Lessons in Leadership
Updated: Apr 4
The day the earth stood still.
Our world needs more empathy and compassion. In the 1980s, long before the internet changed how we do business, entertain ourselves, shop, travel and the way we see and receive information, my first job was area manager for a large tour operator.
It was a good experience in managing staff, logistics and operations in different countries. Can you remember what it was like travelling in the '80s or the price of a ticket? You could smoke on a plane, bring whatever you wanted and security was not like today. You couldn’t book tickets or hotels online.
Plane travel was an adventure. People put on special clothes. Landing at your destination in one piece did feel like a miracle and pilots were treated like semi-gods that you needed to thank for their amazing skills.
I clearly remember the time when plane travel happened without any kind of electronic entertainment. Customs still existed at the time. Luggage was checked and passports inspected.
Nowadays, in the coronavirus age, you are not allowed to travel, sport or go shopping. Hotels are closed and the aviation industry is grounded. Most of the European countries are in lockdown because of the outbreak.
I feel like being in the film Jeremiah Johnson, the western film of Sydney Pollack with Robert Redford, but then in the flat country of Belgium. Jeremiah Johnson is a 70s movie about a man who turns his back on civilisation and learns a new code of survival in a brutal land of isolated mountains, the Rocky Mountains.
With the corona drama, we are facing the largest global crisis of our generation. Our way of life and use of time has changed considerably due to shorter working hours, working from home, unemployment and revaluation of time for ourselves. Do we feel free in that free time and are we?
The coronavirus epidemic is a huge test for citizenship. Like Yuval Noah Harari notes in his opinion piece in the Financial Times of 20 March 2020, humankind faces two particularly important choices. The first is between totalitarian surveillance and citizen empowerment. The second is between nationalist isolation and global solidarity.
In Europe, and around the world, governments are getting tougher. But what happens when restrictions slip? Hungary, for example, proclaimed a state of emergency to deal with the situation, despite that all legal instruments were already at the government’s disposal to take legal steps necessary for stopping the epidemic. The parliament has been suspended. There was no need of declaring a state of emergency.
At the other side of the world, Singapore measures proved to be effective but raised questions about the invasiveness of the state. Surveillance cameras helped the government find contacts of confirmed cases, who have all been quarantined.
Nevertheless, lockdown measures and unilateral closing down of borders, not only contradict the EU policies and goals on climate but also the fundamental freedom to provide services in the single market and the principle of free movement of workers.
The coronavirus will change many things in our lives. It will not only change global politics in profound ways. It is almost certain that a large recession will hit the world. Much bigger than the one of the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and its side effects. National governments, EU authorities, including the ECB, are announcing measures to sustain the economy which are not sufficient. I have not seen any particular EU funding, support or specific measures for SMEs till now.
We are experiencing the most acute contraction in consumer spending ever. SMEs will need large state and EU funding to continue to operate. We must join forces at local, regional, national and European level.
The coronavirus is an opportunity to show leadership. Certainly in a turbulent political period in which citizens are no longer used to that. Nevertheless, the condition is that the crisis should be tackled properly and with unity. The US led the world’s response to other epidemics, like Ebola and AIDS. But a more nationalist US is ceding leadership on this virus to China and Russia. Even Cuba sends help to Italy. The total absence of the USA is intriguing. This is the worst outcome for American global leadership.
As the emergency of tackling COVID-19 is a major world challenge, UN chief Antonio Gutteres seems to take over the role of the planet foreman, giving wonderful lessons in leadership. He called world leaders to come together and provide an urgent and coordinated global response to this crisis. More than ever before, we need solidarity, hope and the political will to see this through together, he said. A few days later he called for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. That is what our human family needs, now more than ever, he added.
The outbreak spreads to more countries and so does solidarity among people everywhere. Communities around the globe are showing solidarity with each other and support for health care professionals. While hospitals are being overwhelmed by the virus, holed-up residents in Spain, Italy, France and Belgium have gathered to applaud the health care workers on the front lines of the outbreak.
As scientists struggle to discover more effective ways to deal with the coronavirus, the only weapon that is used for now in Europe is protective measures for public health and safety in the broader sense of the word. But we need much more than that.
We need a plan just like the one of South Korea. We need to roll out testing on mass scale. Seoul tackled the spread of the flu without closing down businesses and without closing its borders. The aggressive use of technology to trace the virus and the mass testing of all citizens who have been in contact with the infection appears to be a strategy that has worked. South Korea followed the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO): "Testing, testing, testing." The Asian country has conducted 338.000 tests since the outbreak. At its peak, there were more than 20.000 per day.
It is paramount to put in place an innovative and sustainable action plan going beyond protective measures. No government other than the most repressive believes it can keep its country in lockdown for months because the social and the economic effects would be catastrophic for our democracies and the people.