incurred by a broad array of industries around the world. Unemployment is already increasing significantly, and governments are legislating trillions of dollars’ worth of financial support to their private sectors and directly to citizens to make up for lost wages and benefits.

On a social level, schools are closed, and family life is challenged as children lose precious study time and parents have to cope with the lack of child care essential for working parents. Millions are being laid off, although many companies are exercising good social responsibility and ensuring that employees can continue working from home given today’s technology.

But for the tens of millions of hourly paid workers or those working in the informal economies of many developing countries who are being laid off or losing their sole sources of income around the world, life has become tragic. Rents and utilities have to be paid, food put on the table, and medical bills covered. These people in many countries have neither access to a social safety net nor the option of working from home. The service industries are being decimated, and their workers have no choice but to stay at home with little or no income or benefits.

It remains to be seen what the impact of this major dislocation will have on the social fabric of many countries or how these effects will translate into a permanent lack of confidence in institutions of governance.

On another front, the media is working very well in some cases. But in other cases, their partial or complete subservience to governments is precluding them from being taken seriously and doing their job – keeping the public informed in a direct and truthful manner.

The media and social media in China are totally controlled by the state, so it is not surprising that they always toe the Party line.

The serious media in the United States has been weakened and fragmented after years of abuse and false accusations. However, despite the fact that US media spends little time on international issues and the blatant attempts of FOX News to tout Trump’s views, most Americans were made aware of the crisis overseas early on despite the fact that most media were obsessed with the Democrat primaries.

The constant attacks on the professional media by Trump and many other leaders around the world, as well as these leaders’ propensity to lie shamelessly, has created an atmosphere in which the truth is secondary to personal or political interests.

Sadly, this can cost many lives around the world.

In the months and years to come, leaders in the public and private sector are going to have to come to grips with these inherent failings of governance as they try to manage with the new socio-economic realities that govern our global village.

Investors will seek to ensure that no one region of the world susceptible to natural or man-made disasters controls so much of the global economy’s production. The private sector will have to ensure that all staff are trained and equipped to work from remote locations. Companies will have to create new reporting and management structures to deal with these new organizational challenges.

Many have and will succeed in overcoming the current challenges.

Many more will have to undergo severe personal and professional transformations in order to cope with this new reality.

The COVID19 pandemic has underscored that not only is the economy globalized, but that society itself is globalized. An outbreak in China can lead directly to many deaths in the Americas, Africa, and Europe. A virus from half way around the world can determine if a day laborer here will be able to house and feed his family and if your child can go to school or even live to adulthood.

Governments must find a way to help those who are disenfranchised be in some way incorporated into the global economy through effective, equitable, and efficient social welfare schemes.

These options are no longer a question of the Left or the Right.

They are a question of survival – of our own basic humanity and respect for basic human dignity.

These are our challenges, and these are the realities that we face.

Edición: Elsa Torres