Leadership in a fractured world

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The world now needs the likes of Ardern and Merkel, not Trump and Bolsonaro

The world is changing by the minute, before our very eyes. There are the new realities — some would call them the new normal — that are already before us. 

There is the linguistic part of the story. We have already come to terms with such phrases as “self-quarantine” and “self-isolation.” Where it had always been our endeavour to promote social closeness and by extension social cohesion, we must now accept “social distancing” as an unavoidable aspect of our parlous existence.

The coronavirus pandemic may have already changed our world, and not necessarily for the better. Shaking hands or going for hugs, so much symbolic of human behaviour, is now an invitation to disaster. An embrace can lead to swift death for those who go for it. 

We must stand well away from one another, assuming we need to be in physical presence before one another, for one of us or many among us are likely carriers of the virus which has already sent thousands to early graves across the globe. The enemy is not definitively known, is not seen, it is not felt. 

But it lurks somewhere around us. We wash our hands with sanitizers and soaps; we are expected to resist the temptation of touching our own faces. We are told to stay indoors, doors and windows barred.

We are, all 7.8 billion of us, prisoners in our homes, scattered as we are across the continents. Airports have mutated into previously unimagined parking lots for tens of thousands of aircraft. Buses run almost empty. Trains are beginning to be images of ghost carriages with a handful of shadowy human beings in them. Markets and malls are bereft of life. The streets are empty, civilization seemingly extinct.

This is the new world we inhabit today. It tests the competence of leaders everywhere, for nothing can be more challenging and more an opportunity for evidence of mettle and performance than for leaders to respond to unanticipated challenges. 

No one was prepared for the coronavirus affliction. Yet today it is the very reason why governments and leaders around the world need to convince their nations that they are qualified to instill confidence in them, that they can shine a light into the darkness and bring them out of this all-encompassing darkness.

New Zealand’s young Jacinda Ardern, committed and having already demonstrated statesmanship in the wake of some fanatical shootings in mosques, has demonstrated an equal degree of political competence in handling the coronavirus menace. Her country has not suffered the way other nations have suffered, which is testimony to the discerning politician she is, and is a sign of the larger future that may yet lie ahead of her.

In these troubled times, the individual under unprecedented pressure is the indefatigable director general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Day after day, never letting the likes of Donald Trump get under his skin, never displaying any signs of nervousness or fatigue, he goes on providing leadership to an organization that has never before in its history been tested in the way it is being tested today. 

The Ethiopian inspires courage beyond Geneva, which is what the world needs at this point in time.

In Germany, it is Angela Merkel again. She has led her country with finesse as chancellor. She has demonstrated courage through opening her doors to refugees that no other country would take in. Today she wages a determined war on the pandemic which runs riot everywhere, threatening to push this ancient earth into the apocalypse. 

Leadership — informed, committed, and purposeful — is also the story in Denmark and Sweden. Little children have begun to return to school in Copenhagen. In Stockholm, efficient leadership has averted the disastrous course that has felled many other nations.

A remarkable instance of leadership comes from President Xi Jinping. His government, after the gloom of Wuhan, has clearly beaten back the virus. Of course, there are all the enemies arrayed against Beijing and all the conspiracy theorists determined to place China on the cross, but bigger than all that is the courageous way in which the Beijing leadership has beaten back the tide. Away in South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa has made it his singular mission to save his people from disaster. He stays focused on the job of keeping the virus at bay.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo watches the sheer helplessness of his people and yet goes on, day after day, in keeping them from breaking. That is not what Donald Trump does or can do. That is not what Jair Bolsonaro, ignorant to the nth degree, will or can do. The Brazilian does not comprehend the seriousness of the issue at hand. The American wants his rabid followers to “liberate” states his party does not govern. In Brasilia and Washington, leadership has given way to demagoguery of the unhinged.

The global landscape is under strain. Economies are on a slide to ruin. Agriculture stares at fields promising to be darkly fallow. Layoffs and furloughs are fast becoming part of the lexicon. And so are PPEs and masks and gowns.

It is an eerie unity of people, stretching through and across the continents. One affliction lays all of us low; one corpse in the grave is identical to all other corpses in all other graves. In this fractured world, in order for us to have a world restored, leadership is called for. 

For the very first time in the history of the planet, there is a need for collective, comprehensive, competent, and cohesive leadership. There is a historic requirement for presidents and prime ministers and social scientists and academics and businesspeople to come together — to plan a renewal of our world once this rampaging disaster is beyond us. 

There is an imperative for a global social contract, beyond this gloom.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.