We are living in enormously challenging times, as COVID-19 continues to wreak huge uncertainty and havoc across the globe. However, the world has faced the stormy waters of extreme military, economic and indeed health crises before. During the last century, humanity has endured two world wars, the Great Depression, and yes, numerous pandemics. We have weathered these storms thanks to clear, strong and principled leadership — the type of leadership that is worryingly absent today.
Particularly in times of crisis, there are two indispensable characteristics of effective leadership. First, a determination to act in accordance with core principles and values, a refusal to lose sight of who you are. Second, the ability to see beyond the short-term crisis, to keep a sense of perspective and ensure that long-term goals remain firmly in sight. In both departments, our coronavirus-era leaders are failing.
Western leaders, the champions of global freedom, have allowed coronavirus to erode the foundations of democracy. In the UK, the Coronavirus Act represented a huge encroachment on basic civil liberties. Among the sweeping regulations, it allowed the government to restrict or prohibit public gatherings and to postpone elections until May 2021. Even the impartial Speaker of the House of Commons expressed his concern over the government’s sudden and wide-ranging dictates.
Meanwhile in Israel, the government has seriously restricted the public’s basic right to protest without any evidence that such gatherings are an incubator for the virus. Similarly, the basic right to gather and pray has been restricted, depriving many people of the solace and comfort that they so desperately need at this time. Meanwhile, on the altar of coronavirus, Israel’s government has also sacrificed the basic right to privacy, by allowing the security services to carry out mass surveillance on citizens’ movement and communications.
In Australia, particularly in the State of Victoria, property rights have been infringed due to coronavirus restrictions imposed by the authorities. The Victorian state government has extended a federal government directive, to enforce a period of non-rental payment until March 2021. In other words, they are dictating to landlords what they may or may not do with their lawfully-owned property. Again, rights which were assumed basic tenets of Western society, have been willfully brushed aside by our leaders.
The 20th-century French philosopher, Michel Foucault, talked about three different historic models for dealing with pandemics. He outlined the ‘plague’ model, deployed in the 16th and 17th centuries, whereby populations were confined and restricted under a strict, authoritarian regime. Foucault considered it wildly outdated. He would be shocked to see governments employing it today.
In the blink of an eye, seemingly blinded by the coronavirus, Western governments have carried out perhaps the most serious infringement of civil rights outside of wartime. Leaders appear to have forgotten that democracy is non-negotiable. It is the lifeblood of our societies and must be maintained with or without a global pandemic.
Leaders are also failing the second test of crisis leadership. There is no doubt that the coronavirus poses an enormous challenge to public health, economies, and societies as a whole. However, other long-term threats remain. The singular focus on COVID-19 means that they are in danger of being neglected. The influence of Iran, the persistent threat of terrorism and the changing balance of power in the world are some of the many issues which cannot be ignored. The world did not stop with the onset of the coronavirus and it will continue once it has been defeated. In the meantime, the dangers facing the West continue unabated.
Now more than ever, dialogue and partnership between like-minded democracies is key to ensuring that these challenges can be overcome. Moreover, such cooperation can only reinforce everything that democratic states have in common, guaranteeing that our shared values continue to thrive.
That is why even during these troubled times when travel and so many aspects of life have been restricted, senior leaders from UK, Israel, and Australia are gathering (albeit virtually) at this week’s Australian UK Israel Leadership Dialogue. Former prime ministers, current members of parliament, and ambassadors are among the experts discussing how these three countries and indeed the world can tackle the most pressing global issues.
In today’s confused reality, it is paramount that sound leadership steers the world in the right direction. To paraphrase the great poet Rudyard Kipling, in a global crisis this can only be achieved “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.” The upcoming trilateral dialogue is an important opportunity for our collective leadership to plot a clear-minded path through the fog of the coronavirus-era. It is a meaningful step towards building a brighter future for us all.