Now that Covid-19 seems to be receding, it’s time for second guessing to start judging how world leaders reacted. “Could have, should have” will fill the headlines in the next weeks. Ratings will come forth, there will be positive and negative ledgers. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was perfect in New Zealand; Taiwan’s Vice-President reacted swiftly and effectively; Dr. Anthony Fauci became the darling of the Left in the United States. On the opposite side, Trump’s delays cost 36,000 lives. Brazilian President Bolsonaro and Russian leader Putin got it all wrong as did the health authority in Sweden whose bet on herd immunity does not appear to have paid off in the short run.
These judgments are not like reviewing a professional football team’s tactics on the Monday after Sunday’s game, known in the U.S. as “Monday morning quarterbacking.” They are more like reviewing generals’ tactics in war. Lives were at stake. Leaders’ judgments were matters of life and death, not first downs or trips to the Super Bowl.
How to make a judgment? There are statistics. Sweden’s open policy has led to ten times more deaths than in its neighboring Norway and Denmark. A Swiss health official bragged: “In Switzerland we had 1650 deaths for 31,000 cases. In France, almost 30,000 deaths for 150,000 cases. One death for five in France against only one per 20 for us.” But the final verdict will have to wait until an eventual second wave occurs. And numbers can always be manipulated.
Beyond statistics, what can be judged is the role of the leader. In times of crisis such as this pandemic, citizens look to their governments for leadership. As in wars with generals, people focus on individuals, be it a president, prime minister or in this case, the minister of health.
So beyond statistics and the normal functioning of any government, people looked to someone to lead them. Who was in charge? What did she know and when did she know it? What were the options and why was one choice favored over another? All are legitimate questions.
And the leaders reflected much of their country’s cultures. Ardern gave interviews at home with her newborn baby in her arms. Trump gave conferences bragging about being number one in everything he could think of. (CBS reporter Weijia Jiang was spot on when she asked Trump at a press conference: “Why is this a global competition to you if every day Americas are still losing their lives and we’re still seeing more cases?”) The prime minister of Norway addressed the nation’s children on the first day they would be using tele-learning. In the time of crisis, some leaders shone, others disappointed.
The governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, became a national star. His daily conferences were lessons in communication mixing facts, future policy and home grown Italian wisdom. His Mother’s Day tele-tribute to his own mom must rate as a perfect example of threading the needle between the warmth of emotions and the coldness of television presenting thousands dying.
In Switzerland, Health Minister Alain Berset was omnipresent in the media. His calm, forthright presentations of the government’s decisions were re-assuring, but not inspiring. He represented the executive in a timely and professional manner, what one expect from a consensual Swiss politician.
All of the above are personal reactions to how leaders presented the crisis. The difficult question is the relationship between a leader’s presentation and how the public reacts. Did Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats from 1933 to 1944 during the Depression and the Second World War change the public? (They certainly helped him get elected three more times) Did Winston Churchill’s speeches really calm the frightened British during the Blitz? Did the Swiss officer’s encouragement to the troops during the recent pandemic effect how the soldiers performed? Swiss Health Minister Berset’s quotation in announcing the end of the lockdown has become a classic: "We want to proceed as swiftly as possible and as slowly as necessary," he said. It now appears on T-shirts. But what did it change?
These questions are truly known unknowns. Reviews of how governments reacted to the crisis will take place, all the way up to the intergovernmental World Health Organization. And they should. What will be more difficult to analyze is how the leaders in each country performed in terms of effecting citizen’s actions. In democracies, getting elected is one skill. Governing during a crisis is another story. The better candidate merely gets elected. The better leader becomes etched in history.
“For the problem is how to bring hot passion and cool clarity of vision together in one and the same soul,” wrote Max Weber. And after the Covid-19 crisis, leaders will be judged by both those criteria.