In his book Collapse (Viking Press, 2004), Jared Diamond analyses how societies choose to succeed or fail. Why did the Easter Islanders disappear while Iceland, also faced with a challenging nature, is thriving?  He compares how different regions evolved, based on five factors : climate change, hostile neighbours, collapse of essential trading partners, environmental problems, and the society’s response to the foregoing four factors. In his study, no society has disappeared only because of natural causes only. Everywhere, human reaction was key.

The terrible pandemics we are going through (the author of this post is wriitng from one of the affected countries where she is on lockdown) is proving us a large-scale, real time exercise on leadership, public health systems, societies reactions and opportunities. We have been stupid enough to come unprepared for the crisis. Let not be more stupid by not drawing lessons from it. Next time we will fail better.

This first post will be looking, based on open sources, into features that have favoured or not the spread of the pandemics from a governance point of view. Not so much what measures were taken (there’s a lot of literature on that, and I am not a public health specialist), but how and why they were taken. This is by no means an assessment of political nature or a judgment of the countries or government.

A. Among the factors that have favoured the spread of the epidemics, I identify:
– Populist policies (Bolsonaro, Trump, Duterte), anti-science movements (Northern Italy hosts a large anti-vaxx community), trust in religious predicate against scientific advice and government instructions (religious meetings in Malaysia, South Korea, Israel, East of France have contributed to spread the virus)
– Political instability (Spain, Italy), political bickering and divided political class (US, Spain), lack of trust towards the government (Spain, France)
– Greed (Trump favouring the economy over protecting the population, Teresa May and trade secretary Liam Fox visiting Wuhan and successfully lobbying Beijing to lower its meat safety standards to allow UK exports)
– Regional autonomy (Italy, Spain) which has delayed implementation of government response. However, regional autonomy can be compensated for by other factors (leadership, state capacities, compliance of population) as demonstrated by Germany, a federal state
– Lack of cooperation from the population (France)
– Wrong priorities: for obvious reasons, most of us do not know if the intel services did not warn on the Covid risk, or if they did but were not listened to. I am wondering if the Western intel services, prompted by both US militaristic adventurism and the prospect to sell weapons, might have focused vast resources on tracking Islamic militants in Afghanistan and the Sahel but have under-estimated threats on the national territory? Equally, could the UK administration (and the EU) have prepared better if they had not been fully engaged in the Brexit debate and arrangements?
B. Among the factors that have allowed to slow or stop the disease, I identify:
– Leadership: transparency (South Korea, Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Ghana), ability to listen to experts and advisers, decision-making (Greece shut down before the first death)
– State capacities including of the medical system (Singapore, South Korea, Germany)
– Stability (Germany’s stable government under Merkel has allowed for sufficient preparedness: they are the only ones in Europe who had the tests and masks from Day 1)
– Gender equality: the vast majority of countries who have been able to protect their citizens are ran by women (Korea, Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Norway, Finland) or a mixed team where women are listened to (all of Trudeau’s top health advsiers are women)
– Population’s attitude and compliance with government instructions (Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Germany)
C. Among all these factors, what matters most?
1. Leadership is key: state capacities is not enough when leadership fails (Japan, France), while limited state capacities (Greece weakened by economic crises and refugees influx) were largely compensated for with agility to react
2. Form of state (autocratic or democratic regimes) does not really matter, but generally autocratic states have done slightly poorer (apart from Singapore, who benefits on the other hand from good state capacities, high income, highly compliant population and experience with SRAS/H1N1). The inevitable calls for strong governments that will follow the crisis will be making an error, because this would not help in any way being better prepared for the next crisis.
3. Those who have failed most to protect their populations (US, UK, France, Egypt, Philippines) are led by gang-ho type of male-only decision-makers surrounded by like-minded advisers. This is in contrast with popular belief which, according to information shared in a recent report is that men always make better political leaders
4. Ethics: protect the population (“My job is to protect our people. We know how to bring back to life our economy. We don’t know how to bring back to life people” for Ghana’s Akufo-Addo, or “Our public is very demanding and expects the highest standards from government services” for South Korea’s Kan Kyun-wa), vs “herd immunity” concept (Netherlands today, UK formerly) or militarisation of the response (Duterte orders troops to shoot quarantine violators in the Philippines).
What can we learn form this?
The crisis is giving us an opportunity to improve what was unsatisfactory with our societies and our planet, to increase our cooperation instead of competition, to focus our attention (and our public expenditure) on what matters most. In this regard, the UN SG’s call for a global ceasefire is a wonderful invitation to drop the guns and take up better tools to build our societies. We have to take this extended hand and work together for a safer, healthier and more just planet.