Coronavirus is ultimate test of leadership in brave new world

Coronavirus is ultimate test of leadership in brave new world
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As the coronavirus spreads across the world, taking the lives of the most vulnerable and grinding daily life to a halt, it has the potential to reorder the relative standing of countries within the international system. Some states will emerge from the crisis with their workforces, economies, and political institutions largely intact. But others will experience human and financial devastation on a scale not seen in generations. It is not a storm that will buffet all states equally. Some will navigate it well and others will flounder. The difference in outcomes will depend above all on leadership.

While the coronavirus does not discriminate between countries, national responses do. We have certainly seen how some states, like South Korea and Singapore, are using widespread testing while others, like the United States, are slow on it. Some states are imposing social distancing rules as soon as the coronavirus has showed up within their borders while others are procrastinating or contemplating a quick sprint to “herd immunity.” Some are requiring citizens to wear face masks while others are not. Like the decisions of generals or admirals in times of war, these public health decisions that are made will have lasting life and death consequences.

The resources that states have at their disposal will affect how they fare against this disease, making the poorest countries most vulnerable. So will certain variables that are outside their control, like age distribution, population density, the prevalence of other health conditions such as tuberculosis or heart disease, and so forth. In spite of different starting points and vulnerabilities, leadership will still be enormously important. Resources could be squandered or vulnerabilities could be addressed.


We are finding similarly situated countries following different trajectories. Canada is managing the pandemic more strongly than the United States, Germany is doing better than Italy, Argentina is coping better than Brazil, and Norway is flattening its curve faster than Sweden. The countries that come out ahead will be the ones that demonstrate effective leadership in pursuing the five critical tasks of disease mitigation, resource reallocation, job protection, social safety net expansion, and international cooperation.

First, countries will come out ahead only if they adopt scientific means of mitigating the coronavirus. Smart lockdowns and social distancing rules, including widespread use of face masks, are already making a difference in some countries. Conversely, the countries that will fail to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus by denying scientific reality, like North Korea and Turkmenistan, will soon deal with its horrific human consequences.

Second, countries that quickly reallocate resources by calling up military reserves, building makeshift hospitals, or diverting industrial capability to manufacture ventilators and protective gear will be in the best positions to restart their economies when the crisis is over. While not every country holds the same financial or medical resources, those that swiftly redirect all available capabilities to fighting the disease will recover more quickly.

Third, countries that expand social safety nets to their most vulnerable people will fare better than those whose welfare and health systems are stratified into haves and have nots. Free testing and medical care for the poor, along with similar measures to increase health care coverage, are necessary to protect the workforce. Food security, for instance, depends on having agricultural and delivery workers able to supply grocery stores that stock perishable goods. If those workers fall sick and cannot access medical treatment, then the wealthy will suffer along with everyone else.

Fourth, it is increasingly clear that the economic consequences of this crisis will last after a vaccine is developed. Economic activity is grinding to a halt as businesses go bankrupt and fire workers, leading to a vicious cycle of reduced demand that will likely fuel a global recession. The best way to ensure that countries are prepared to resume production after the crisis is over is to keep workers in their jobs through guaranteed payroll subsidies, as the United Kingdom, Denmark, and Sweden have all done. Such subsidies ensure that furloughed workers get paychecks until they can head back to work and help protect companies against bankruptcy.


Finally, coming out from a global recession and health emergency will require international collaboration. Data sharing on transmission trends, medical supplies, and treatments will be crucial to ensure that resources are sent to where they are most needed. Coordinated economic policies through key international institutions such as the Group of Twenty will be necessary to push global demand once the current supply shock is over.

The world is now at a historical inflection point that is rewarding smart leadership based on science. When we look back on this crisis decades from now, no one will ask why countries did too much too soon. Instead, they will wonder why some did too little or took so long to take action.

Michael Carpenter is the managing director of the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. He served as a deputy assistant secretary at the Department of Defense and also served as a foreign policy adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden.