COVID 19. The Crisis, Leadership and the State


by M. Adil Khan[ii] 16 April 2020

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Aden comforting a Muslim woman in the aftermath of the mosque massacre in Auckland, New Zealand in 2019

 As of April 15, 2020, there were 1.9 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections and more than 125000 deaths, worldwide and counting. In this regard,  Australia’s Chief Health Officer speculates that given that these numbers cover only the clinically tested and recorded ones and not those who have been left out and whose numbers are likely to be quite large especially in developing countries,  actual number of COVID 19 infected and fatalities are likely to be at least 10 times more.

Notwithstanding, COVID 19 has indeed inflicted massive health havocs in every country and thrown many health and non-health challenges such as economic downturn, destitution, rising stress etc. This may be a good time draw few useful lessons – some encouraging, some not so encouraging –  in ascertaining what worked and what did not in terms COVID 19 prevention focusing in particular on issues relating to leadership, institutional capacity, political framework, ruling government’s ideological and political leanings and crisis management.


COVID 19 has revealed an amazing nexus between quality leadership and successful crisis management. It has highlighted how visions of leaders, their prompt and determined actions and empathy have helped managing the crisis and stemming the spread of the scourge better. At the other spectrum, this article also shares few examples of bad leadership and shows how they messed things up completely.

Good leaders

Leaders that top the list in good quality leadership are: Ms. Jacinta Arden of New Zealand, Ms. Mette Frederiksen of Denmark and Ms. Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan and several sub-national leaders such as Chief Ministers Momota Banerjee of West Bengal and Pinarayi Vijayan of Kerala respectively of India. These leaders have demonstrated  that strategic, inclusive and proactive policies and firm and swift actions on tracing, testing and social isolation which also accompanied SafetyNet measures and more importantly, working as a team has greatly helped in earning the trust of their respective people and their cooperation in implementing their containment policies.

Empathy is key in crisis management. Lately, in show of solidarity with economic hardships caused by the pandemic containment policies of her government, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her government ministers have decided to take 20 per cent pay cuts[iii]. The pay cut which will be in effect for six months would apply to government ministers and chief executives of government organisations but not the frontline staff like doctors or nurses. Opposition Leader Simon Bridges has also volunteered to join them in taking the cut.

India’s Kerala case which according to the World Health Organization (WHO)  a “success story” is particularly exemplary especially because its health system acted promptly and averted a potential disaster and more importantly, the alert and mobilization of various forces – from bureaucratic to the political levels was initiated by a conscientious low level district health officer who on his own went into implementing preventive measures much before the central government did so and at a time when outbreak was imminent, when India’s Prime Minister Mr. Modi’s mind was on the $2.6 billion Delhi beautification project.    

Similarly, Momota Banerjee, the Chief Minister of West Bengal of India who is known for her simple lifestyle has been seen in her much familiar modest white Sari visiting, sometime on foot sometime in her official jeep, hospitals, streets and slums to ensure that social distancing measures, hospital services and more importantly, food and other provisions meant for the poor have reached the targeted groups. This is leadership by walking-the-talk in the truest literal sense.

Bad leaders

Against these inspiring examples, there are some real bad ones and among these who else, but Mr. Trump, the president of the United States of America seems to top the list.

Mr. Trump who combines the attributes of xenophobe, contempt and bravado in his persona approached COVID 19 with what I call, a 4D worldview – Demonization (he invented a new term for the virus, ‘China Virus’ to use the term as an ammunition for his hegemonic geopolitical armoury), Denial (he laughed away the risks), then Delay (delayed actions) and finally, Desperation (he plunged the entire country into a state of utter confusion, chaos and desperation) – resulting in virus’ rampant spread and exponential casualties, surpassing all other countries and counting.

Mr. Trump’s last nail in his coffin of scapegoating is his recent decision to cut funding of the World Health Organization (WHO) whom he blames for the spread of the disease. Bill Gates has condemned Mr. Trump’s decision and said, “Halting funding for the World Health Organization during a world health crisis is as dangerous as it sounds.” German Foreign Minister has also been quite scathing in his criticism reminding that “We have to work closely together against Covid-19. One of the best investments is to strengthen the UN, especially the under-funded WHO, for example for developing and distributing tests and vaccines.”

Another case of poor leadership came from Mr. Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, a handpicked puppet of Mr. Trump who according to the Guardian, not only played down Covid-19’s threat to his country but cynically sabotaged “quarantine measures imposed by nearly all of the country’s state governors” with the result that infections and deaths from the virus in Brazil are now spiralling out of control.[iv]

Philippines President Duterte’s policy of ‘shoot-to-kill’ the violators of social isolation have surpassed all previous records of disgusting leadership. According to Amnesty International, President Duterte’s policy that involved, “…abusive methods… to punish those accused of breaching quarantine and the vast number of mass arrests that have been carried out to date, against mainly poor people, are further examples of the oppressive approach the government takes against those struggling with basic needs.”[v]

In sum, these examples of leadership – both good and bad – reveal how differences in leadership qualities and their policy choices produce very different outcomes, reaffirming that vision, strategic thinking, determination, unwavering actions and empathy with citizens are qualities that are essential for a leader to successfully manage a crisis such as COVID 19.

State Capacity, Political/Administrative Frameworks

While good leadership is important leadership alone without the backing of enabling institutional and political capacities would not go very far. Presented below are good and bad examples of political and administrative frameworks and how these institutions responded to COVID 19 crisis management.

Good examples

Let us begin with China where the virus first appeared. Initially, China kept the news of outbreak of the virus secret, presumably, under the directive of the President Xi Jinping. However, as the virus started to spiral out of control in Wuhan city, the epicentre of the scourge and threatened rest of China, government moved in quickly and, as a preventive measure, quarantined millions of people in their homes. This was a bold and organizationally an astounding task that involved among other things, not just keeping people indoors but feeding millions while keeping them locked in. These draconian and yet medically savvy and socially sensitive measures did pay dividends. Within a month, spread of the disease inside Wuhan and across rest of China was halted. Furthermore, China experience has also shown how proactive thinking and conducive responses are crucial in managing a crisis whose nature and extent kept on changing from one day to the next. When the authority sensed that the number of infected would spike in near future, they mobilized forces in amazing speed and constructed a fully equipped functioning 1000-bed hospital within a week. This was no mean job which only went to re-affirm the role a strong state can play in responding to and catering the needs of the citizens when they need them most.

Another success story is Vietnam, a country of 97 million people which is situated south of coastal China. According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Health, as of 13 April, there were only 262 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 144 recovering or discharged from hospitals, and no deaths. The key factors that worked behind Vietnam’s success are that soon after the news of outbreak of the virus in Wuhan broke in December, its officials acted quickly to trace and test contacts, as well as quarantine and treat the infected. Government successfully stemmed the first wave of infections by January which is remarkable which according to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute “..demonstrates how, by focusing on early risk assessment, effective communication and government-citizen cooperation” Vietnam, an under-resourced country managed a pandemic so successfully. The report also suggests that “…decisive leadership, accurate information and community solidarity” etc. also played important role.

Bad examples

Other countries have been less fortunate. For example, as the minds of their leaders were fixed on something else the densely populated India and Bangladesh have been late in taking preventive actions and when these governments responded with containment policies these were mired by short sightedness, lack of competencies and absence of empathy for the poor where close to 30-35% of them live in cities as migrant workers and earn by the day to live by the day, where social isolation without the provisions of livelihood support meant virtual death warrants. Hundreds and thousands lost jobs and journeyed back to the villages, making the whole idea of social distancing not just a mockery but a cause of incredible hardships and indignity for these disadvantaged people.

Furthermore, in India and thanks to its decades long sectarian Hindutva policy that demonizes and marginalizes its minority Muslims – appx. 200 million or 14% of country’s population -, where they are treated as aliens in their own country, the advent of COVID 19 has made things even worse for them. For example, recently when COVID 19 was very much underway in other countries but not in India and at a time when there was also no firm government directive concerning social distancing, some Muslims organized an international religious gathering at a place called, Nizamuddin, near Delhi, India’s capital, where some were detected with COVID 19 infection. India’s communally inspired activists and section of its media – both print and visual – exploited the misstep and went hysterical, blaming Muslims for the spread of the disease – an unproven claim- while ignoring similar Hindu religious gatherings (87% of India’s population are Hindus) that took place in other parts of the country about the same time. The result of the media hype has been that in many Indian villages where Muslims are in minority were driven out of their homes by the majority Hindus, blaming them as carriers of the disease[vi].

Bangladesh is another example of system failure. With years of nurturing of a political culture that combined hero worship with centralization of power, politicisation of the public service and patronization of ruling party activists with undue favours the government significantly weakened its policy capabilities, governing arrangements and institutional competencies.

It is against the backdrop of malfunctioning governance that Bangladesh government adopted, after much procrastinations, social distancing measures which also included some token provisions for basic-needs provisions for the poor. However, as the decision of social distancing was made without much preparation and without much thinking on policy’s implications on the poor especially those lived in cities immediate results were anything but satisfactory. The medicos were least equipped to handle the situation and faltered and the poor who suddenly became jobless and incomeless headed home in hundreds and thousands making social distancing a mockery. Furthermore, a large group of expatriate Bangladeshis who returned home were sent to a makeshift half prepared quarantine facility that ended up in a fiasco.  Also, thanks to the highly politicised corrupt administrative system the relief goods that the government allocated for the poor and sent to the countryside to help the poor to tide over the social isolation difficulties were promptly stolen and usurped with impunity, by the local leaders of the ruling party.[vii]  Bangladesh’s precarious health system which is under-resourced and badly managed is reeling under pressure and failing to cope with the rising number of infections.

Policy failures are not unique to the developing countries. For example, in US the disconnect between the federal government and the states in management of the crisis is astounding which also revealed that there is serious gap in policy priorities between the centre and the periphery and this may have to do the way America’s democracy has evolved over the years and works presently. Many argue and with evidence that US federal government’s policy priorities do not always reflect the aspirations of its less privileged citizens and are often determined by the country’s various elite lobby groups – both foreign and local –, representing mainly their interests and not those of the citizens.[viii] As a result, policy priorities of the US federal government in COVID 19 seem to have been out of sync with if not contradictory from those of the states who represent more closely the  concerns of America’s public. These federal/state policy incongruities highlight how far the centre has moved away from the agenda of its own citizens and focuses on issues, at least in this case, that are completely irrelevant to the crisis at hand.

In sum, these examples – good and bad – reveal that successful handling of the crisis has happened under democracies as well in one party political systems and aspects that make the difference are quality of leadership, strategic priority setting, policy coherence and institutional capacity.

Finally, if these case examples have revealed one resounding message this would be that the role of state in delivering health and other essential public services coherently and coordinatively should never be underestimated nor compromised.

[ii] The author is a professor of development practice at the School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia and former senior policy manager of the United Nations