The Atlantic published an interesting article recently about the secret for Germany’s success in tackling the COVID-19 crisis: A scientist at the helm of political affairs, Chancellor Angela Merkle. This is an interesting argument to ponder. Why have countries/ regions that have scientists/technocrats as leaders done well, while those run by run-of-the-mill politicians done badly? Controversial much? I think there is some merit in this argument.
Let’s focus on Germany. As Miller points out “For weeks now, Germany’s leader has deployed her characteristic rationality, coupled with an uncharacteristic sentimentality, to guide the country through what has thus far been a relatively successful battle against COVID-19,” going on to add that her calm demeanor, scientific rationality, and wisdom is paying off, both politically and scientifically.
The reason for her success, Miller points out, is the trust of German people in bureaucracy and order – and scientific thinking. The charismatic leadership of the style that Hitler practiced is seen with suspicion.
On the other hand, in many parts of the world, we are witnessing the ravages of such a style of leadership, with leaders blustering, lying, and misinforming people. The facts speak for themselves, though the amount of misinformation is so high that the average person with little critical thinking skills is confused and falls for propaganda – either from the state or from special interest groups.
We may also be witnessing a clear winner emerging, in terms of style of leadership, with bureaucratic leadership emerging a winner, over charismatic leadership. There is of course a long history of debate over whether we need more bureaucracy in our societies or more democracy. In countries such as the U.S., where freedom is valued above all else, this sort of clamping down of freedoms by the state is seen with great suspicion. The recent protests over closures in the U.S. across many states are part of this process.
Clearly, people want freedoms to do what they want and get back to their normal lives. When one’s livelihood is threatened, scientific rationality goes out the window. However, this is not the time to be impulsive and risk the gains made. In many parts of the world, there is evidence that the shutdowns are working and there is indeed a flattening of the curve. It is the leader’s responsibility to emphasize this and to ensure that people get support, financial and otherwise, during this pandemic. California, for instance, seems to be flattening the curve. However, more needs to be done and the shutdowns need to be in place for a longer period of time.
One of the key tasks of any leader- political or otherwise – is to ‘call it like it is,’ when it comes to critical issues pertaining to public health or safety. This responsibility is more so if that leader is an expert in science or technology and has specific information that is not available to others, as Sean O’Keefe, the former NASA administrator pointed out, during a web conference.
In an ideal world, rationality would prevail and would inform the best decisions. However, we live in a world where politics gets in the way and often, the best decisions are not taken, rather we may, as a society make decisions that are politically ideal. This is the bane of our societies, which are democratic. If we end up electing demagogues, then we will be served with propaganda and falsehoods.
Trust in a leader is important to tackle such a crisis as covid-19. And we are seeing across the board that this trust can be either used for tackling the crisis or for furthering the political agenda. As an example, Merkel has used this trust to reinforce the need for social solidarity and the need to follow directives and scientific advice. And for the most part, Germans seem to be heeding her. As Miller points out “Her rational assurances and her emotional appeal was crucial at a time of rising panic. While the mood isn’t quite so dark here anymore—thanks to a variety of factors, Germany appears to have dealt with the outbreak better than many other countries—Germans largely continue to heed the chancellor’s detailed directives.” Merkel has been a trusted scientific and political figure and continues to lead calmly and is likely to lead her country out of this crisis, with minimal damage.
Maybe the bigger lesson from this crisis is that more scientific leaders should enter the political realm. Maybe the answer to our troubles is more scientific leadership and less political leadership. And perhaps that starts with the electorate. A more informed and educated citizenry is needed to elect leaders who act rationally. So, in some ways, the leaders we are seeing in the public sphere reflect who we are, as a people. Don’t like what you see out there? Then, better change what goes into making those people win. That, I think is the biggest lesson for us all.