Development, Economics and finance, Government and governance, Social policy | Australia, Asia, Southeast Asia, The World

3 April 2020

From Southeast Asia to the United States, tough talk and power grabs are failing to beat the pandemic, and showing that only evidence-based policy can, Sally Tyler writes.

Like many people on the planet, I am at home, hiding from an invisible pathogen stealthier than any terrorist attack. The COVID-19 pandemic represents an unprecedented global challenge to healthcare infrastructures, economic resiliency, and leadership. Decisions by national leaders are casting in stark relief those who view the crisis as a threat to their personal brand and those who are ready to meet the challenge through the painstakingly mundane, if deadly serious, process of good governance.  

More on this: The cost of misinformation

Singapore’s response to the crisis has received near universal acclaim, and its aggressive campaign of contact tracing and widespread testing is seen as the gold standard for virus containment. The city state’s response was particularly notable in its use of public health experts as the official messengers of the national campaign.

This is in sharp contrast to the United States, where President Trump has assumed the role of daily explainer-in-chief, first denying that the novel coronavirus was even as serious as the flu, and later blaming the spread of the virus on both the Chinese government and his Democratic opponents. Anthony Fauci, longtime director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, has had his hands full trying to clarify or cancel the near-constant stream of misinformation emanating from the president.

Meanwhile in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly delay in implementing testing was followed by an abrupt decision to lock down the Manila region, without guidance to the capital’s 12 million inhabitants about what services, if any, would still be available to them. Most recently, his successful demand for emergency powers stopped short of nationalising private companies, as he originally wanted, but has nonetheless alarmed human rights critics in its authoritarian scope.

More on this: Public messaging, trust and COVID-19: some pointers for policymakers
Similar concerns have been voiced in Thailand after Thai leader Prayut Chan-o-cha’s further clampdown on free speech during the pandemic, including the arrest of a Thai man who had just returned to Bangkok from abroad because he had posted online that virus screening was not being conducted at the international airport. Opponents have long been vocal about the Thai government’s attempts to criminalise any criticism of it and many are worried the public health emergency will be used as a cover for more repressive action.

These disparate actions taken at the national level highlight the very real differences between the art of campaigning and the reality of governing. Campaigning rewards glib soundbites, larger-than-life posturing, and a refusal to admit to not knowing something. In governance, such behaviour can get you, or at least several thousand of your citizens, killed.

The plethora of critical issues facing contemporary world leaders underscores the importance of assembling a team of experts before day one of a new administration, and of creating an effective mechanism for consultation.

A prime example would be the decision-making style of Trump’s predecessor, Barack ‘No Drama’ Obama, who was known for being comfortable with not having an immediate answer to a complex problem, and who sought out the advice of those who knew more on the subject, including those who disagreed with him.

Hopefully, leaders will have the foresight to extend this consultation to other nations, as the virus knows no border, and robust international data sharing is one of the few hopes to slow its spread. Nations lacking in transparency or who try to manipulate the evidence of the pandemic will surely endanger their own citizens and possibly the world.

And once the public health crisis has subsided, a multilateral approach will be warranted to address underlying issues such as economic inequality and worker migration, which have been ignited by the pandemic, to ensure that they are not further exacerbated by recovery efforts.

The $2 trillion relief bill which just passed in the American Congress excludes tax-paying immigrants from receiving stimulus checks, even though they are some of the most likely to be laid-off from jobs.
In Indonesian economic relief efforts, manufacturers will be exempt from paying income tax on workers for six months, but this will come as little comfort to the Indonesian migrant workers who are trapped in Malaysia under a new movement control order and fear that they may starve before it is lifted.

As the United States learned after the financial collapse of 2008, if relief efforts concentrate on business to the exclusion of workers, any recovery will be painfully protracted. World leaders must move cooperatively and proactively to ensure that the pandemic’s impact is not ultimately dwarfed by economic collapse.

What do citizens want from their leaders in times of global crisis? They seek a steady hand, accompanied by unvarnished, yet unifying, speech, particularly if they are being asked to sacrifice for the collective good. They want to know that decisions are guided by knowledge and the will to apply it consistently. Above all, they want to know that leaders care more about the well-being of their citizens than their own political future.

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