Up against a microscopic virus, the world's leaders have failed myriad different ways to do what was necessary to beat the pandemic. Was another fate possible?
PARIS — When did the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis first become real? For some, it was the moment their president or prime minister first appeared on television to speak to the nation about the pandemic. Italian photographer Tommaso Bonaventura captured this shared experience in Address To The Nations, a visual collection of the faces of dozens of world leaders at the instant they appeared on screen to confront this new invisible enemy.
One year later, with the virus still very much hiding among us, it is worth looking again at those faces. Several have since contracted the coronavirus, from UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro to French President Emmanuel Macron; others have lost power, like Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and U.S. President Donald Trump. Last week, Tanzanian President John Magufuli died at age 61 among unconfirmed reports that COVID was the cause of death.
UK PM Boris Johnson at a London hospital on March 22 — Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/ZUMA
But the collection of prime ministers and presidents, royals and supreme leaders is even more relevant as a reminder of how inadequate political leadership has been in the face of a global health crisis. From mask policy and lockdown rules to health care and vaccine distribution, governments have been accused of mismanagement, incompetency ... and worse.
Some leaders will be judged cruelly by history (and the death counts on record) for having downplayed the threat of COVID-19, be it Bolsonaro calling the virus a "fantasy" of the media, Donald Trump repeatedly comparing it to the flu, or Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador saying amulets and prayers were enough to protect him from the virus.
Governments have been accused of mismanagement, incompetency ... and worse.
The great success of the pandemic was scientific, as researchers developed vaccines in record speed, offering hope that the crisis could soon come to an end. But even as the global situation seems to improve and become more manageable, governments are still failing to act adequately. In Slovakia, Prime Minister Igor Matovic is accused of a secret deal to purchase 2 million doses of Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine, which hasn't been approved by European health agencies. Peru had its own "vaccine-gate" after it was revealed that the then-president Martin Vizcarra, his wife and other politicians secretly received doses in October 2020, before shots were made available to the nation.
At stake are both the emergency of saving lives today and the citizen trust of governments eroding over the long-term. Still, one year into the crisis, it is worth putting the challenge in perspective and acknowledge the impossible dilemmas our leaders have faced: saving lives vs. saving the economy, imposing restrictions vs. allowing freedom.
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaking in Tehran on Feb. 7 — Photo: Salampix/Abaca/ZUMA
For French philosopher Pierre-Henri Tavoillot, citizens who are so quick to criticize their leader ought to ask themselves, "In his place, what would I do?" In an interview with France Culture, Tavoillot noted the extreme solitude of political leadership and the "tragic" nature of making decisions on behalf of the public: "In politics, the choice is never between a good and a bad decision, but between a bad and a worse one. If that choice existed, there would be no need for politics."
In times of emergency, not taking decisions is not an option. "Are they good, are they bad? The problem doesn't arise at that moment, it will afterwards. Our leaders are accountable for their actions," says the philosopher. In March 2022, we hope, we'll be able to look back at the pandemic as a closed chapter of history. But no matter when or how it ends, we'll be studying the way we were led, and followed, for years to come.