The Irish Times view on the global fight against Covid-19: Leadership matters

Lessons should be drawn from worldwide experiences about the value of classical governing skills

Populist leaders such as Boris Johnson (above), Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi were elected on promises to restore and assert national pride. Confronted with the Covid epidemic they have floundered, dissembled, denied or tried to divert the challenge of effective governing. Photograph: Aaron Chown/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Populist leaders such as Boris Johnson (above), Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi were elected on promises to restore and assert national pride. Confronted with the Covid epidemic they have floundered, dissembled, denied or tried to divert the challenge of effective governing. Photograph: Aaron Chown/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

 

Competence matters in governing during moments of crisis like the current Covid-19 epidemic. The skills of organising, planning, mastery of detail and policy knowledge are especially visible at such times. Voters attracted to political leaders elected on populist slogans of getting things done and making nations great again are disenchanted when the same politicians govern incompetently. Their failures resurrect those with the management and technical skills to tackle the crisis. That will matter in the next political cycles.

Populist leaders such as Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro and Narendra Modi were elected on promises to restore and assert national pride. Confronted with the Covid epidemic they have floundered, dissembled, denied or tried to divert the challenge of effective governing. The downplaying of evidence-based policy-making which helped bring them to power is exposed in this crisis when precisely such competences prove crucial in organising successful responses to the epidemic. Despite the different conditions they each face in the UK, the US, Brazil and India it is noteworthy that these states are among those most highly exposed to the disease.

In contrast Germany and South Korea successfully mobilised testing and tracing systems early on, based on well-functioning public health regimes. New Zealand, Denmark, Australia, Italy and Portugal were among the democratic states exhibiting a similar use of governing capacity to react rapidly and well. Some central and eastern European states did likewise, including Hungary, where Viktor Orban broke the populist pattern by keeping figures low. Authoritarian states, most notably China, have used their command powers ruthlessly to tackle the disease and head off the potential second wave threatening those that did not act early enough.

The dividing line between populist and technocratic leadership in dealing with the Covid emergency is thus no great respecter of the liberal virtues. Such values are put under pressure by populist leaders impatient with legal checks and balances and separation of powers and by authoritarian states with dominant party regimes. Nor do all those with the technocratic skills to deal with the emergency respect liberalism’s rule of law or human rights. Difficult choices are required to protect mass publics from the disease. Those who manage to combine the necessary skills with more basic values deserve political credit and praise for the precedents they set.

This is a universal crisis needing effective international as well as national responses, in which the most vulnerable to the disease need most protection to protect us all. Lessons should be drawn from these worldwide experiences about the value of such classical governing skills, notwithstanding bombastic efforts to play them down.

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