One of the upsides of the lockdown is that one gets read books one should read, but never had the time for. Former deputy chairman of India's Planning Commission Dr Montek Singh Ahluwalia's new book Backstage: The Story behind India's High Growth Years, is an illuminating inside picture of how leaders emerge at a time of crisis.
His brilliant quote of Italian political philosopher Machiavelli is spot on for this age of pandemics: "At the beginning, a disease is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, but as time passes, not having been treated or recognised at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure.
"The same thing occurs in affairs of state. By recognising from afar the diseases that are spreading in the state … they can be cured quickly. But when they are not recognised and left to grow to the extent that everyone recognises them, there is no longer any cure."
Prescient words indeed.
This weekend, the US - the most technologically advanced nation with the finest medical expertise - will be dealing with more Covid-19 cases than China, where the epidemic broke out last December. The coronavirus is about to take down not just the powerful and the rich, but the global economy.
The battle against Covid-19 is a war, as damaging as physical war. It is first and foremost an emotional war, not just a financial, economic, social or geopolitical war.
Stress levels are the highest I have ever known, at the individual, community, national and geopolitical level. Bad emotions worsen decisions.
When a person makes a mistake that impacts the whole family, any parent would know the most important thing to do is not to blame, but take action. A crisis is an event that calls for immediate action to prevent more damage. Blame can come later.
In drawing a parallel between fighting conventional warfare and war on pandemics, US General George Casey quotes 5BC Chinese strategist Sun Tzu that a leader must have "clear mind and pure hearts". But few of us have clear minds and pure hearts, because it is so easy to blame someone else as evil.
No one is truly objective, since we are all emotionally involved. Every day, our lives and those of our family, friends and community are at stake.
The Covid-19 war is so fundamentally different because instead of being able to provide physical comfort and share our worries with our loved ones, we must maintain social distance. Our hearts are torn because grandparents cannot hug their grandchildren. We stand helplessly by as friends are infected and isolated in hospitals.
The fog of emotion clouds our judgment and our ability to act. The blame game is an emotional salve that may assuage our anger, but will truly block effective action, which is to work together to fight the common enemy.
How do we stop the Covid-19 onslaught? Learn, adapt and act fast, or blame, dither and die. Time is not on our side. In this war, we have to learn to work with people we do not like to survive.
There are three reasons China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore have been effective in controlling the spread of Covid-19 cases so far.
First, these places learned the lessons of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic in 2003, not just at the professional and bureaucratic level; the populace also understood the need of social discipline during epidemics.
Second, their effectiveness is not about authoritarianism, but ability to test, trace and contain. All these economies have very good technology with bureaucracies that know how to apply them.
Third, the communities come together as one (however imperfectly), rather than displaying individualism at the expense of many.
What are the priorities in this war?
First, we cannot win any battle if the frontline troops are dying. We must make sure that the doctors, nurses, hospital staff and all those providing essential services are provided with sufficient personal protective equipment. These heroes are putting their lives and their families' health at risk for the good of the community and we must not only salute and cherish them, but give them the best support available. It is a sin to ask medical personnel to recycle masks and gowns at work.
Second, no amount of hospital beds will be enough if we do not enforce social distancing. One super-spreader will overwhelm any hospital with patients in a matter of weeks. We can understand the young wanting to party to relax, but they are putting other lives at risk. Once we lose our invaluable doctors and nurses, we have no more defence line.
Third, the toughest choice is between life versus livelihood. Nobel laureate Paul Romer and Harvard Provost Alan Garber puts the stark choice as: "If we keep up our current strategy of suppression based on indiscriminate social distance for 12 to 18 months, most of us will still be alive. It is our economy that will be dead."
Yes, the old free-spending economy that created excess consumption funded by excess debt may be dead or flat on its back. Over the longer term, we must rebuild the system into one that is more caring of nature and society.
General Casey's advice is well worth taking: "To succeed in our (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world, leaders have to control what they can, influence what they don't control, and prepare for what they can't control."
The march to recovery and reform is a long one. Tough decisions have to be made and inevitably there will be mistakes. But we will survive if we learn, adapt and come together as a community, not as narcissistic individuals. The leader who does not understand this will not survive.
Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective. The views expressed are entirely his own
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