OPINION | Together we stand: A divided society cannot fight the virus

Health workers carry out Covid-19 tests.
Health workers carry out Covid-19 tests.
Juan Barreto, AFP

Good leadership is needed if a society is going to successfully fight off a pandemic, writes Camaren Peter 

It is with a sense of dread and disbelief that the world has watched the global infection and death count mount daily.

Yet while it was reasonable to expect that many countries would struggle to cope, the most surprising failures have been in "first world" developed countries that ostensibly should have the expertise, infrastructure and resources they need to navigate the pandemic successfully.

Who would have imagined that the US would be leading the world in its abject failure to respond to Covid-19? Or that the UK, with its high-quality universal healthcare system would have buckled under the weight of the soaring health burden that unfolded?

It is a shocking state of affairs; more so because by the time the virus reached these countries there was ample evidence and precedent to serve as clear warning. Italy and Spain, for example, served as sufficient warning for other nations to prepare its healthcare systems, and the public, for the inevitable.

Yet the leaders of the UK and US were cavalier in their approach towards the virus. The US president downplayed the severity of the public health threat that the virus posed, stating that it was less serious than the flu and that, "It's going to disappear. One day, it's like a miracle, it will disappear".

Moderate risk 

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed that the virus posed a "moderate risk" and proudly proclaimed that he had been shaking hands with coronavirus patients. An early proponent of the view that achieving "herd immunity" was the way to navigate the virus, he was late to communicate the severity of the virus and impose lockdown conditions.

He later contracted the virus and grew very ill. He spent several days in an intensive care unit while the nation looked on in trepidation. It was the very same healthcare system that he had cut funds to - notably after Brexiteers had campaigned on the false promise that leaving Europe would increase funding to the NHS - that ultimately saved his life. 

Italy's Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also initially downplayed the severity of the virus and the risks that it posed, with devastating consequences.

Yet in some sense this oversight can be forgiven as the virus wasn't well understood at that stage.

Once the severity of the virus became evident, Italy imposed one of the strictest lockdowns in the world and made great efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

In the case of the UK and the US, it was a very different reality that unfolded as the virus took hold and spread. Leadership in both countries bumbled their way through the crisis, made inadequate preparations for their healthcare systems, sent confusing messages to the public and were late to impose lockdowns. Yet the evidence of the dangers that the virus posed were clear as day by the time the virus arrived in these countries.

It begs the question; what went wrong?

To answer this question, it is important to reflect on the internal politics of these countries. Already drastically divided and polarised by populist rhetoric that invoked the most extreme forms of mis- and disinformation, they didn't stand a chance when the virus took hold.

In both countries, the virus entered a socio-political maelstrom that was devoid of honest leadership and communication at the very highest level. Ravaged by inward looking populist grandstanding, both countries were - and remain - fraught with deep socio-political divisions and fractures.

To "turn the ship" in a coordinated manner at a national level requires some level of agreement and cohesion. This has proven difficult in an environment where politicians and the media have habitually played fast and loose with the truth; and have capitalised and exploited mis- and disinformation to consolidate political power.


Enter the novel coronavirus - a phenomenon that has required drastic action to counter and extremely difficult trade-offs to be made in decision-making-– and you have an issue that is ripe for politicisation.

And so it has unfolded.

Where there was once uncertainty around the importance of wearing masks there is now clear certainty. Yet many in the US view the mask as an effort to "muzzle" them and strip them of their essential freedoms.

Anti-lockdown sentiment and action has been promoted by right-wing elements in US society. Conspiracist yarn-spinning and violent ideologies have become bedfellows in the battle over the virus and how (or even whether) to respond to it. Profound cognitive dissonance abounds. On the one hand the Trump administration has claimed that the virus was a bioweapon deliberately engineered by the Chinese government, while on the other hand claiming that it is a hoax. Surely both versions cannot be true.

Yet all of this has been lapped up by a divided public who long ago lost faith in the establishment that occupied the middle ground for decades. In 2017 the Edelman Trust Barometer conducted a survey across 28 countries and found that for the first time in its 17-year history that two-thirds of the surveyed countries did not trust four key institutions (i.e. government, media, business and NGOs) to "do what is right".

In all, the average level of trust in all four institutions was less than 50%. Lack of confidence in government and business leadership ranked at 71% and 63% respectively.

The UK's trust in institutions dropped to the second lowest (down from fifth lowest the previous year) among the 28 countries, with Russia ranking the lowest. A 2019 Pew poll revealed that Americans believed that 75% of fellow citizens' trust in government was declining. 

Media was distrusted in 82% of the countries that were surveyed in the Edelman survey. In the US, a Morning Consult and Hollywood Reporter survey showed that trust in mainstream media reached an all-time low in 2020, exhibiting a rapid decline from 2016 (i.e. from 54% to 40%) when the majority (albeit by a slight margin) of Americans still trusted the media. 

This should be grave cause for concern, but the reality is that a new breed of politicians has exploited these fissures for political and personal gain through a divide and conquer styled politics that has entrenched divisions and driven citizens further towards the poles.

No issue or matter is too large or too small to be exploited in this era of populist politicking, and even the coronavirus proved "not-too-big-to-fail" in this respect. It quickly became a football in a larger political game; relegated to a symbol for deeper political disagreements rather than fully appreciated for its reality as a grave public health threat. Consequently, death tolls have mounted, rising far above any reasonable expectations.

Populist governments

Correspondingly, Brazil's right-wing populist President Jair Bolsonaro has refused to accept the reality of the virus, despite contracting it himself, and cases have consequently soared in Brazil. Further afield in India, another populist government is struggling to contain the virus. Admittedly, in both these nations controlling the virus can reasonably be expected to be far more difficult than in first world countries, with high proportions of their citizenries living in close proximity in slums and informal settlements. With relatively young populations, we can only hope that the death counts will be lower than that of their first world counterparts.

In the 2020 Edelman Barometer Survey South Africa ranked lowest among all nations in respect of public trust in institutions, and in all four categories.

Let that sink in for a moment.

We are indeed fortunate that 76% of South Africans trust President Cyril Ramaphosa's leadership through this crisis, and that the Health Minister Zweli Mkhize enjoys the trust of 67% of South Africans. In the cases of the US, UK and Brazil, top-level leadership has been sorely lacking and inadequate, and the consequences have been grave.

Yet, as a country, we are deeply divided and ripe - particularly in this moment of great anxiety, uncertainty and suffering - for the seeds of division to rapidly grow and amplify, tearing the tenuous fabric of South African society apart.

While constructive engagement and criticism of the leadership is warranted and should no doubt be welcomed, we need to be very wary of efforts to undermine our politics and our society in this trying period.

We should expect that unscrupulous actors - both foreign and domestic - will seek to impose their own agendas by leveraging public dissatisfaction and fear by exploiting existing societal fault lines to garner support. We desperately need to stay ahead of the new political "game" that has undermined democracies across the world.

India, Brazil, the Philippines, the UK and the US have all succumbed to a new political playbook that postures strongman styled leaders as larger than democratic governance itself, leveraging unbridled nationalism alongside xenophobic, ethnic, racial, religious and partisan prejudices to consolidate support from disaffected majorities.     

Evidence-based leadership 

Yet there is cause for hope. Amidst the madness that has prevailed in the US, New York State has proven to be an island of sanity, and numbers are falling. This is largely due to the open, consultative, transparent and evidence-based leadership that Governor Andrew Cuomo has provided, proving that even amidst the worst crisis of national politics, good leadership can make a huge difference between success and failure in the face of the pandemic.

The importance of open governance that is transparent, consultative and evidence-based, and brings people together rather than drives them apart, cannot be underestimated.

Our leaders would do well to take a page out of the Cuomo book.

They need to be ever-present in the public eye, communicating a consistent and coherent set of messages about what is required of the public, and what we can expect at each stage of how the pandemic unfolds. They need to be open, transparent and consultative in their decision-making processes by taking us into their confidence.

They also need to be very wary of inadvertently fuelling seeds of division and polarisation in our society, particularly as we navigate this difficult period in our history.

We have faced difficult and fraught transitions before, and what saw us through it was authentic, transformative leadership that brokered a greater sense of our common humanity.

This is our greatest strength in the face of adversity. Lest we forget, we are stronger together.

- Camaren Peter (PhD), Associate Professor, Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, Director and Executive Head: Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC).

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