To end a pandemic, the world becomes a classroom

The learning curve has been steep for nations in adopting qualities of leadership that can stop the coronavirus.

Reuters
Pupils sit in desks with yellow dividers, set up as a measure against the coronavirus disease, at Dajia Elementary school in Taipei, Taiwan March 13.

As more people cope with the coronavirus outbreak, they also have had to master some new terms. Social distancing. Self-isolate. Elbow bumps. Quarantines are now called lockdowns or containment zones.

And this is the point. The pandemic is not going to leave us where it found us. Humanity is on a learning curve, not only on how best to survive but, with higher levels of understanding, to prevent another pandemic.

For all the fear and suffering over COVID-19, says Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, “We will all learn lessons from this outbreak.”

Just last September, a special panel of the World Bank set up to track preparedness for pandemics bemoaned a general reluctance to retain lessons after each outbreak. “We ramp up efforts when there is a serious threat, then quickly forget about them when the threat subsides,” the panel found.

Yet in this latest pandemic, such a charge may not be the case. The tactics of several Asian countries in containing the virus are providing object lessons for the rest of the world. Reports of their “best practices” appear to be traveling quicker than the virus.

China, for example, made mistakes in the early weeks of the outbreak in December and January. Its leaders relied on secrecy and lies. Then in a lesson about flexibility and humility, they admitted mistakes and discovered that truth about the virus can be an asset to win public support.

In Singapore, the government used clear messaging and aggressive tracking of infected people. In Hong Kong, officials relied heavily on school closings and other reductions of large gatherings. South Korea is now famous for opening drive-through centers where people could be tested quickly for the virus.

For its efforts, Taiwan has earned the most praise. An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association cites the island nation as “an example of how a society can respond quickly to a crisis and protect the interests of its citizens.”

“Through early recognition of the crisis, daily briefings to the public, and simple health messaging, the government was able to reassure the public by delivering timely, accurate, and transparent information regarding the evolving epidemic,” the article concluded.

Not all attempts to contain the virus are suitable for every country. Nations have different ideas, for example, on striking a balance between civil liberties and draconian crackdowns. Yet a common thread is that leaders must get public buy-in. They must be alert to emerging threats, honest about information, calm in their messaging, and adequate in providing resources. These qualities of leadership not only defeat pandemics but also quiet the fear that often drives them. The world, says Dr. Tedros of WHO, must “heed the lessons these outbreaks are teaching us.” 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.