COVID-19 is shaping future leadership styles
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - August 14, 2020 - 12:00am

Many of current leaders around the world were elected on a platform of strong “macho” leadership espousing populist cause and bent on upsetting the status quo. Two of those leaders, President Donald Trump and his political doppelganger President Jair Bolsonaro, have been described by Lawrence Hamilton, in an article for The Conversation, as “secretive, narcissistic, paranoid, hubristic and impulsive decision-makers.” These have been the hallmark of their leadership that has the support of a hard-core constituency despite the dire consequences of some of their actions on the welfare of their people.

Unfortunately, this type of leadership is proving to be inappropriate in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and has in fact proven deadly. The numbers attest to it. The United States and Brazil are first and second in the number of infections and death. In common with their persona as strong leaders, they have denied the pandemic’s seriousness, denigrated scientific and medical advice, advanced their own scientifically-disproven solutions like hydro chloroquine, taken a militarized approach to controlling the pandemic, and have been obsessed with putting the economy before lives. One example is the wearing of masks which has been proven to reduce the spread of infection significantly. President Trump initially resisted against wearing a mask because he would appear to be weak and intimidated by a virus. President Bolsonaro has gone to great lengths to flaunt not wearing a mask in public and observing social distancing.

Bolsonaro’s contrarian approach to the pandemic has been harshly described by his predecessor as tantamount to “leading the people of Brazil to the slaughterhouse.” His former health minister has warned Brazil’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is being bungled by unqualified army men “stuffing themselves with chloroquine.” Brazil’s pandemic response is headed by an active general who is also the Health Minister.

Trump has humanized the virus into a foe he can rail against as a “brilliant enemy” declaring himself in the process a “wartime President”. But on television, despite the bluster, he is seen as helpless, disorganized and devoid of empathy.

President Duterte is of the same strong populist leader mold and has strong core supporters. He has taken a militaristic approach to confronting the pandemic and is given to scolding the public for spreading the virus. He has been accused of being more concerned about the economy than saving lives and hence is being criticized for the premature lifting of quarantine. He has in fact up the ante by saying he will bring the military to augment the police and that he will end the lockdown because government has no more money. Like Trump, he has also humanized the virus calling it “veerus” threatening to find his address and beating him up. On television, he is criticized as rambling and not inspiring confidence that the government has a coherent plan to deal with the pandemic.

Thankfully, he has not eschewed scientific advice – he is not anti-mask nor does he think social distancing is unnecessary. But on the other hand, he risks raising false hopes over a Russian vaccine Sputnik V – even volunteering to be the first to be injected – even though it has yet to complete trials before being certified as safe and effective by the WHO. Observers are saying we should do a more effective job of testing, tracking and isolation to control the spread rather than relying on a vaccine that may take a year to be deployed. By then, infections and fatalities would have exponentially increased if transmission is not adequately controlled.

Leaders of countries who have succeeded in controlling the virus share a common denominator which is to “follow the science” and “a firm focus on the well-being of their population”. The traits often mentioned are a combination of transparency, prudence, empathy, and courage. Four of the top five performing countries in terms of lives saved and control of the spread of the virus have women leaders: New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Finland’s Sanna Marin, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-Wen.  Empathy is such an underrated trait and not often associated with masculinity. Perhaps as women they can show these qualities which those two aforementioned male counterparts are loathe to make because they think it makes them look weak. Of course, these are exceptional women in exceptional circumstances so one should not draw a generalization that women leaders are better. Male leaders can overcome gender expectations, of course, and many have. South Korea’s Moon-Jae is one of those. One can make a case for  Canada’s Trudeau as well.

Leaders also do best when they listen to their people and learn from the science.  Devi Sridhar, the Chair of Global Health at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, wrote in an op-ed in the British Medical Journal that varied information sources, and leaders with the humility to listen to outside voices, are crucial for successful pandemic response. “The only way to avoid ‘groupthink’ and blind spots is to ensure representatives with diverse backgrounds and expertise are at the table when major decisions are made,” she wrote. Simply put, in the Philippines that means we should include doctors, health experts and the private sector in the IATF. And the spokesperson should be a doctor. It stands to reason. Would you take advice from a general or a lawyer if you have a health issue?

This style of leadership may become increasingly appreciated as we face similar crises in the future. There will be more pandemics. Climate change will generate more crisis from extreme weather and other natural disasters. If the virus cannot be intimidated and overcome with bluster, so too can climate change and its consequences. What it will require is the public’s cooperation and willingness to sacrifice convinced that its leaders are looking after them.

Dr. Alice Evans of King’s College in London in a New York Times article said that eventually that could change perceptions of what strong leadership looks like. “What we learned with Covid is that, actually, a different kind of leader can be very beneficial,” Dr. Evans said. “Perhaps people will learn to recognize and value risk averse, caring and thoughtful leaders.”

It remains to be seen whether our collective COVID experience will bring about this change in mindset when we choose our next leader.  


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