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Daily newspaper published in Christchurch, New Zealand
French President Emmanuel Macron visiting a supermarket in western France on April 22

For World Leaders, The Hard Choices Of COVID-19 Have Only Begun

As governments now brace themselves to begin a tightrope walk between saving lives and saving their hemorrhaging economies, one thing is certain: No decision will lead to a perfect outcome. National leaders must quickly pivot from a posture of disaster relief to satisfying often contradictory demands from their populations as the pandemic's rally-around-the-flag effect starts to fade. Indeed, for all of us, hovering over the burdensome journey ahead will be the same doubt that comes in times when old certainties are suddenly up for grabs: Will it bring us closer together, or drive us farther apart? It is question posed both within and among nations.

So far, the most acute phase of the pandemic has offered national leaders some temporary respite from dissent. In Italy, where the virus has been particularly devastating, approval of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reached 71% in March — far higher than those achieved by his two most recent predecessors, reports Il Fatto Quotidiano. In Sweden, where authorities have been under both domestic and foreign fire for its light-touch approach, approval of Prime Minister Stefan Löfven has nonetheless increased from 26% to 47% since the crisis began, reports daily Expressen. In South Korea, where the widely praised reaction to the coronavirus outbreak limited death tolls, President Moon Jae-in's ruling Democratic Party coalition won a landslide victory earlier this month.

Still, cracks in support are beginning to show, which may be explained only in part by some examples of objectively poor management of the crisis. In France, President Emmanuel Macron's support has dropped the past few weeks, reaching 40% on Monday, its lowest level since the pandemic arrived, reports Les Echos. U.S. President Donald Trump is finally paying the price for his ham-handed (and much worse) management of the coronavirus response.

We've seen the whims of popular support in other dramatic events in the recent past. After 9/11 when President George W Bush briefly hit 90% approval, while Francois Hollande, the most unpopular French president in post-War history got a 21% boost after the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack, only to see his support quickly plummet in the succeeding months.

Still, as fearsome as the current crisis may be, it is something different than a terrorist attack — both more insidious and harder to track, tearing at every part of our societal fabric. It also comes as many countries were already suffering a surge in polarization, populism and growing distrust of government leaders.

Indeed, the threat of an economic depression turning into a democratic collapse is very real for many countries. The IMF has projected an economic downturn 30% worse than the 2009 financial crisis and a $9 trillion hit to global gross domestic product. Indeed, the financial crash a decade right now seems to pale in comparison with a perhaps more fitting, historical analogy taking us back to the mind-bending devastation of World War II.

That too was an event that destabilized nearly every corner of the planet, sparking a recognition of the need for some kind a minimum of established norms and shared values. What followed were the Nuremberg trials which, however inconclusive, were part of a broader effort to engineer a new world order and establish a common humanity as a legal principle. The post-1945 divisions, of course, brought us the Cold War, but also such institutions as the United Nations, and the Coal and Steel Collaboration that led to the European Union.

With the current uncertainty, and rising nationalist sentiment, it is still hard to envision such a rosy recomposition of the world order. In an interview last week with Le Monde, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was rather pessimistic: "My fear is that the world "after" will look a whole lot like the world before, but worse," Le Drian said. "We seem to be witnessing an amplification of the fractures that have been threatening the international order for years. The pandemic is the continuation, by other means, of the old power struggles."

It will be months or years before we know whether this dark forecast comes to pass, or the COVID-19 dynamic somehow manages to advance a new kind of collaboration in domestic and international politics. What we do know is that the pandemic has laid bare the fragility of our globalized world while also demonstrating its potential for good — setting the stage for what might very well be recalled as a turning point in history.

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