Leadership in the time of COVID-19

When President Duterte delivers this Monday what may well be the most awaited State of the Nation Address of his presidency, he may be disposed to go straight to what needs to be done to revive the economy from its induced coma and to meet the urgent needs of the poorest of our people. I hope he does so only after giving an honest account of where we stand today and how badly we miscalculated the severity of the public health crisis that is upon us.

He and his advisers must know by now that the most appreciated heads of state in recent months have been those who spoke to their citizens with clarity, humility, and clear-eyed optimism. Such leaders took pains to explain why certain public health measures had to be imposed. They formulated guidelines in the simplest way possible so the public would not have a hard time following them. They humbly asked for cooperation and patience. They acknowledged dissenting views and readily admitted lapses in the government’s early response to the crisis. And by their actions, as much as by their words, they allayed their people’s fears and anxieties.

They did not threaten their citizens. Nor did they blame or accuse them of being stubborn or recalcitrant. They were firm and fair in enforcing the rules. But they were sparing in their use of force. They appealed to a deep sense of civic duty and responsibility, rather than to an innate fear of being punished.

These leaders did not pretend to know the coronavirus better than scientists. They did not equate being in control of the crisis with being regularly seen or heard presiding at briefings. They gladly gave the floor to the experts who had the latest information on the disease and the dangers it posed.

They never made fun of the virus nor joked about the disease it caused. They made sure they themselves were exemplars of compliance before they demanded the same from the public. Because scientific information on this coronavirus was evolving, the prescribed responses were unavoidably also shifting. Responsible governments took pains to explain why the wearing of face masks, previously regarded as a matter of personal choice, suddenly became mandatory. Or why physical distancing in public places became as necessary as the regular washing of hands.

Mr. Duterte could have been a more effective leader for a time like this if he behaved less like Donald Trump and more like Singapore’s Lee Hsien Loong. He could have done better in controlling the outbreak if he had looked less to China and more to South Korea for guidance on how to respond to the threat of a pandemic.

China’s preference for harsh lockdowns is clearly a function of its authoritarian political structure. The severe lockdown seen first in Wuhan and later in the whole Hubei province, in retrospect, was specifically imposed to contain a vicious pattern of community transmission that got out of hand because of party interference. We watched in awe as China built a gigantic hospital for COVID-19 patients in just two weeks, wondering if they knew something about this disease that the rest of the world did not.

It is unfortunate that Mr. Duterte’s admiration for China had the effect of highlighting its coercive side, and largely ignoring the massive testing and isolation measures that went with the lockdowns. The authoritarian response obviously resonated with him, but not the science.

South Korea would certainly have been a better model. This country had learned a lot from their weak response to the MERS outbreak in 2015. They prepared hard for the next pandemic, which they expected would come anytime. Government partnered with the scientific community to develop their own testing kits and protocols.

Putting greater emphasis on widespread testing, tracing, treatment, and isolation of infected cases, South Korea avoided having to close businesses and schools, and confining people in their homes. They set up hundreds of screening centers at the onset of the pandemic, offering as many as 20,000 tests per day—mostly outside of the health system.

Trained epidemiological detectives were deployed to track down sources of clustered infections. They accessed data from credit card transactions and CCTV footage to supplement their work. Anticipating a worst-case scenario, they put up temporary hospitals and made sure they had enough stockpiles of personal protective equipment and ventilators.

I do not believe the ability to mount an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic is merely a function of a country’s resources. One can be as rich as America and still fail miserably because of poor leadership. On the other hand, Vietnam shows how a developing country can maximize the use of its limited resources to successfully manage a complex health crisis.

We could have invested in developing a robust testing capacity and an effective contact-tracing program, using only a fraction of the billions we have borrowed for this pandemic. We could have contained the spread of the virus if we had immediately stopped the influx of Chinese tourists from mainland China in mid-January. If we had been more alert, we would have strictly monitored the health condition of travelers from abroad and of our own returning OFWs during that month-long period between January and February when there were no cases yet of local community transmission in the country.

There is no shame in acknowledging the gaps and flaws in our early response to this pandemic. Doing so is a precondition to effectively dealing with this health catastrophe and the ones that will come in the not-so-distant future.