The novel coronavirus pandemic is proving to be a singular test of political leadership around the world. It’s not always pretty.
During these early days of the crisis, politicians have repeatedly made critical and urgent decisions that directly contradict the positions they took a few days earlier.
The federal government, for instance, dismissed the idea of closing Canada’s borders on Friday of last week, and then did just that on Monday. The Government of Ontario said it saw no reason to shut down the province’s restaurants and bars on Monday, and reversed itself 24 hours later.
Actions portrayed by governments as inappropriate one minute seem belated the next. What does this say about our leadership? Are the people in charge getting it wrong?
The answer is not a simple yes or no. In a worldwide crisis that has taken on the scope of a war, successful leadership won’t mean winning every single battle, or never momentarily putting troops in the wrong place. Hindsight is not a reliable guide when events are moving so quickly.
But successful leadership does have its demands. It means remaining stoic, moving the country in the right direction, having the courage to change that direction as the facts change, putting expertise above politics, avoiding partisanship and the blame game, and keeping the public calm and informed.
Mistakes will get made. And luck will be a factor. Take Italy. It banned flights to and from China on Jan. 31 – the first European country to do so – after three patients who’d travelled to China tested positive for the coronavirus. Italy seem poised to be a leader in the fight against the pathogen.
Seven weeks later, it’s the country with the most coronavirus infections outside of China, and the most deaths, period. Experts suspect the new coronavirus infected people in the northern part of the country before its existence was well known and that it spread undetected. Doctors mistook COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, for a seasonal flu, turning local hospitals into transmission centres.
Did the Italian government lack vigilance or just fall prey to bad luck? Or both? It’s hard to say before all the facts are known. But if there was a mistake, there’s no evidence that it wasn’t an honest one. No one appears to have knowingly committed an act that risked making the situation worse, or to have hidden from the facts.
The same can’t be said for two rather prominent world leaders.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government suppressed news about the coronavirus’s spread in the Wuhan region when it first emerged late last year. Local authorities arrested at least eight doctors and citizen journalists, who tried to warn others about the danger.
When the government’s censorship became known, the subsequent backlash prompted officials to falsely accuse outside interference for the spread of the outbreak and to expel foreign reporters: the blame game, in other words.
U.S. President Donald Trump didn’t censor information, but he ignored warnings from public health experts as news of the crisis in China came to light. He shut down travel from China on Jan. 31 – a positive move. But after that, he played down the threat and was slow to prepare his country for the inevitability of an outbreak.
When his lack of action drew fire, Mr. Trump called the criticism a “hoax.” He blamed previous administrations for the crisis and accused the media of overplaying the threat of the coronavirus in order to hurt his re-election chances.
But facts aren’t partisan. Science isn’t partisan. Virology isn’t partisan. Leaders must either act in good faith based on the latest information available or risk costing their countries – and ultimately the entire world – valuable time.
No matter the outcome of the coronavirus pandemic, leaders around the world will be judged by what happens this year. If the crisis deepens and many more people die, even the most pro-active governments will likely be pilloried for not doing enough.
And if an individual country is lucky enough to avoid the worst, that doesn’t mean there won’t be valid arguments that its governments should still have acted sooner or done a better job of communicating with its citizens.
But history will provide an especially harsh reckoning for leaders who ignored facts, lied to the public and politicized a disaster, and by doing so made a bad situation worse.
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