Nothing exposes a lack of leadership like a crisis. Nothing has made this clearer than the current global crisis caused by the coronavirus. One place where the lack of leadership has been tragically apparent is in the United States.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, up until the start of the current administration, the US was at the coalface of every major challenge the world faced. While it is certainly arguable that the US didn’t always get it right in terms of the positions it took, it at least provided a marker from which the world could see its way to some sort of consensus regarding a way forward.
Because of the coronavirus, global markets are in a freefall, airlines are bracing themselves for billions of dollars in losses and whole countries are being quarantined.
The world is going corona-crazy. Some governments have taken (and some folks are suggesting) extreme measures that endanger infinitely more people than the virus itself. What we have is the proverbial case of the cures being worse than the disease.
What went wrong?
Everyone is acting like this is the 21st-century equivalent of the “black plague”. When the fact of the matter is, we’ve faced pandemics before, with nothing like the same sense of panic. There has been Sars, Zika, and Mers and, the most deadly of all, swine flu. The swine flu pandemic infected 61-million people in the US and killed about 12 500. Worldwide, more than 575 000 died. Yet, we saw nothing approximating the panic that has gripped the world in the face of the coronavirus.
But we know how to deal with this sort of thing. As a result of the other recent pandemics the world has survived, we have prevention and treatment protocols that should get us through the moment.
I think there are at least three reasons, rooted in the failure of leadership, that are responsible for the current tizzy in which the world finds itself.
When news of the virus first broke, it didn’t help that President Donald Trump’s right-wing acolytes tried to politicise the outbreak as a way of trying to isolate China, politically and economically. It clearly didn’t help that Trump couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t rein them in. Not only was that wrong, it was also dumb.
Let’s start with why it was dumb. Anyone who stayed awake during high school biology class knows that you can’t ring-fence a virus. If a virus appears some other place yesterday, it is more likely than not going to pop up in your place tomorrow. If you’ve created a biological bogeyman to get the other guy, at some point, he’s likely to get you too.
Right-wing crazies sowed the wind because of their China paranoia and now we’re reaping the whirlwind. This is why we’re quarantining whole communities in the US and the Italians have quarantined their whole country.
That the coronavirus “thing” has got this far out of hand, also reflects what folks see as a lack of integrity on the part of Trump. If you’re a “MAGA [Make America Great Again]-phile” or “never-Trumper”, don’t be too quick to curse me or say amen. Hear me out.
Going back to my initial premise of the global leadership role the US has played over the past 30 years, it is inarguable that under different circumstances the country could have provided a steadying hand in the face of this healthcare catastrophe.
But, to do that, the world (not to mention US citizens) would have to trust the person at the top. Outside of the small band of Trump’s faithful, nobody trusts the guy. Who is going to follow someone they can’t trust? The legion of lies that Trump has spun since he first became a candidate until today is legendary (and, I don’t mean that in the good sense of the word). This precludes him, or anyone else in his administration, from providing the leadership the world so desperately needs.
Finally, Trump’s vindictiveness toward those who stray from his world view of events exacerbates the problem further. When you couple his vindictive streak with his lack of appreciation for scientific facts, the result is a Petri dish of confusion instead of the clarity that others could provide if they weren’t afraid of ticking him off.
In case you forgot how petty Trump can be, right after the Senate impeachment trial, he made this predisposition clear for the world to see. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman testified at the House impeachment hearings about the improprieties he witnessed by the Trump White House relative to Ukraine. After the Republican Senate gave Trump a free pass, he bounced Vindman from the National Security Council so fast it made your head spin. Trump was so cold-blooded, heck, he even fired Vindman’s twin brother, I guess because he looked like him.
Nothing stifles the desire to raise one’s hand to tell the truth like the fear of getting it cut off. In this kind of crisis, if people are going to be reassured they need to know that logic and competence matter more than loyalty.
Competent career public servants need to know that they can give us the facts, without the fear of being punished because the truth doesn’t conform to the party line.
Having a leader in the White House with integrity and a commitment to competence, could have gone a long way in calming the world’s fears and anxiety.
So, what do we do now?
Somebody needs to step up on the world stage and provide the kind of moral clarity and sound judgment necessary to get everyone to take a deep breath and step back from the brink of the abyss toward which we’re headed.
Maybe the Pope should be that person. Or perhaps President Emmanuel Macron or Chancellor Angela Merkel should make the point. Cyril Ramaphosa is an honourable and decent person and I’ve heard former US vice-president and presumptive Democratic standard bearer Joe Biden plans on making a speech; maybe that will help.
Second, the media needs to stop sensationalising the story for ratings purposes and provide the scientists with a bigger microphone to reassure the public that this is not the black plague, and even if it were, the world is so much better prepared to handle the crisis that we’ll get through this as well.
Much of what we need to do to survive the current situation is common sense and common knowledge, like wash your hands a lot and if you’re sick (or symptomatic) stay at home until you’re better or the symptoms abate.
We’re about a year away from a vaccine, so let me recommend that until then, everyone should take a chill pill, take the necessary and recommended precautions, and get back to living our lives. The world needs to get back to business.
Charles Stith was former president Bill Clinton’s envoy to Tanzania and is currently the non-executive board chair of the African Presidential Leadership Centre, a Johannesburg-based NGO