COVID 19: The Crisis, Leadership and the State

Jacinta Arden

New Zealand Prime Minister comforting a Muslim woman in the aftermath of the mosque massacre in Auckland, New Zealand in 2019

As of April 30, 2020, there were 3 018 952 confirmed and 207 973 deaths globally[3] and counting though  Australia’s Chief Health Officer speculates that given that these numbers cover only those who have been clinically tested and recorded and not those who have been left out and whose numbers are likely to be quite large especially in developing countries,  actual number of COVID 19 infected and fatalities are likely to be at least 10 times more.

Notwithstanding, COVID 19 has inflicted massive health havocs in each and every country and thrown many health and non-health challenges and these include but not limited to economic downturn, destitution, rising stress etc.

By now every country, rich and poor, has responded to the crisis, some more successfully than others, revealing useful lessons, both good and bad and those that worked and those that did not, especially in terms of leadership, institutional capacity, policy priority, political frameworks and crisis management.


COVID 19 has revealed an amazing nexus between quality leadership and successful crisis management. It has highlighted how visions of leaders, their prompt and determined actions and their empathy with people and their sufferings are key to managing the crisis and stemming the spread of the scourge successfully. At the other spectrum, this article also shares few examples of bad leadership and how things got messed up completely.

Good leaders

Leaders that top the list in good quality leaderships include Ms. Jacinta Arden of New Zealand, Ms. Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Angela Merkel of Germany and Ms. Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and several sub-national leaders such as Pinarayi Vijayan of Kerala respectively of India.

These leaders have demonstrated  that strategic, determined, inclusive and proactive policies and firm and swift actions on tracing, testing and social isolation which also accompanied SafetyNet measures for the unemployed and the poor and worked inclusively as a team greatly helped in earning the trust of their people and their cooperation in implementing their respective containment policies, effectively.

Empathy is key in crisis management. For example, in a show of solidarity with economic hardships of their citizens that have been caused by the pandemic containment policies (shutting down of businesses, loss of jobs etc.), New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, her entire cabinet and chief executives of government organisations decided to take 20% salary for six months, exempting the doctors, nurses and other frontline health workers.[4] The Opposition Leader Simon Bridges has also volunteered to join them the mission of salary sacrifice, since. This great show of solidarity immensely touched the New Zealanders and they stood solidly behind their government in fulfillment of stringent COVID 19 containment measures.

India’s Kerala case which according to the World Health Organization (WHO)  a “success story” is particularly exemplary especially because its public health system which is universal and one of the best in India had acted promptly and averted a potential disaster and more importantly, the act of alerting and mobilizing various forces – from bureaucratic to the political – was initiated by a conscientious low level district health officer who after sensing the impending danger went into implementing on his own, a number of preventive measures in his own district first. His state which has a large number who work in Gulf countries and were returning home, followed his example, and virtually averted a major crisis. What is also noteworthy is that Kerala put in preventive measures much before the central government in Delhi did.

Bad leaders

Against these inspiring examples, there are some real bad ones and among these who else, but Mr. Donald Trump, the president of the United States of America tops the list.

Mr. Trump who combines the attributes of xenophobe, contempt and bravado in his persona approached COVID 19 with what I call, a 4D worldview – Demonization (instead of focusing on the scourge he invented a new term for the virus, ‘China Virus’ and used the term as an ammunition for his hegemonic geopolitical blustery), Denial (he laughed away the risks), then Delay (delayed actions) and finally, Desperation (by now he has plunged the entire country into a state of utter confusion, chaos and desperation) – resulting as of 30th April in virus’ rampant spread (1.6 million infected) and exponential casualties (62000), surpassing Vietnam casualties and those of all other countries and counting.

Mr. Trump’s last nail in his armoury of scapegoating is his recent decision to cut funding of the World Health Organization (WHO). He blames WHO for the spread of the disease. Bill Gates has condemned Mr. Trump’s decision and said, “Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds.” Most European governments have either regretted or condemned Mr. Trump’s decision. For example, the German Foreign Minister has been quite scathing in his criticism and said “We have to work closely together against Covid-19. One of the best investments is to strengthen the UN, especially the under-funded WHO, for example for developing and distributing tests and vaccines.”

Another case of poor leadership came from Mr. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, a handpicked puppet of Mr. Trump who according to the Guardian, not only played down Covid-19’s threat to his country but cynically sabotaged “quarantine measures imposed by nearly all of the country’s state governors” with the result that infections and deaths from the virus in Brazil are now spiralling out of control.[5]

Philippines President Duterte’s policy of ‘shoot-to-kill’ the violators of social isolation have surpassed all previous records of disgusting leadership. According to Amnesty International, President Duterte’s policy that involved, “…abusive methods… to punish those accused of breaching quarantine and the vast number of mass arrests that have been carried out to date, against mainly poor people, are further examples of the oppressive approach the government takes against those struggling with basic needs.”[6]

In sum, these examples of leadership – both good and bad – reveal how differences in leadership qualities and their policy choices produce very different outcomes, reaffirming that vision, strategic thinking, determination, unwavering actions and empathy with citizens and more importantly, leading by example are the leadership qualities that are essential and make the difference in managing a crisis of a magnitude such as COVID 19, successfully.

State Capacity

While good leadership is important, but good leadership without the backing of enabling state capacities would not achieve much. Presented below are good and bad examples of political and administrative frameworks and how different state capacities responded differently to the COVID 19 crisis management and produced different results.

Good examples

Let us begin with China where the virus first struck. Initially, China kept the news of outbreak of the virus secret, presumably, under the directive of the President Xi Jinping. However, as the virus started to spiral out of control in Wuhan city, the epicentre of the scourge and threatened rest of China, government moved in quickly and quarantined millions of people in their homes as a preventive measure. This was a bold and organizationally an astounding task that involved among other things, not just keeping people indoors but feeding millions while keeping them locked in. These draconian and yet medically savvy and socially sensitive measures did pay dividends. Within a month, spread of the disease inside Wuhan and across rest of China was halted. Furthermore, China experience has also shown how proactive thinking and conducive and prompt responses of state institutions are critical in managing a crisis whose nature and extent kept on changing from one day to the next. Furthermore, at the peak of the crisis when the authority in both Beijing and Wuhan sensed that the number of infected would spike in near future, they joined hands and mobilized forces in amazing speed and constructed a fully equipped and fully functioning 1000-bed hospital within a week. This was no mean a job which only goes to re-affirm the role a strong state with people-centric institutions can play in responding to and catering the needs of the citizens when they need them most.

Another success story is Vietnam, a country of 97 million people which is situated south of coastal China. According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Health, as of 13 April, there were only 262 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 144 recovering or discharged from hospitals, and no deaths. The key factors that worked behind Vietnam’s success are that soon after the news of outbreak of the virus in Wuhan broke in December, its officials acted quickly to trace and test contacts, as well as quarantine and treat the infected. Government successfully stemmed the first wave of infections by January which is remarkable and which according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute “..demonstrates how, by focusing on early risk assessment, effective communication and government-citizen cooperation” even an under-resourced country such as Vietnam can manage a pandemic so successfully. The report also suggests that “…decisive leadership, accurate information and community solidarity” etc. also played important role in Vietnam’s successful containment of the scourge.

Sri Lanka and Mauritius, two developing tiny island countries in the Indian ocean, have also demonstrated how sound public health system and equitable social safety net measures can successfully manage a crisis that has had the potential to devastate these tiny island countries within days. Happily, thanks to their strong public health and social welfare provisions both countries have virtually halted the infection and greatly mitigated the hardships their containment policies brought upon their poor and the disadvantaged.

Among the developed countries, Germany has set a good example and revealed how without the China type draconian measures good results can also be achieved in democracies with good state capacity and no-nonsense leadership.

I have already mentioned New Zealand and stated how good leadership and enabling institutions successfully stemmed the spread of the virus. Similar good outcomes have also been achieved by Australia where its leadership gave science priority over politics. Another outstanding feature of Australia’s success has been leaderships of its state (provincial) premiers. However, Australian Prime Minister Mr. Scott Morrison’s recent attempt to politicise the crisis and his decision to join Trump in blaming China, Australia’s main trading partner for the virus and demanding international probe reveals his lack of political maturity that has irked China and thus may have put at risk future economic recovery of the country.

Bad examples

Not all countries have been that successful. For example, as the minds of their leaders were fixed on something else the densely populated India (Indian Prime Minister Norendra Modi’s mind was on $3.3 billion Delhi beautification project) and Bangladesh and (Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s on centenary celebrations of her fathers who was also the Father of the Nation) have been late in taking preventive actions. By the time in late March, these governments responded with some hurriedly formulated patched up uncoordinated containment policies, were met with disaster. These policies were mired by short sightedness, lack of professionalism and absence of empathy for 30-35% of their population who are poor and live in cities as migrant workers who earn by the day and live by the day, for whom social isolation without the provisions for livelihood support meant virtual death warrants, utter chaos ensued. Hundreds and thousands lost jobs in an instant and most started journeying back to the villages, making the whole idea of social distancing not just a mockery but a cause of incredible hardship and indignity for these disadvantaged people.

Furthermore, in India and thanks to its decades long sectarian Hindutva policy that demonizes and marginalizes its minority Muslims – appx. 200 million or 14% of country’s population -, where they treat them as aliens in their own country, the advent of COVID 19 has made things much worse for them. For example, recently when COVID 19 was very much underway in other countries but not yet in India and at a time when there was also no firm government directive concerning social distancing, some Muslims organized an international religious gathering at a place called, Nizamuddin, near Delhi, India’s capital, where some were detected with COVID 19 infection. India’s communally inspired activists and section of its media – both print and visual – exploited the misstep and went hysterical, blaming Muslims for the spread of the disease – an unproven claim- while ignoring similar Hindu religious gatherings (87% of India’s population are Hindus) that took place in other parts of the country about the same time. The result of the media hype has been that in many Indian villages where Muslims are in minority were driven out of their homes by the majority Hindus, ostracising them – men, women and children – as carriers of the disease[7].

Bangladesh is another example of system failure at multiple levels. With years of nurturing of a political culture that combines hero worship with centralization of power, politicisation of the public service and patronization of ruling party activists with undue favours etc. have in recent times significantly weakened government’s policy capabilities, governing arrangements and institutional competencies and as a result, it also messed up its COVID 19 containment initiatives and put at risk lives and livelihoods of its poor. Bangladesh’s precarious health system which is under-resourced and badly managed and is corrupt is reeling under pressure and failing to cope with the rising number of infections. Also, thanks to its highly politicised corrupt administrative system the relief goods that the government allocated for the poor and sent to the countryside to help the poor to tide over the social isolation difficulties were promptly stolen and usurped, with impunity, by the local leaders of the ruling party.[8]

Interestingly, policy failures and capacity deficits are not so unique to the developing countries only. Take for example, the case of US. In US the disconnect between the federal government and the states in management of the crisis is astounding which also reveals that there is serious gap in policy priorities between the centre and the periphery and this may have to do the way America’s political system has evolved over the years and the way it works presently. Many argue and with evidence that US federal government’s policy priorities do not always reflect the aspirations of its less privileged citizens and are often determined by the country’s various elite lobby groups – both foreign and local –, who manipulate policies to fulfil their and not the interests of the citizens.[9]

As a result, policy priorities of the US federal government in COVID 19 seem to have been completely out of sync with those of the states, the latter seem to represent more closely the concerns of America’s public. These federal/state policy incongruities highlight how far America’s centre has moved away from the agenda of its own citizens and focuses on issues and this is something that has become apparent in the current crisis, that are completely irrelevant to the crisis at hand. Presence of ego maniac as President is not quite helping their cause either. Sadly, and thanks to Mr. Trump, US which has been both loved and hated has now become an object of “pity”.[10]

Among the affluent countries, Singapore is an interesting example which showed that while it successfully applied ‘control, surveillance and containment’ strategy to contain spread of the infection and brought the infection to a halt initially, the infection spiked all over again which originated from its 300000 plus migrant workers who live in pitiable conditions and were ignored by the country’s containment interventions.[11] Of the 528 new cases detected lately, 511 are foreign workers living in dormitories who are victims of “institutionalised neglect”, are now affecting the entire population of Singapore all over again.

Singapore case is a reminder that the fight against COVID 19, a communicable disease that does not spare anyone, neither rich nor poor; neither citizens nor their temporary residents warrant inclusive policy and equal treatment for all.

The Crisis, Leadership and the State: Lessons

In sum, these examples of leadership and institutional capacities – both good and bad – and crisis management reveal that successful handling of the COVID 19 crisis has happened under democracies as well as in one party political systems; in developing and also in developed countries and that having more resources may be helpful but no guarantee of success. Indeed, if there is one generic lesson these examples have revealed it would be that countries that have strong public institutions with strong inclusive wellbeing oriented policies where resources and science have had the capacity to respond to the needs of people and not profit nor politics and more importantly, where leaderships have put people ahead of politics and demonstrated qualities of socially consciousness – only they and not others have come on top of the crisis.


[1] Amended/updated from the original published in South Asia Journal on April 16, 2020

[2] The author is a professor of development practice at the School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia and former senior policy manager of the United Nations













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