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Why Leaders Are Struggling Worldwide with the COVID-19 Crisis

Some worry that few leaders are stepping up to the plate.

Source: Martin Sanchez/Unsplash
COVID-19 crisis.
Source: Martin Sanchez/Unsplash

In the view of many, the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic has been a mix of denial, incompetence, and the manipulation of public awareness for political gain. A longstanding disdain for expert opinion on the political right and the systematic dismantling of the so-called “deep state” under President Trump has likely deprived us of the very agencies and expertise that might have helped us to avert this crisis. Coherent leadership from the executive branch is entirely absent.

State and local politicians across the country are attempting to fill this void. Among others, Governors Newsom of California and Cuomo of New York have issued emergency state-wide “shelter in place” rules for all their citizens. In doing so, they have relied upon the expertise of epidemiologists and virologists who understand how the coronavirus spreads in predictable ways absent efforts to confine it. Anthony Fauci of the NIAID here in the United States and Neil Ferguson of Imperial College in the United Kingdom have outlined the social distancing efforts that will be necessary to slow the spread of the coronavirus and “flatten the curve.” Boris Johnson in the UK and governors across the US are listening.

While Fauci and Ferguson are experts in their fields, they are not political leaders. They may understand how a virus spreads and what must be done in order to save physical lives, but they don’t necessarily have to weigh the costs of saving those lives against wider concerns – to wit, the effect of shutting down the economy upon the current and future financial lives of hundreds of millions of people. For any current political leader, the choices they face are stark.

Across the globe, we have seen a variety of responses by different types of government.

1. Do nothing and lie about the numbers. Iran.

2. A radical and far-reaching lockdown by an authoritarian regime that leads a command economy. China.

3. Rapid early mobilization for testing and containment. South Korea.

4. Nationwide lockdowns by countries with strong social safety networks. Italy and France.

5. Limited nationwide restrictions with wage guarantees for most workers. United Kingdom.

At this point, numbers 2 and 3 appear to have been successful in containing the outbreak, though we don’t yet know whether Chinese cases will surge once confinement is lifted. Italy appears to have enacted its shutdown too late to control the virus. In France, the nationwide lockdown announced by President Macron coincided with financial backstopping for virtually the entire French economy, and the UK government has also announced wage guarantees.

Here in the United States, we have a patchwork of local and state responses that follow expert guidance on containment but may not address the economic fallout. We are shutting down our workforce without a financial backstop, harming our economy and potentially doing massive damage to hundreds of millions of lives. Financial columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin offers his solution: “The government could offer every American business, large and small, and every self-employed — and gig — worker a no-interest 'bridge loan' guaranteed for the duration of the crisis to be paid back over a five-year period.” The price tag? As much as 10 trillion (that’s with a "t") dollars. In my view, the odds of enacting such a financial backstop in this country seem slim.

The media constantly tell us that we must look to Italy for our future, that our own trajectory is only a week or two behind theirs. Italy enacted shelter in place rules on March 9th and so far, the numbers have continued to climb; national lockdown has been ineffective, probably because it came too late and the Italian government lacks the power and authority of the Chinese regime to enforce it.

So if we do follow the Italian trajectory, it's possible that our own piecemeal and less drastic approach will likely fail. We won’t flatten the curve in time to stop the health care system from becoming overwhelmed, and as a result, COVID-19 will kill a great many people who might otherwise have survived. In the process, our partial and ineffective response on the state level, lacking a financial backstop, will wreck the economy and severely damage the futures of hundreds of millions of people.

What might effective leadership look like under these dire circumstances? What choices might true leaders make, given the grim choices? In my personal view, it would involve isolating the elderly, infirm, and vulnerable; sending younger people back to work with moderate social-distancing policies in place; enacting some form of financial relief for companies and workers nationwide; and on whatever level possible, placing the country on a war footing, mobilizing the economy to produce the ventilators and other supplies necessary to keep our front-line health care workers safe.

We will eventually develop effective vaccines and treatment; in the meantime, the loss of life and financial damage could be massive, given the widespread failure of effective leadership on both the federal and state levels.