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Leadership in times of crisis

  • Published at 11:15 am April 10th, 2020
Trump-USA-United States-Covid-19-coronavirus
Photo: Reuters

Some leaders are rising to the occasion, others are utterly clueless

In times of crisis, we look to our leaders for guidance and reassurance. We want to feel that the situation is under control, and that there is a decisive plan of action with clear objectives. 

In other words, we want our leaders to lead. It is understandable that, confronted with a global health and economic crisis, the likes of which we have not seen for a generation, there is no ready-made solution. But this is the time governments need to step up, put aside political (and in some cases personal) agendas and work towards a common international goal -- containing the spread of Covid-19 and limiting the loss of lives.

Sadly, however, the posturing, dithering, and backtracking we have witnessed in the last few months is further proof that many of our current heads of state are ill-equipped to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. 

Rather than take advice from scientists and health officials or learn from the mistakes of other countries, some have decided to take their own counsel and in so doing wilfully put the lives of millions of people at risk. 

Unsurprisingly, far from instilling confidence, this has made us question the competency of several of our leaders. And for those who follow blindly, maybe it’s time to take those blinkers off.

We often hear the phrase, “Nero fiddles while Rome burns” -- a metaphor referring to the infamous Roman emperor’s inability or reluctance to deal with a crisis (in his case a devastating fire in 64AD that destroyed almost 70% of the buildings and made half of the population in Rome homeless). All you have to do is change the words “Nero,” “fiddles” and “Rome” for “Trump,” “golfs,” and “America” to get an idea of the current situation in the US. 

It is terrifying to acknowledge that the president appears to have no understanding of the magnitude of the global crisis unfolding before him nor how to deal with it, and has approached the situation first with characteristic nonchalance and then with bluster.

Time and time again, not only has he deflected blame and abdicated responsibility for his actions or lack thereof, but he has blatantly lied to the public. Starting with a shrug and “We have it totally under control,” “It’s one person coming in from China,” before switching to “I felt this was a pandemic long before it was called a pandemic … I’ve always viewed it as serious,” when in reality he called the pandemic a hoax by the Democrats. 

The utter lack of preparation by the Trump administration is a travesty given that they have had the information from and experiences of other countries to fall back on. This has contributed to the alarming number of coronavirus cases and deaths (over 469,000 and 16,600, respectively) in the country. 

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing nationalist (and close ally of Trump), has consistently downplayed the gravity of the situation, describing Covid-19 as a “small flu.” This is in spite of the fact that worldwide there have been 1.5 million coronavirus cases and almost 100,000 deaths, including over 16,000 confirmed cases and 824 deaths in the Brazil itself. 

He has also ignored the guidelines recommended by the World Health Organization for social distancing by going on walkabouts to greet his supporters, encouraging people to return to work and continue with their daily lives. 

Bolsonaro’s laissez-faire attitude towards the crisis has unintentionally caused numerous high-ranking ministers in his federal government, congressional leaders, and also 24 of 27 governors across the country, to unite and take the necessary measures. 

They have implemented the protocols set out by WHO by closing educational institutions, shops, restaurants, beaches, and suspending public transport in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease. 

To highlight the lack of confidence in and frustration at the president’s handling of the situation, criminal gangs and drug traffickers have imposed a curfew in favelas (shanty towns) in different parts of the capital Rio de Janeiro which is known to have a high population density and, therefore, making its residents vulnerable. 

Tanzanian President John Magufuli has taken a different approach and has turned to his faith for deliverance from the pandemic. “Coronavirus is a devil. It cannot live in the body of Christ. It will burn instantly. This is a time to build our faith.” 

Unlike many of his neighbouring countries such as Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, which have closed their borders and adopted far more stringent measures including social distancing, self-quarantine, and lockdowns, he has encouraged people to congregate in places of worship to try and combat the virus through prayer. 

This type of religious rhetoric is extremely dangerous given that the disease is highly contagious and mass gatherings are prime breeding grounds for Covid-19.

President Magufuli’s plea to his people has undermined the efforts of his own government, including Prime Minister Kassim Majaliwa, to implement a 30-day shutdown of schools, colleges, universities, ban sports and music events, political meetings, and suspend international flights, by diluting the urgency of the measures.

However, for every Trump, Bolsonaro, and Magufuli, there is an Angela Merkel, a Jacinda Ardern, and Lee Hsien Loong. Leaders who have taken decisive action and put the welfare of their citizens first with results to show for it.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel did exactly what you would hope a crisis leader would do -- tell people the truth and give them the facts. She states that: “The situation is serious; take it seriously … For someone like me, for whom freedom of travel and movement were a hard-won right, such restrictions can only be justified by absolute necessity.” 

And, as such, this “should not be enacted lightly -- and only ever temporarily. But at the moment they are essential in order to save lives.” The most populous country in the European Union has aggressively tested, tracked, treated, and locked down freedom of movement to combat Covid-19. 

The results are that Germany currently has 2,500 fatalities, less than a sixth of some its neighbours. Maybe during this time of crisis, others can take a leaf out of her book. 

Nadia Kabir Barb is a writer, journalist, and author of the short story collection Truth or Dare.

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