COVID-19 and Responsible Leadership in a “Post-Truth” Age
Could a Truth be Emerging?
A shorter version of this article was published at The Globalist.
The current global pandemic that has affected us all has elicited extensive media attention. A variety of theories have abounded on how the virus originated, i.e., that it is a biological weapon created in the lab by the Chinese, or by the U.S. military, or that it is fueled by the effects of 5G networks on our immune system. In addition, divergent views have emerged regarding the “hysteria” surrounding the pandemic, some preaching for a strict societal response, and others claiming that the surrounding panic is more detrimental for society than the danger of the virus itself. Leaders have responded differently to the crisis and have received both praise and criticism for their actions. Some leaders responded as soon as they heard warnings from the World Health Organization, which called it a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” in January, while others did not pay immediate attention to warning signs. Some responded with the concept of building “herd immunity” throughout the society, others called for total lockdown. Some leaders are demonstrating transparency to their citizens and to the world community to tackle the challenge, while others resort to hiding information or disregarding efforts at a global response. All actions and reactions have received immense scrutiny through media platforms, as per the modern-day norm.1
In this age of mass media, infinite narratives, and political polarization, where “objective” information often becomes blurred as subjective, could this pandemic be shining a light on what “responsible leadership” really means? Could a truth be emerging instead of a subjective opinion? In a public health crisis, conspiracy theories can kill. Citizens look to their government for protection and are placing their safety in the hands of their leaders. During such a critical moment, a leader must act in the best interest of the population and the world at large, or else be labeled as a leader who mishandled an epidemic and put lives at risk, something that is never taken lightly. Even populist politicians, who have shown a general tendency to ignore scientific advice, have heeded policy recommendations from the scientific community to tackle the spread of the virus, demonstrating that denial is not a viable option. The role of the media remains critical in such an instance, as the media have a responsibility to present factual information and constructive solutions to the problem and have a duty to be critical of the mismanagement of leadership rather than encourage the spread of disinformation or politicizing the crisis. This crisis has the potential to reshape the way we view responsible leadership and see the value in constructive journalism and scientific data.
The sharing of information in our world today has evolved dramatically. Some have coined the term “post-truth world” to illustrate the present-day difficulties of discerning truth from falsehood. We now have access to more information and evidence than ever before, yet facts seem to have lost their power somehow. Furthermore, the popularity of populists these days points to the tendency of people being attracted to what they consider more “genuine” messages as opposed to the narrative from the “establishment,” which has now been categorized as “elitist,” with little regard for the common folk. Mainstream media, academia, science, and establishment politicians have all been placed in this category. The Oxford Dictionaries define “post-truth” as: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Societal trust in institutions has waned, as the general population has grown more inclined to believe that institutions such as academia or the media are simply platforms through which the establishment tries to control the narrative in society. In other words, there is a crisis of confidence. Today in the political West, instead of merely having left-wing versus right-wing politics, we increasingly see the division lying between anti-establishment and establishment political parties. Amidst this crisis of confidence, the current “information age” is a perfect breeding ground for the perpetuation of multiple competing narratives, mistrust, confusion, sensationalism, polarization and creates what seems like a “post-truth” environment.
Social media play an immense role in this “post-truth” concept. On social media, everyone has a voice and a space to share his or her belief system. People enjoy writing their thoughts and sharing comments, receiving attention, and building networks of like-minded people online. But what social media also perpetuate is polarization and sensationalism.2 To take the example of YouTube, its algorithm is constructed on the basis of encouraging the viewer to spend as much time as possible on its platform. Therefore, when one searches for something specific to watch, videos with similar content appear as recommendations for what to watch next, reinforcing one’s point of view continuously, whether or not it is based on factuality. In addition, one’s activity on social media is recorded as data to which external companies have access. These companies can then take advantage of one’s tendencies and beliefs to convey a particular world view to specific targets to help certain political campaigns. There have been multiple instances of troll farms creating fake accounts on social media and influencing users to be attracted to a particular viewpoint. Most of the time, this goes on without our even being aware of it. In other words, we have lost touch with objective reality in some ways, are increasingly polarized, mistrustful, and are giving in to sensationalism, which news media channels have also taken advantage of as a way to increase their ratings. Social media offers impressionable youth and troll factories the opportunity for mischief without consequences. This type of reality is bound to breed, increasing distrust.3
Despite all the misinformation about the virus that is floating around, this pandemic has revealed an interesting twist in the form of an emerging truth. People can say what they want to say, but the truth is that there is simply no getting around the actual numbers such as the number of cases, number of deaths, needed hospital beds, ventilators required, and witnessing the effects of one leader’s response compared with another on this set of variables. There is no room for downplaying something whose results are visible and affect the whole of society. No amount of denial or refusal to accept scientific facts is going to help in this situation. Today’s pandemic requires that each leader take responsibility for the crisis to ensure the best outcome for his or her country, state or city, and the world at large. In a public health crisis such as this one, we cannot ignore scientific expertise. It is through their advice and assessments that we as a society can fully understand what is unfolding, and it is up to each leader to either heed their warnings or not. We do, however, continue to see politicized narratives and blame games from leaders who may not have reacted quickly enough, who instead attribute blame elsewhere while playing into their constituency’s worldview. But even this practice has lost momentum and credibility in most places due to the critical nature of the crisis as it pertains to public health and the health of the economy.
China’s response to the virus has proven to be very controversial. Once the situation was made apparent domestically, draconian measures were implemented in the city of Wuhan, and the central government entrusted the scientific community with the handling of the situation, which now appears to be under control. So, on the one hand, the measures that were taken were in tandem with the expert advice of the medical community, and internal misinformation on the severity of the crisis was stopped once the central government took action against the virus. However, there was a significant problem in the handling of the outbreak when it first appeared. The problem initially was that the Wuhan province denied the severity of the virus, denied it was transmissible to humans, and did not share the information fast enough with the local population nor the central government, which allowed the virus to gain a tenacious hold. This original lack of transparency from Wuhan had severe consequences not only for China but for the international community. Not acting quickly enough does not tame the spread of the virus. At the same time, it is still possible, and not revealing the extent of the problem to the international community doesn’t allow for enough preparation time for what is to come. Institutions such as the WHO are only as effective as nations will enable them to be. Its response will only be as successful as the information it receives and to which it has access. U.S. intelligence reports state that China may not have been transparent with the total number of infected cases or deaths that it officially reported, which also does not give the international community a sense of future trends in other countries. China is now actively lending its help to the international community as a sign of solidarity and cooperation by sending supplies, rallying for global coordination, and hosting video conferences with other countries to share experiences, initiatives that the West is receiving criticism for not leading.4 But the international community’s outlook towards China remains distrustful due to their early mismanagement of the crisis and dubious declaration of official counts.
U.S. President Donald Trump and some right-wing media in tandem with Fox News were early on heard downplaying the disease, saying it was a “hoax.” However, once the numbers caught up to them, there was no getting away with that type of rhetoric anymore. Credibility is lost when one toys with matters of life and death on this scale. Trump has had to listen to medical experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has consistently advocated for more robust measures such as imposing more prolonged and stricter lockdowns alongside increasing testing. Even though Dr. Fauci has become the target of an online conspiracy theory that he is trying to undermine the President, Trump has had to follow his advice and apply more appropriate policies. Dr. Fauci has won the approval of 78 percent of Americans, while just 7 percent disapprove, according to the Quinnipiac national survey. At this current time, Trump’s handling of the crisis is approved by about 41% of Americans. Although the Trump Administration has previously shown a distaste for relying on scientific expertise, it is particularly harmful to do so during a pandemic. If leadership tries to sow distrust in public health officials during a time when their advice is especially crucial, the results could be disastrous. Evidence shows that Mr. Trump, however, continues to mishandle information. He tweeted that the HHS Inspector General’s reporting on hospital shortages was wrong and fake and is criticizing the WHO for not having dealt with the virus aggressively enough to divert attention away from his own administration’s slow reaction, messages that encourage distrust in the information we receive from public health institutions and medical experts during a critical time. President Trump later decided to cut U.S. funding to the WHO, which is bound to have detrimental effects in nations that heavily rely on support from the organization. The U.S.’s “America First” strategy sends a clear message to the international community that it does not intend to provide global leadership during this crisis as it has done in the past. This also goes for the U.S.’ allies in Europe, with whom no efforts to coordinate the travel ban coming from the E.U. was made. The German view of Trump has been made apparent when a shipment of 200,000 masks destined for Berlin was supposedly re-routed to the U.S. The fact that Germany would even think of blaming the U.S. for this speaks volumes.7 Also, international action at the U.N. Security Council has been hampered by the U.S.’s objections over terminology and insistence on calling it the “Wuhan Virus.”8 Also, for the same reason, any hope of G7 foreign ministers releasing a joint statement on the fight against COVID-19 was killed.9 Trump has also ignored calls to create a global task force for COVID-19. When a leadership vacuum is produced, others rush to fill the void. In this case, it is China, as the U.S. backed away from activating any conventional international consortium to fight the virus with a united front.10
Narendra Modi, India’s right-wing populist prime minister, has ordered the most extensive lockdown in human history, pointing to the fact that despite one’s inclinations, inaction is simply not an option during this pandemic. Nevertheless, he is still acting irresponsibly in many ways. Modi dismissed the severity of the epidemic at first. When he yielded to the example of others in the international community and ordered the lockdown, he only gave the population of India four hours’ notice. This, in turn, led to mass labor migration across states largely on foot, surely an inviting breeding ground for the spread of the virus. In addition, instead of actively mitigating the dissemination of misinformation, the government allows for the spread of utterly false information that has no scientific validity on how to cure the virus, such as by drinking cow urine or bathing in cow dung. Modi has also not stopped the politicization of the coronavirus as being a virus that originated from the Muslim communities, which are now the target of Hindu communities who think it is a ploy to destroy them. Hospitals are underfunded and underequipped, and minimal testing is being carried out. The difference is that some provinces in India are faring much better than others, and these so happen to be mostly the ones that are not governed by Modi’s BJP party. A couple of the southern provinces, such as Kerala in southwest India, are doing much better. They are the example of what the federal government should be doing, which is to follow the advice of the scientific community, reject false information, and limit grandiose expressions of misdirected success stories by leadership.
Germany has proven to be particularly responsible in dealing with the crisis. They tested extensively, made people stay home, used a system of early detection of cases, and had time to prepare for the influx of patients in hospitals. Also important to note is the way Chancellor Angela Merkel was very upfront about the seriousness of the epidemic and resisted any urge to sugarcoat anything, thus making people understand the importance of the situation and follow orders from the start. According to a German public opinion survey, 72% of respondents said they are satisfied with the government’s handling of the crisis. Interestingly to note also is that establishment parties in Germany have gained popularity during this crisis, while the popularity of anti-establishment parties such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) has dropped.11
South Korea has so far established itself as one of the more successful models for responding to the virus. It is regarded as successful because it was transparent with other countries and with its own population from the outset. A combination of extensive testing and meticulous contact tracing allowed them to control the virus spread effectively. Health managers knew exactly what to plan for, and they used science to guide them through every step of the way. Taiwan is another excellent example. The government acted immediately as of January with border control and the wearing of facemasks. While they were reacting quickly, other countries around the world were still debating whether to take action or not. Some of the decisive measures implemented were a ban on travel from China, the introduction of strict punishments for anyone breaching home quarantine orders, a ramp-up domestic face mask production, island-wide testing, and punishment for those who spread disinformation about the virus. Most importantly, there was substantial public trust for the medical experts who held daily briefings on the matter.
Brazil is a good example of how the public can react when a leader does not act responsibly in the face of a public health crisis of this proportion. Jair Bolsonaro still hasn’t gotten the memo that distrusting the scientific community and generating misinformation can be dangerous. He has described the illness as a “cold” and has accused the media of manufacturing hysteria. The governors of Brazil have gone ahead and imposed lockdowns using their own powers, but Mr. Bolsonaro has encouraged Brazilians to ignore them. His irresponsibility towards the crisis has stirred a strong reaction from the public. Through his recklessness with the lives of Brazilians, he has hastened the possibility of his own departure on the political scene. Brazil’s Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta’s approval rating soared to 76% over his handling of the coronavirus crisis as he actively informed the population of the current situation and the appropriate measures to take. In comparison, the approval for President Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis slipped to 33%, a poll by Datafolha showed.12 Data also showed an increase in support for Brazil’s various governors, who demonstrated to be more in line with the advice of the scientific community than the President. So even part of Bolsonaro’s support base, people who elected the populist leader to reduce the rampant corruption in Brazil, has deemed him irresponsible when faced with this crisis. Bolsonaro later went on to fire the Health Minister after he advocated for a more unified voice from the government on television.
Meanwhile, the leader of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko sneers at the lockdown measures being implemented all over the world. Lukashenko has not imposed a single restriction since the outbreak of the pandemic, claims that the situation is under control and that it suffices to drink vodka and take a sauna to cure the virus. Neighboring countries have expressed concern about his unorthodox response to the crisis. Without much of a state response, the citizens of Belarus have taken on the responsibility themselves to manage the crisis. People have volunteered to raise money for hospitals and needed supplies, private companies have allowed their staff to work at home, and football fans have called for competition to be suspended. The Metro has its carriages cleaned every day, and the Belarusian Orthodox Church has asked people to stay away from churches for now and are holding masses online. According to SATIO, a Minsk-based survey, about 48% of Belarusians stopped attending public events, and many have self-isolated.13 Cafes and restaurants have also decided to close or shift towards takeout and delivery. Some parents have stopped bringing their kids to school, which has forced the government to compromise and extend “spring break” by two weeks. That same survey stated that 70% of Belarusians favor a total ban on public events, and more than half would like to see education institutions close and have people work from home.14 Sixty-two percent of those surveyed feared the health system would collapse in the face of this pandemic.15 In a country without free media, the average citizen is left confused about the state of affairs and on what the government is doing. Social media has become a platform for citizens to gain awareness. A very influential post by a doctor on Vkontakte depicted the situation in the hospitals as “out of control.”16 The doctor was later called in by prosecutors. Citizens of Belarus have taken to social media to criticize the President and his unethical response to the current pandemic under the hashtag #прашчальнаесловапрэзидзента, or “the president’s parting words.”17
Each of the examples examined has demonstrated that despite regime type or political affiliations, and despite general tendencies of some politicians to ignore science, it is evident that those who respect the advice of the medical community, who do not waste time propagating false information, who remain transparent and who engage in international efforts, have been deemed leaders who are tackling the virus more responsibly. Conversely, those who ignore experts, sow confusion among the public and demonstrate a lack of transparency and willingness to cooperate are seen as acting irresponsibly. Irresponsibility during a public health crisis ultimately leads to more infections, deaths, and general disapproval. There is no room for “post-truth” in the management of this crisis. Denying it will cause outright danger to society. Mishandling it for political purposes is reckless, and encouraging false narratives steers the goal away from tackling the issue and responding with urgency. There is a clear binary between what is responsible here and what is not. The relative success that some countries have demonstrated in curbing infections has resulted from quick action, trusting the advice of the medical community, executing a sober strategy, and remaining transparent. The case of COVID-19 will show that responsible leadership is needed and that objectivity exists when assessing what is constituted as competent in the management of this crisis.
In this hotly discussed arrival of the “post-truth” era, people may have stopped demanding the truth because they have understood that they are excluded from any decision-making or ability to change their environment. “Infotainment” or information presented as entertainment has become commonplace. But now, during the coronavirus pandemic, faced with questions of life and death, there seems to be more of a demand for truth. The media have an essential responsibility to point out misinformation and deficiencies, ensure the correct dissemination of factual information, and refrain from politicizing a matter of urgency. The media sources that do this will be labeled as more legitimate, while others who are trying to sow discord will lose credibility. Trust is found in circumstances where people are seen to work together toward a greater goal. Rebuilding trust in society is going to take a while since our crisis of confidence stems from many complicated structural factors, including the economy and democratic processes. But what this crisis can teach us or at least shed light on is the importance of reliable information, leaders who make it their priority to protect us, and media that want to help us understand what is going on rather than confuse us more or leave us in the dark. If we work together as a society to combat this common enemy and take responsibility, people may feel the return of a sense that they can control their environment and contribute to a greater good – a feeling that would help stabilize our crisis of confidence. The pandemic is shedding light on what is considered “responsible leadership,” both nationally and internationally. This development is refreshing and essential in a world that has created so many different versions of the truth.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent those of the U.S. government or any U.S. government agency.
1 A previous version of this article was published on April 17, 2020, by Loftus, Suzanne, “COVID 19: Post-Truth Age – Or Facts Making a Comeback?” The Globalist, April 17, 2020, https://www.theglobalist.com/coronavirus-pandemic-covid19-media-social-media-misinformation-post-truth-populism/.
2 Peter Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (New York: Public Affairs, 2019).
3 Simon Blackburn, “How Can We Teach Objectivity in a Post-Truth Era?” NewStateman, February 18, 2019. https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2019/02/how-can-we-teach-objectivity-post-truth-era
4 Evelyn Cheng, “Xi Calls for Coordinated Response to Coronavirus at G-20 Meeting,” CNBC, March 26, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/xi-calls-for-coordinated-global-response-to-coronavirus-at-g20-meeting.html.
5 Quinnipiac University Poll: https://poll.qu.edu/national/release-detail?ReleaseID=3658
6 Cecelia Smith-Schoenwalder, “Poll: Majority of Americans Disagree With Trump’s Handling of Coronavirus Pandemic,” U.S. News & World Report, April 23, 2020, https://www.usnews.com/news/national-news/articles/2020-04-23/poll-majority-of-americans-disagree-with-trumps-handling-of-coronavirus-pandemic.
7 Matthew Karnitschnig and Judith Mischke, “Berlin Lets Mask Slip On Feelings for Trump’s America,” Politico, April 6, 2020, https://www.politico.eu/article/berlin-lets-mask-slip-on-feelings-for-trumps-america/.
9 Katie Simpson and Alexander Panetta, “G7 Ministers Spike Joint Statement on COVID-19 after U.S. Demands it be Called ‘Wuhan Virus,'” CBC News, March 25, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/g7-covid-19-coronavirus-wuhan-pompeo-trump-1.5510329.
10 John Haltiwanger, “The U.S. is ‘Not a Global Power’ Thanks to Trump’s Disastrous Coronavirus Response as China Fills the Void, Former U.S. Officials Warn,” Business Insider, April 15, 2020, https://www.businessinsider.com/trump-chaotic-coronavirus-response-has-created-void-china-is-filling-2020-4?r=DE&IR=T.
11 Sabine Kinkartz, “Coronavirus: Angela Merkel’s Approval Ratings Up Amid Health Crisis,” DW, April 3, 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-angela-merkels-approval-ratings-up-amid-health-crisis/a-53001405.
12 Anthony Boadle and Pedro Fonseca, “Brazilians Scorn Bolsonaro’s Coronavirus Efforts, Back Health Officials: Polls,” Reuters, April 3, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-coronavirus-brazil/brazilians-scorn-bolsonaros-coronavirus-efforts-back-health-officials-polls-idUSKBN21L1W8.
13 Anna Perova, “Uvereny, chto stanet khuzhe. Belorusov oprosili naschet ikh otnosheniya k koronavirusu,” Tut Novosti, April 1, 2020, https://news.tut.by/society/678769.html.
15 Linas Jegelevicius, “Belarus and Coronavirus: Lukashenko’s Business-As-Usual Approach is ‘Mind-Blowing Negligence,'” Euronews, April 21, 2020, https://www.euronews.com/2020/04/21/belarus-and-coronavirus-lukashenko-s-business-as-usual-approach-is-mind-blowing-negligence.
16 James Shotter and Henry Foy, “Belarus Faces Growing Criticism for Dismissive Coronavirus Response,” Financial Times, April 7, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/925c16e9-bd18-4678-936a-0539588facfa.
17 Tatiana Zinkovich, “The President without a Plan: Alexander Lukashenko still insists nobody’s going to die from COVID-19. What on earth is happening in Belarus?” Meduza, April 16, 2020, https://meduza.io/en/feature/2020/04/16/the-president-without-a-plan.
Suzanne Loftus is a Professor of National Security at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.