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In dealing with COVID-19, the crisis of leadership

SHASHI SHEKHAR

We are in the midst of a calamity that the world has rarely seen before. Given the helplessness of ordinary people in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, we can only ask if those in authority are doing enough to deal with the crisis, and if they are capable of dealing with it.

Disasters such as the coronavirus pandemic are not confined to specific geographic territories, and thus, dealing with it requires a holistic and global approach. Sadly, there is a serious dearth of leaders who have an influence on the world today and can provide a proper direction.

In the past, when the world faced a crisis, it was the American leadership that took charge. But, today, the United States (US) appears weak in the face of the onslaught of the coronavirus. In fact, many other countries are doing far better at containing the coronavirus than the US.

The problem seems to be a lack of leadership on the part of President Donald Trump. Faced with a situation that requires calm, reasoned science-based responses, the president has behaved irresponsibly. He did not respond to the crisis in time, and has given mixed signals, and on some occasions, even come up with dangerous prescriptions on how to fight the virus.

And he has, for domestic political considerations, consistently blamed China for the crisis. China does deserve blame though, and suspicion and anger against Beijing is widely shared. Many countries believe that Beijing’s delay in informing the world of the threat in time has caused irreparable damage. Some organisations and governments are planning to approach international legal bodies, terming China’s lapse as an assault on international human rights.

But Beijing is in no mood to blink. It has, in response, stepped up its diplomatic efforts against what it terms are absurd allegations. In order to counter the US’s onslaught, it has begun to help Latin American and African countries with money and material to counter the spread of the virus. As a result, it has won over some of these countries. China is also making substantial inroads in influencing some east European countries.

It has continued with its belligerent geopolitical activities and increased its naval activities in the South China Sea. China’s biggest asset is, of course, its economic prowess. It holds hundreds of patents – from essential commodities, technology products, even herbal medicines. In order to cash in on China’s cheap labour, western countries have large production bases in the country. And they cannot afford to antagonise China beyond a point or terminate their operations there.

Developing countries such as India are also unhappy with China. But we depend on it too. The fact that some of the raw materials for hydroxychloroquine, which we are now exporting to other countries, come from China is an example of this dependence.

There is, therefore, a peculiar mix of both dependence on and conflict with China. But this confrontation between the West and China could not have come at a worse time. Irrespective of the substance of the allegations, this war of words and perceptions hampers a global response to the crisis. And it doesn’t help that across the world, there are several ultra-nationalists in power.

Could the situation have been different if the world had leaders such as Nelson Mandela or Mahatma Gandhi? Probably, but we will never know. There is, however, some cause for cheer. And this comes from the leadership displayed by women. As soon as Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen was informed of a mysterious virus that was spreading in Wuhan, she took stern measures. As a result, the spread of the infection was controlled. Similarly, the prime minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, sealed the borders of her country

on March 19.

She not only declared a one-month nationwide lockdown, but also demoted a minister who violated the curbs. In Germany, Angela Merkel, who has a background in science, has evolved a coherent policy response, and communicated directly and effectively with citizens. In India, Kerala successfully defended itself after the initial shocks, thanks to the efforts of its health minister, KK Shailaja.

The world should look at the way these women leaders have dealt with the coronavirus pandemic. They have shown that actions based on the advice of medical experts, coupled with a humane approach towards people is the way forward. Anger and mud-slinging will get us nowhere.

(HT Media)

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