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Rohingya refugees search for their belongings after a fire killed at least 15 people and injured more than 500 in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.
Rohingya refugees search for their belongings after a fire killed at least 15 people and injured more than 500 in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

Welcome to Thursday, where more North Korean missile tests are revealed, Brazil joins U.S. in grim COVID toll and Mexico thinks nose-masks should be a thing. We also go up close with the remote world of work, thanks to our "Work → in Progress' special.

One year of pandemic leadership: The "tragedy" of no good choices

Recalling the moments when the magnitude of the COVID-19 crisis first became real, some point to the first televised appearance by our respective national leaders to talk 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.

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.

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.

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.

Anne-Sophie Goninet

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Geopolitics

NATO Entry For Sweden And Finland? Erdogan May Not Be Bluffing

When the two Nordic countries confirmed their intention to join NATO this week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his plans to block the application. Accusing Sweden and Finland of' "harboring" some of his worst enemies may not allow room for him to climb down.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared opposition to Finland and Sweden entering NATO

Meike Eijsberg

-Analysis-

LONDON — When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared his opposition to Finland and Sweden entering NATO, it took most of the West's top diplomatic experts by surprise — with the focus squarely on how Russia would react to having two new NATO members in the neighborhood. (So far, that's been a surprise too)

But now Western oversight on Turkey's stance has morphed into a belief in some quarters that Erdogan is just bluffing, trying to get concessions from the negotiations over such a key geopolitical issue.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

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To be clear, any prospective NATO member requires the consent of all 30 member states and their parliaments. So Erdogan does indeed have a card to play, which is amplified by the sense of urgency: NATO, Sweden and Finland are keen to complete the accession process with the war in Ukraine raging and the prospect of strengthening the military alliance's position around the Baltic Sea.

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