The first victim of the coronavirus? Leadership.
This story is published in a content partnership with POLITICO. It was originally reported by Matthew Karnitschnig on politico.com on March 16, 2020.
Welcome to politics’ darkest hour.
If the coronavirus outbreak has taught us anything beyond the necessity of careful hygiene, it’s that the first victim of a pandemic is leadership.
At no time in the past 75 years has the world been in more need of a “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” moment; and at no time have global leaders so utterly failed to deliver.
From Beijing to Brussels, from Rome to Washington, London and beyond, politicians haven’t just failed to rise to the occasion, they’ve engaged in a dangerous game of parsing, obfuscation and reality-denial that has cost lives and delayed a resolute response.
Even though virologists have been warning for weeks that the outbreak could explode, political leaders, particularly in the West, did little to halt its advance.
“Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time” – Boris Johnson, UK prime minister
Like the virus itself, which scientists have traced to the Chinese city of Wuhan (and leaders there denied and downplayed for weeks), the prevailing political strategy for confronting the crisis was Made in China.
Few may have expected inspired leadership from US President Donald Trump, who dismissed the coronavirus as a Democratic “hoax” and just days ago predicted it would disappear “like a miracle”. Even so, his fumbling of a national address on the emergency, followed by his trademark blame-shifting for his government’s lack of preparedness (“I don’t take responsibility at all”), will be remembered as a low point in American political leadership.
Solidarity with allies? Think again. Trump followed up his ban on Europeans travelling to the US (a decision he announced without even making a courtesy phone call to EU leaders beforehand) with an attempt to reportedly buy a vaccine-maker out from under the Germans’ noses, aiming to guarantee Americans are first in line for the corona shot the firm is developing.
The irony is that the Trump administration previously opted not to use the German-developed coronavirus test endorsed by the World Health Organisation, choosing instead to develop its own version, which has proved unreliable. The decision has created massive delays in testing in the US, allowing the “foreign virus”, as Trump calls it, to spread unabated. South Korea tests more people per day than the US has in total in the weeks since the outbreak began. The fiasco didn’t stop Trump from falsely claiming last week that “testing has been going very smooth.”
While Trump gets the most attention for his corona bungling, he’s hardly alone. Brazilian strongman Jair Bolsonaro, who met the American president last week in Florida, characterised the coronavirus panic as a media-fuelled “fantasy”. A day later, his press secretary tested positive.
If there’s one leader who should recognise the historic gravitas of the moment and rise to it with stirring rhetoric matched by action, it’s the man who modelled his political career on Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson.
Instead of offering “blood, toil, tears and sweat”, however, Johnson has sounded more like the Grim Reaper.
“Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time,” he said in a televised address on Friday, insisting that his government has “a clear plan”.
Trouble is, the strategy underlying that plan, dubbed “herd immunity”, appears to have unnerved more people than it has reassured, fuelling fears that Johnson has no plan at all.
“The realisation has struck No 10 that Britain has lost control of Covid-19, but it should at least look as though it is doing something,” The Sunday Times concluded.
What about Angela Merkel? After all, crisis is the German leader’s speciality. From the financial implosion of 2008 to the refugee crisis of 2015, Merkel has thrived in times of peril.
“I make a decision about when and where I address an issue according to the circumstances and the facts” – Angela Merkel, German chancellor
The German chancellor, revered by some as the “leader of the free world,” left management of the pandemic to her youthful health minister, Jens Spahn.
She only emerged from her corona shell following last Monday’s market meltdown and after Italy was forced to impose draconian measures to bring the spread of the virus under control. Asked why it took her so long to engage publicly, Merkel insisted she had been monitoring the crisis from behind the scenes since January.
“I make a decision about when and where I address an issue according to the circumstances and the facts,” she said.
Yet the facts were there for all to see. Truth is, Merkel has been more focused on the refugee influx on Greece’s border with Turkey and the crisis in Libya in recent weeks.
Even as Merkel has tried to maintain a sage public demeanour, the government’s response to the crisis has been marked by crossed wires and confusion.
Merkel’s economy minister, Peter Altmaier, repeatedly played down the economic risks posed by coronavirus, saying that he didn’t expect it to become “a major burden for the global economy”.
Then reality set in. After a roller coaster week in the markets, he and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz on Friday unveiled Germany’s “bazooka”, an unprecedented programme to extend unlimited liquidity to German companies hit by the crisis.
On the ground, Germany’s virus-fighting effort has been no more coherent. While some states have closed schools, others have not. Last week, Berlin cancelled all cultural events only to permit a professional football match. Following an outcry, the game was closed to the public and then cancelled altogether.
The city initially allowed its bars and clubs to remain open, then announced on Friday they would have to close on Tuesday. Over the weekend, city leaders decided to impose the closure immediately, dispatching police across the German capital to eject patrons. Meanwhile, Munich’s beer halls remain open, at least for now.
Most blame Germany’s incoherent crisis-fighting on the country’s federal structure, which leaves authority over key policy areas, including public health and education, to Germany’s 16 states.
Amid the lack of clear political direction, many Germans were convinced until this week that the outbreak would be no worse than a seasonal flu.
A similar picture has emerged across much of Europe. After weeks of largely ignoring the unfolding crisis, leaders from France to Austria have been forced by a sudden explosion of cases to impose severe limits on their citizens.
Just a week ago, France hosted the largest Smurf convention ever, drawing more than 3,500 visitors. On Saturday, the country’s prime minister announced the closure of all bars, restaurants and non-essential shops.
Though it makes sense for EU members to tailor their coronavirus strategies to local requirements, the variety of approaches across the region suggests little, if any, real coordination.
Anyone hoping European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen would plot a coherent path forward has been disappointed.
On Monday, as Italy’s government shut down public life in the country and stock markets melted, von der Leyen appeared before the press to boast about her first 100 days in office. Like an eager pupil who wanted to show the world how well she had prepared for her big speech, von der Leyen seemed almost offended that reporters were forcing her to address the gathering coronavirus storm.
Even then, she didn’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation.
The Commission’s “coronavirus response team” had the situation under control, she insisted, adding “we meet once a week.”