Rosalynn Carter, the former first lady of United Sates, said “A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” From this definition of ‘a leader’, we can construe that a leader is someone who can envisage how things or situations can be improved and keeps the ability of translating a vision into a reality.
Crisis situations demand a successful leadership. It means remaining stoic, moving the world in the right direction, possessing the courage to change that direction as the facts change, avoiding partisanship & blame games and above all keeping the public calm & informed. But, the novel coronavirus pandemic is exposing a deep void in leadership at the global levels. Instead of trusting scientist, doctors and health care experts, people are debating over de-globalization forgetting that epidemics occurred even during the Medieval Age. Leading nations are more concerned over own personal interests instead of cooperating with each other to combat this crisis. This article highlights the presence of epidemics before the age of globalization, lack of leadership, and points out a few collective measures to deal with the crisis.
A leader must be empathetic and connect to people to be successful. He must be capable enough of tapping the opportunities and addressing the multi-dimensional challenges confronting humanity. Leadership is essential to generate awareness of the enormous and unutilized global potentials that can be tapped to accelerate global advancement. It is required for formulating integrated and comprehensive polices and strategies capable of mobilizing stakeholders in the global community and also directing the existing global social energies for everyday applications. However, the prevailing corona virus crisis across the world has exposed a big void in collective leadership at the global level.
Every crisis situation demands for a strong leadership. It is more than five months that the world is into a catastrophic war against an invisible and invincible virus that is rapidly taking away lives of million humans, regardless of race and citizenship, and contemptuously devastating economies across continents. Yet, there is no comprehensive, concerted action plan or design, orchestrated by the global leaders, for combating this terror. A single wrong move can erode the trust, unleash unrest and exacerbate the prevailing crisis. For example, we are already seeing how the plight of migrant workers is creating havoc in our country. Even after more than five months, there is no such evidence, at the global level, that the pandemic has abated and soon be brought under control. In this backdrop, let us discuss the void in global leadership that the world today is facing.
The Present Debate on de-globalization
Today, a lot of people across the continents are blaming the corona virus pandemic on globalization and opining that the only way to avert more such outbreaks is to de-globalise the world. This can be done by putting restrictions on travel, building wall, reducing trades etc. But are these really any solution? Yes, short-term quarantine or lockdowns are essential step towards controlling pandemic but, long-term isolationism has reverse effect. It will lead to economic slump without actually providing any protection against infectious diseases. People need to apprehend the fact that cooperation is the real antidote to pandemic and not segregation.
Even long before the age of globalization, epidemics had taken away lives of millions of people. Black Death, which occurred in the 14th century, had spread from Eastern Asia to Western Europe. At that time there was neither airplanes nor cruise ships, yet the disease spread across continents and wiped out more than a quarter of Eurasia’s population (estimated death was around 200 million). It was reported that four out of every ten people had died in England and one in every two had died in the city of Florence. Florence city had lost 50000 of its inhabitants out of 100000 population.
In March 1520, Franciso de Eguía – a single small pox carrier – landed in Mexico. During those days, Central America had no bus services or train services or even donkey carriers. Yet, by the end of December of the same year, this small pox epidemic had devastated almost the whole city of Central America and wiped out one-third of its population.
In 1918, just within a few months, a particularly virulent strain of flu succeeded to spread even to the remotest corners of the world. It was estimated that this flu infected almost half a billion of the world’s population, i.e. around a quarter of human species. In India, this flu killed almost 5% of the population while the island of Tahiti and Samoa lost 14% and 20% of their respective population. In less than a year, this pandemic took away lives of tens of millions of people round the globe, which was much more than the number of deaths happed during the four years of First World War. The 1911-1921 was the only decade where a negative growth rate of population was observed and the reason behind was this pandemic.
In the last century, humankind became even more vulnerable to epidemics, especially due to combination of factors like growing population and better transport facilities. The transport network has immensely developed in the last century and thus making way for viruses to spread across continents within 24 hours. Therefore, as expected, we are living in an infectious hell, with one after another deadly plague.
However, in the past few decades, across the continents there has been a dramatic reduction in the incidence as well as impact of epidemics and pandemics. In spite of horrendous outbreaks like Ebola and AIDS, the proportion of humans killed by epidemics of 21st century are far smaller to previous centuries since the Stone Age. This has been possible due to the availability of information on pathogens. Thus it is not isolation but information that provides the best defence to humans against pathogens. In the race between pathogens and doctors, pathogens blindly rely on mutation while doctors focus on scientific analysis of information. Once scientists decipher the roots of the epidemics, countering them becomes much easier. Improved hygiene, antibiotics, vaccines and a robust medical infrastructure have helped humanity in winning wars against the invisible predators. For instance, 15 million people got infected and of them around 2 million were killed in 1967 due to small pox. Interestingly, just in the following decade, in 1979, the World Health Organization declared that small pox has been completely eradicated and the world had won the war against it. This became possible only due to successful global campaign of small pox vaccination. In the year 2019, not even a single person was reported to be infected or killed by small pox.
Lessons from History in respect of Coronavirus Pandemic
First, closing borders do not provide any real protection from pandemics. We must not forget the rapid spread of epidemics existed even in the Middle Ages, centuries before the age of globalization. Hence, isolating ourselves by reducing global connection even to the level medieval age would not be enough and going more backwards to Stone Age hare-brained thought.
Secondly, history also points out that actual protection can only be achieved from sharing of scientific information and from global solidarity. When a nation is hit by an epidemic, it must willingly and honestly share evidences of the outbreaks without fearing about economic catastrophe. Simultaneously, other nations also need to trust that information and willing to provide assistance instead of ostracizing the victims. Currently, China can teach many important lessons on coronavirus to the world, but for this a high level of trust and cooperation at international level in much required.
A World without a leader
Coronavirus cannot be alone held responsible for the acute crisis faced by the humanity today. Deficiency in trust factor among humans is also equally responsible. To overcome an epidemic crisis, citizens need to trust and keep faith in public authorities, people must hold their confidence on scientific experts, and most importantly each and every nation needs to trust their counterparts. In the past few years, the trust in science, public authorities and international cooperation has been deliberately undermined by the irresponsible public authorities. Consequently, humanity is facing the present crisis bereft of global leaders who can organise, inspire and finance a coordinated global response.
In 2014, during the Ebola epidemic, the United States had played that kind of leadership role. Similar role was even previously played by the US during the financial crisis of 2008, when it rallied behind several nations and prevented global economic meltdown. However, this kind of leadership role has not been seen to play by the US in the recent past. Even in the middle of this prevailing crisis, when the world has no clue for how to overcome this pandemic, the US administration decided to stop supporting the World Health Organization. This is not only depicts a negative leadership skill but also erodes the trust of other nations from the US administration to a great extent.
However, blaming only the US may not be just. China is also responsible in this matter. The novel coronavirus or COVID-19 had first erupted in Wuhan region late last year. But, this news was intentionally suppressed by the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government. At least eight doctors and citizen journalists were arrested by the local authorities who tried to inform others about the danger. Afterwards when the government’s censorship became prevalent, the subsequent backlash impelled bureaucrats to falsely allege interference of outsiders for the spread of the outbreak and to expel foreign journalists, in other words – the blame game.
On the other hand, the Trump administration did not engage in censoring information; rather they repeatedly ignored the warnings from the public health advisors when the news of the crises in China came to limelight. Though shutting down travelling options from China on 31st January was a positive step, he ignored the threat and was sluggish in preparing his nation for the inevitability of an outbreak. Subsequently, when lack of action drew fire, the criticism was called as a ‘hoax’ by Mr Trump. He held the previous administration responsible for the crisis and blamed the media for exaggerate the threat of the virus in order to weaken his re-election chances.
But facts, science and virology are non-partisan. Leader can either act in good faith based on latest available information or risk costing their nations and ultimately the entire world.
Even the World Health Organization, whose one of the objective is to direct and coordinate with authorities of its member nations in times of health emergencies, was too lethargic in reacting to the pandemic. Tderos Adhanom, the present Director-General of WHO, declared COVID-19 as a pandemic on 11th March, 2020, but he hardly spoke anything about inactions. Its responses to COVID-19, came under the lens, not merely for incompetence, but due to lack of intellectual integrity.
The pandemic has underlined the necessity for having international cooperation. Global problems demand global solutions. This pandemic has also exposed once more that neither China nor the US is fit to lead. Neither of them is interested in cooperation. Hence, the rest of the world will definitely find out its own ways of working together. The present crisis can only be countered through collective actions. This would require right strategy, rapid mobilization of relevant resources, development in information exchange on global production capacity (by production here mean production of drugs, medical equipment and protective gears), seamless logistic to facilitate better supply chain for essential goods & services, instantaneous exchange of authenticated information on clinical progress and developments, collaboration among the countries on laboratory trials & clinical validation for anti-viral drugs and vaccines, facilitate seamless movement of health experts across the world to train others & supplement resources wherever there are shortages, anticipation of food shortages in some parts of the world due to national shutdowns and therefore a coordinated global action plan is required to take adequate precaution to combat starvation and malnutrition. This would be a test of global concern for mankind in general.
In the end, it is evident the human talent will triumph over this microscopic virus. We need to hold our patience until then. But it is also true that the economic devastation that will happen as a consequent will be no less than the aftermath of a world war. The economies of the world are inexorably intertwined. Hence, an equitable and inclusive reconstruction of global economy will involve renegotiation in terms of trade between the stakeholders, coordination action from the part of central bankers for stabilising currencies, and lastly, a robust mechanism for regulating and managing global commodity market.