Leadership key to defeating Covid-19 and tackling global challenges

COMMENT

Recently Jacinda Ardern declared a climate emergency, sending a signal to the world that leaders need to be on a “war footing” to tackle global challenges.  Similarly, she steered her country effectively through the Covid-19 crisis.  The final common pathway for tackling inter-linked global challenges is leadership.

Power, politics and policy have long been recognised among the key determinants of health.  However, Covid-19 has brought political elements into sharper focus, placing an emphasis on leaders and their ability to govern effectively.  

There are definitely better days ahead, but before the Covid-19 spring will come a harsh winter.  Although we may be tired of the virus, it is not tired of infecting us.  The current situation calls for leadership to save as many lives as possible with public health measures and effective and equitable roll out of the vaccine, which will be one of the most complex national and global operations since the Marshall Plan.

Countries vary in Covid-19 death rates by more than 100 fold.  Key elements that have led to success are not just preparedness or strong health systems, but trust between people and government.  The foundation of this trust is effective leadership — from local communities, to heads of international organisations, to the highest levels of government in the most powerful nations.   

First and foremost, leadership requires the courage to tell the truth to the public even when the news is bad and the truths are hard to accept.  Truthful leaders valorise science, evidence and data and these factors drive decisions.  They acknowledge weakness, admit mistakes, seek help, and share information — not only with their own people but with other countries because this will be good for all countries.


Effective leaders are humble enough to learn from other countries that have faced similar challenges and to recognise that there’s no such thing as virus exceptionalism. Covid-19 has shown that the Global North can learn lessons from the South, the West from the East, and the present from the past.  Some countries made good use of their earlier experience with SARS from 2003 and with contact tracing for other diseases such as Ebola or polio.  Some mounted a comprehensive response to Covid-19 including Mongolia, Republic of Korea, Rwanda, Thailand, and Vietnam. These examples cut across different political systems. 

Showing empathy towards the families of the 1.5-million people who have died and many more who have lost their health or livelihood, and respect towards health and essential workers who put themselves in harm’s way to serve their communities, is itself an act of leadership. 

Since Covid-19 preys on inequalities —including gender, race, and socioeconomic status within and among countries — leadership requires standing with marginalised communities. Countries with women leaders including Finland, Iceland, Germany and New Zealand did particularly well in tackling the virus, in large part because they invested in rolling out testing, which helped them identify where the virus is and break chains of transmission.

Because none of us is safe until all of us are safe and global challenges require multilateral solutions, effective leaders emphasise solidarity.  Recent news regarding highly effective vaccines, resulting from an unprecedented scientific effort, is extremely encouraging and bodes well for 2021 if leaders put ending the pandemic everywhere ahead of narrow nationalistic goals.  The World Health Organisation-led Access to Covid Tools Accelerator, which has an immediate need for $4.3- billion, is a concrete instantiation of solidarity.

Leaders communicate hope to their citizens who have endured a discombobulating, and often devastating, year.  The world defeated smallpox, polio is on the cusp and we will end this pandemic.  The best and fastest way to do that is together.

As Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus said: “Leadership has been severely tested by the Covid-19 pandemic. And it’s fair to say that too often, it has been found wanting.” But, it’s never too late for leaders to step up — rather than give up — and to take the decisions that put their countries on the road to defeating the pandemic.

The big reveal of Covid-19 is that trust is essential to health, leadership builds (or destroys) trust, and the return (or cost) of leadership is measured in citizens’ lives and livelihoods, often those most vulnerable and marginalised. 

Covid-19 has taught us that health is the foundation of prosperous economies and secure countries and leadership is the ultimate vaccine against the inter-linked global challenges of health, climate, conflict, and inequality.

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Peter Singer
Peter Singer is special adviser to the director general of the World Health Organisation.

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