Coronavirus – Health and Governance Issues

Stress test of leadership in pandemic


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Not much.

Mains level : Paper 2- Do you agree with the view that coordination at global level was lacking in fight against Covid-19?

The article discusses the three stages involved in successfully dealing with the pandemic. In the next part, it goes on to explain the factors that determine the success or failure of the governments. In the last week, we read about the success story of Kerala and underlying reasons. This article is also written on similar lines.

Stages in the pandemic response

  • Disease outbreaks, even global pandemics, are scarcely new. The playbook for dealing with them, therefore, is well understood and has been honed by practices and lessons gleaned from hard-fought battles.
  • A first stage is an early clear-eyed recognition of the incoming threat, and, in the case of COVID-19 at least, requires the unpalatable decision to lock down society.
  • Ideally, this is done with full consideration of how to support the most vulnerable members of society, especially in a country such as India, where so many survive hand-to-mouth.
  • This is a phase aimed at buying time, of flattening the epidemic curve, so that public health facilities are not overwhelmed.
  • And, for using this time, paid for by collective sacrifice, to secure the personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies necessary to save lives.
  • The second phase of the pandemic response is slowly to ease the burden on the economy by permitting a measured return of business activity so that livelihoods and supply chains can be restored.
  • This stage can only be safely executed if accompanied by a war-footing expansion of testing capacity so that new infections can be identified and isolated at once, allowing contact tracing to be implemented by masses trained to do this crucial and painstaking work in communities across the country.
  • The final stage, which for COVID-19 seems a lifetime away, is a mass vaccination programme and then the full rebuilding of economic and social life.
  • None of this is easy, but, like an examination in a dreaded subject, one’s only hope is early and persistent preparation and, at crunch time, remembering the lessons learned.

The above-mentioned stages are sort of a template that seems to have gained acceptance for dealing with the pandemic. A question based on it, like “What are the various stages involved in government’s response to deal with a pandemic?”

Following three factors make the difference between successful and failed response

1. Leadership problems in global politics

  • The defensive finger-pointing, opportunistic politicking and xenophobic posturing are shown by some leaders amid pandemic.
  • This is not a crisis that can be tackled without robust and multidimensional international cooperation between nations.
  • We are watching in real-time the benefits of intellectual collaboration that does not stop at national borders.
  • From the epidemiologists to the medical community identifying more effective treatments, to the research scientists racing to find a vaccine, we are benefiting from collaboration.
  • But the nationalistic turn in global politics over the past two decades has reduced investment in and undermined the legitimacy of the very institutions that facilitate international partnership at the very time they are needed most.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi did well to convene the leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations in mid-March to discuss the possibility of a regional response.
  • But that video-conference call also highlighted that there have been no summit-level meetings of SAARC since 2014.
  • Similarly, United States President Donald Trump demanded that the U.S. end funding of the World Health Organization (WHO).
  • This not only endangers American lives by cutting off his own administration’s access to vital international data.
  • But also directly affects India which receives significant funding and expertise from WHO with ~10% of its overall WHO financing in 2019 coming directly from the U.S.

2. The whole-of-the-government strategy

  • Pandemic response requires a whole-of-government strategy, for which political will and legitimate leadership are vital to convene and maintain.
  • Germany and Kerala provide two powerful though different examples of this in action.
  • In Germany, in spite of a high level of federalism that gives its States (Länder) a lot of power, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ability to mobilise the entire system has allowed Germany to emerge as a success story in Europe.
  • In Kerala, State Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan convened a State response team at the earliest possible moment and has provided the full weight of his office in support of a coordinated public health strategy that has been accepted by the State’s citizens who have learned to trust the government in such situations.
  • Yet these two examples stand out in part for how rare they are.
  • Consider again the cautionary tale of the U.S. where some State Governors have yet to issue stay-at-home orders.

3. The robust public health system

  • We are seeing first hand the consequences of starving public health systems of necessary funds and resources.
  • The comparative advantage of the private sector is efficiency; the need of the hour in pandemic response is redundancy, or, more precisely, excess capacity.
  • Most hospitals do not need invasive ventilators normally, just as they do not need vast stocks of PPE and extra intensive care units beds, but these are essential goods right now as we brace ourselves for a flood of sick patients into hospitals.
  • Watching the advanced health-care system of northern Italy buckle under the unimaginable pressures to which it was exposed over the past six weeks should be a cautionary tale for all countries that thought turning health care over to private actors was responsible governance. It is not.
  • Again, consider Kerala, which has consistently ranked at the top of State rankings for health expenditures.
  • Kerala has, a well-functioning local public health system capable of implementing the test-isolate-trace protocols critical for fighting COVID-19.


With the central role of leadership and governance underlined in the successful dealing with the pandemic, leadership across the world need to come together to coordinate at all levels in dealing with the problems that are not bound by any border.

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