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The Big Picture: Political Leaders Must Face the Catastrophe and Level with the Public

(This week we introduce a new feature, The Observer’s Column, in which the author contributes his own opinion.)

The Quest for a Return to Normalcy

In the United States, and probably throughout most of the countries in the world, none of the political leaders are leveling with the public about the true impact of the coronavirus catastrophe.

It feels like it must have felt in 1914 with troops going off to war, and most people thinking the war would be over in six weeks.

It is as if after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the U.S. entry into the war in Europe, leaders were reassuring the public that all would return to normal in a matter of months. Differences could be settled with Japan. Hitler could be persuaded to withdraw his troops from Poland, France, and the other countries he had invaded in the spring of 1940. The world would return to normal within six months or a year.

It didn’t work out that way.

And yet here we are in the United States, Europe, and other countries, faced with a similar or even greater catastrophe, debating when we should restart the economy and when, in effect, things will get back to normal.

The Brute Facts

The brute facts are simple. Countries, states, and regions will need to maintain their “stay-at-home” and “social distancing” policies until they have the testing and contact tracing abilities to identify individuals who are infected and track down those they have been in contact with.

Or, they can relax these policies before those capabilities are in place, and the rates of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have dropped off sharply, and suffer the consequences. Public health officials are advising, for all the political leaders and members of the public who wish to hear, that we are dealing with a deadly virus which has no regard for our desire to get back to “normal”, and which will spread quickly as we resume our normal activities.

Minor adjustments to social-distancing restrictions may be possible, but these will not change the basic calculus.

Some political leaders seem to believe that a rise in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths may simply be the price we have to pay to get the economy going again. Their belief, unstated, appears to be that they themselves will be privileged not to be among the newly infected, or at least not among the newly dead. The fact that the burden of a resumption in the spreading of the virus will fall disproportionately on minorities and the poor does not seem to concern them greatly.

Cataclysmic Events

At bottom, however, political leaders have basically failed to think through or to communicate to the public what likely lies ahead for their citizens and the world.

Cataclysmic events are likely to follow in the coming months and years. In Brazil, for example, where a seemingly demented President Jair Bolsonaro is in deep denial about the reality of the pandemic, riots and social unrest may occur. If he is not impeached and removed from office first, the military is likely to launch a coup d’état as the virus spreads through the population and the bodies pile up. Bolsonaro, who was a fan of the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, may be trying to acquire dictatorial powers. Last week he fired his health minister, who favored social-distancing restrictions. This week he fired the national police chief, leading his minister of Justice to resign. Yet the military coup that could occur is not likely to be one that enthrones him in power, but rather one that puts science and reason back at the center of government decision making.

As the coronavirus spreads in India, or Africa, massive convulsions are likely to take place. Even in China, with its huge population, the virus could resume its spread as lock-downs and social-distancing restrictions are progressively lifted in order to unleash the economy.

The Two Potential Exits

There are only two potential developments that might avoid scenarios such as these. The first is the development, mass production, distribution, and deployment of an effective treatment for those who are infected by the virus, and particularly for those who become seriously ill, are hospitalized, and who may suffer complications that involve an immediate risk of death.

The second is the development, mass production, distribution, and administration of a vaccine which is effective against the virus. Scientific experts say we are at the beginning of a period of some 12-18 months that may be required for the development, testing, and approval of such a vaccine. The time required may be longer. Indeed, there is no absolute guarantee that an effective vaccine will be found at all.

At the moment, national political leaders and governments are thinking (mostly within national silos and short time-frames) about how they might navigate the rapids of the coronavirus pandemic, and come out safely on the other side.


All of this is occurring in a world in which there is a huge leadership vacuum. The United States is led by a president who seems intellectually unable to grapple with the reality that faces his country and the world, and politically unwilling to ramp up the country’s productive forces to have sufficient testing, contact tracing, and hospital capacity to safely lift restrictions, or to meet a second wave of infections should one occur Unable to lead the U.S., he is politically and temperamentally disinclined to provide the world the leadership it so desperately needs. This is a role that has traditionally been filled by the U.S., which may be the one “indispensable nation” which could, at least in theory, provide such leadership.

Indeed, the American president’s recent actions demonstrate that he is not only failing to lead in the United States and in the world, but that he himself is a major and active part of the catastrophe which America and the world face.

On March 16, for example, the U.S. blocked the adoption of a common communique at a G7 summit meeting on measures to meet the crisis, by insisting that the virus be referred to as the “Wuhan virus” in the joint communique. This effectively blocked its adoption, and the coordinated efforts that it might have engendered.

To cite another example, this week the United States has blocked a meeting of the United Nations Security Council aimed at establishing ceasefires, in view of the coronavirus pandemic, in the wars currently underway in the world. The meeting would have included the leaders of the permanent members of the Council (the U.K., France, China, Russia, and the U.S.– referred to collectively as the “P5” countries), each of which has a veto power and can prevent the Council from acting. The P5 summit, strongly promoted by French President Emmanuel Macron, was blocked behind the scenes because the U.S. reportedly insisted on language in the resolution which would have blamed China for the pandemic. The purpose of the draft resolution was to establish ceasefires in wars currently underway. That action has, at least for now, been blocked.

What is clear is that the world now faces an enormous catastrophe, and that political leaders are failing to explain to their citizens the terrible dimensions of the disaster. Squabbling among themselves, lost in arguments about when to resume economic activity and return to normalcy, they are failing to quell, and even fomenting, the political pressures which may lead them to ignore the advice of scientific, medical, and epidemiological experts. Failure to listen to such experts could lead to ill-advised decisions with catastrophic consequences.

The first order of business, beyond managing the immediate threats posed by the pandemic, must be for political leaders to level with their citizens about the full nature of the human catastrophe we are living through, and which we must overcome.

The Observer

Next: “Perspective d’un savant: La grande vision de Edgar Morin sur la pandémie du coronavirus et ses effets” (à propos d’une interview publiėe dans Le Monde du 16 avril 2020).

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