COVID-19 is not the first pandemic to threaten humanity, but its arrival from Wuhan in December 2019 is a major milestone of global fragility, which is reflected in the lack of leadership to address the pandemic. The coronavirus found us with our guard down and defenses low. In which many countries, even though they saw it coming, they ignored the warnings until it was too late. A clear example is the World Health Organization’s (WHO) pandemic announcement of 11 March, which calls on states to take urgent action to deal with the virus. However, this declaration comes two and a half months after its appearance in Wuhan.
Taking clear and immediate action is a priority because, according to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, COVID-19 is the greatest global challenge after World War II. The predicted economic impact is estimated to include up to 25 million jobs lost worldwide as a result of the outbreak. At this point, leadership at the global level is vital. There is no specific recipe for achieving this, but the importance of coordination and cooperation cannot be ignored.
WHERE IS THE COORDINATION AND COOPERATION?
COVID-19 clearly shows how governments lack coordination and cooperation measures in their different levels of public administration. “There is no adult in the room,” Yuval N. Harari indicates in his interview with the World Economic Forum. According to Harari, one would have expected weeks ago to see an emergency meeting of world leaders to draw up a common action plan to combat the epidemic and the economic crisis, but they did so belatedly and without visible results. Surprisingly, this late action is shown even in developed countries such as the United States, Italy, Spain and France.
The impact of COVID-19 in the United States is devastating and it is leading the list of the most affected countries in the world. But what are the causes of this spread that began in January 2020? Undoubtedly, lack of leadership at multiple levels and lack of evidence on a large scale. The result was a lost month, in which the world’s richest country wasted its best opportunity to contain the spread of the virus. Instead, they were largely blind to the magnitude of the looming public health catastrophe. The absence of rigorous monitoring until it was “too late” revealed failures across the government. The Trump administration had limited action which allowed for an exponential growth in infected cases and even blew it off, saying, “It is going to disappear” (Shear, 2020).
Tragically, Mr. Trump was as deaf as the Trojans to the Cassandra-like warnings about the virus’ devastation. (Theverston, 2020).
In the case of Italy, the impact of COVID-19 is due to two main factors: political and cultural. Politically, it is due to the slow response of the authorities to control the spread of the virus. Alexander Edwards, an expert in immunology at the University of Reading explained that in most European countries people assumed that the outbreak “was a problem outside of them” and this initial attitude led to the rapid spread of the virus. That is why Italy only implemented its first measures at the end of February and strict measures on March 9. Culturally, Italy ignored the warnings of the pandemic. An example of this can be seen on 19 February at the Champions League match in Bergamo where 2,500 Valencia football fans mixed with 40,000 Atalanta fans. Giorgio Gori, the mayor of the Italian city, has described it as “the bomb” that exploded the virus in Lombardy. (Tremlett, 2020). Similarly, experts suggest that contact between young and old people has also contributed to a higher number of deaths since Italy has the second oldest population in the world after Japan.
Another country with high infections and deaths from COVID-19 is Spain. One reason this is the case is because of the inaction of the government, which refused to stop large gatherings such as football matches and mass demonstrations like March 8, International Women’s Day. The government of Pedro Sanchez reacted late and with clumsiness. Poor coordination caused the government of Madrid, for example, to close universities and schools belatedly, causing a holiday atmosphere in which bars and parks were full (Tremlett, 2020). Spain applied the mandatory quarantine only on March 14 and the country had its first case on January 31 in the Canary Islands. Later, on February 26, Madrid and Barcelona were affected by the coronavirus. It was then that the heads of the largest public hospitals in Spain told the Ministry of Health “that more tests should be done, and as soon as possible” (Ward, 2020). What is particularly worrying is that Spain, like Italy, did not act aggressively or quickly enough to deal with COVID-19.
France, another country that is leading the COVID-19, is a further example of a government with a delayed response. When the number of infected people started to increase, health personnel asked for masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, President Emmanuel Macron insisted that the country needed to regain its “independence” to produce its own health supplies. This idea cost the country greatly, as an increase in the number of infected people grew. The French government covered up the shortage of masks for more than two months, changing its health advice accordingly. Initially, the Health Director insisted that anyone in contact with a coronavirus patient wear a mask, but as supplies began to dwindle, he made a U-turn and insisted that it was no longer needed. The limited supplies left health officials exposed. For this reason, President Macron decided to order masks from China, but the masks were diverted at the last minute by the United States (Okello, 2020). Now President Macron said that France needs at least 40 million masks per week. It begs the question, why did he not say so weeks ago and thus avoid the massive contagion in his country?
THE UNDERESTIMATION OF COVID-19 IN LATIN AMERICA
The COVID-19 pandemic in Latin America has intensified and everything indicates that we are just at the tip of the iceberg. The director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Carissa Etienne, said that the region is entering a new phase of community transmission. The countries had time to prepare, and have prepared themselves, stressed Marcos Espinal, director of PAHO’s communicable diseases department. Unfortunately, the pace of preparation was different amongst the countries or even non-existent, as is the case with Brazil and Mexico. Both presidents, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico, have resisted or even flouted measures to prevent the spread of the disease. If the COVID-19 epidemic does hit Latin America hard, both presidents will bear a great deal of responsibility because of their minimization of the COVID-19 risk, according to The Washington Post.
Brazil was the first Latin American country to report a case of the coronavirus on Feb. 26. Despite this early attack by the virus, Bolsonaro referred to COVID-19 as a “little flu” or a “little cold.” He called for an immediate return to normalcy, including the reopening of schools and suggested that only the elderly be isolated. The Brazilian president launched a media campaign stating that “Brazil cannot stop” because its economy cannot be stopped. The campaign was suspended on March 28 by a federal judge after receiving massive criticism from various authorities, including former political allies. Because of this behavior, Bolsonaro was labeled the leader of the « coronavirus—denial movement » (Cavalcanti, 2020). In late March, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube removed some of Bolsonaro’s online videos and social media postings because of his behavior and violation of his internal policies. (Meredith, 2020)
On the other hand, the president of Mexico, López Obrador also acted in a carefree manner in the face of the growing threat of COVID-19 and put the economy in first place before the health of the population. López Obrador has been arrogant in his response to the virus, rejecting even the recommendation of social distancing. Instead, he encouraged Mexicans to go to parties, eat in restaurants and go shopping. (Felbab-Brown, 2020) However, some mayors and governors in Mexico began acting on their own to combat the Coronavirus. On March 22, Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum Pardo cancelled major meetings and closed schools and businesses. Also, on March 24 and 25, the Ministry of Health finally banned large events and the government suspended all non-essential activities, although with few details on their implementation and enforcement. On March 30, the government of Mexico finally declared a health emergency, banning meetings of more than 50 people, tightening the measures already taken by several individual mayors and governors (Cavalcanti, 2020). Given the delay in implementing measures to contain the outbreak in Brazil and Mexico, it is likely that in both countries the worst of the crisis will develop in the coming months.
Ecuador is another country that is suffering the greatest effects of the pandemic in Latin American, mainly in the city of Guayaquil. Dozens of corpses have been abandoned in the streets of this city due to the lack of capacity of funeral homes and also due to the refusal of the latter to handle the bodies of the victims of COVID-19. Likewise, their hospitals do not have enough beds to accept sick patients. According to Ecuadorian authorities, more than 800 dead bodies were collected from private homes in the city between March 23 and April 14. The Mayor of Guayaquil, Cynthia Viteri, has desperately asked the national government for help by asking herself, “What is happening in the country’s public health system? They are not taking the dead out of the houses, they are leaving them on the sidewalks, they are falling in front of the hospitals. No one wants to pick them up,” she said, adding later, “we need to know the causes of why people are dying in their homes.” With hospitals beyond their capacity, some people die while waiting to receive medical care. Ecuador’s health crisis over the number of deaths in recent days is more profound than government reports show, admitted the country’s president, Lenin Moreno (Gallon, 2020).
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
United Nation Secretary-General António Guterres said that “COVID-19 is the greatest test we have faced… calling for an immediate and coordinated health response to suppress transmission and end the pandemic.” Facing an enemy like COVID-19 requires the cooperation of different political actors and at different levels. The lack of leadership in the public administration must be corrected, because a political leader must transmit security and immediate action plans to combat the virus. Governments must take action to guarantee the right to health, as we all run the risk of contracting COVID-19.