Lack of leadership hinders the fight against the coronavirus across the Mediterranean

From Rome to Paris, from London to Washington, from Algiers to Tunis, obfuscation and denial have been the name of the game.
Sunday 22/03/2020
 A ferry carrying Algerians who left France prepares to dock in Algiers amid a coronavirus outbreak, March 19. (AFP)
Stormy waters. A ferry carrying Algerians who left France prepares to dock in Algiers amid a coronavirus outbreak, March 19. (AFP)

The first casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, beyond those who died of it in hospitals, is, without a shadow of a doubt, political leadership.

Leaders throughout the world failed to show clear-sighted vision and decisiveness despite virologists having warned for weeks about a forthcoming virus outbreak. However, from Rome to Paris, from London to Washington, from Algiers to Tunis, obfuscation and denial have been the name of the game. This delayed a resolute and quick response to the pandemic.

Nobody expected much from US President Donald Trump or from Brazilian autocrat Jair Bolsonaro or for that matter from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who tried to resurrect the “blood, sweat and tears” narrative of his hero Winston Churchill when he first addressed the British public to warn them that “many families were going to lose loved ones before their time.”

His words sounded more like black comedy or low farce than an echo of a speech by the famed World War II prime minister. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron hardly fared better. Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and his Tunisian counterpart Kais Saied sounded quite out of their depth.

Ridicule invited itself quickly into the situation. Algerian Minister of Religious Affairs Youcef Belmehdi barred older people and women from attending mosque services, saying he would consult with clerics about further measures, as if these men of religion were medical doctors. He was laughed out of court by social media and mosques were ordered closed a few days later by the government.

Others in government suggested the Hirak protest movement had been infiltrated by foreign agents as if it were a virus. It was a poor choice of words and a pathetic attempt to instrumentalise a peaceful uprising of millions of Algerians. More credible were the 25 medical doctors and university professors who appealed to protesters to stop demonstrating, arguing — quite rightly — that “the Hirak is an idea and an idea does not die but some of our friends who die will never come back.”

Hirak figures decided to stop demonstrating, although the country’s leaders lost a precious opportunity to reconcile Algerians and promote transparency and more responsible government.

In Tunisia, the population continued to jam cafes and crowd public transportation. Even after Saied announced a 6pm-6am curfew, people could still huddle in smoke-filled coffee-shops from morning till late afternoon as if the virus only struck at sunset.

Ridiculous half-measures ruled the day. Saied asked Tunisians to donate half of their monthly salaries to fight the virus, quite an incredible request from a population that can hardly make ends meet. Had he announced bold measures to limit hoarding and panic buying, he might have sounded more like a statesman than a misguided saint.

Years of so-called democracy have seriously weakened the Tunisian state.

Western European countries are not offering better examples of sound and credible leadership than in the Maghreb. Macron allowed the first round of local elections to go ahead March 15 only to cancel the second round scheduled for the following week. For a country that prides itself on its Cartesian mindset, this inconsistent wavering was laughable.

In Paris and London, thousands crowded in parks and partied in nightclubs and restaurants. In Germany, until things worsened, the chancellor left her minister of health to handle the issue

Irrational behaviour, epitomised by Trump, and lack of awareness about the unprecedented nature of the pandemic reflected amateur politics and lack of leadership at a time when hundreds were dying in Italy.

One of the very few politicians to emerge with his status enhanced was Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. The university professor had been chosen by the right-wing parties, which won the 2018 elections as a figurehead leader. However, his firm handling, combined with his personal honesty — a first in modern Italian history — turned him into an actor of weight, not only in Italy but also on the European stage.

Many cliches collapsed: the slightly “dolce far niente” (“happy doing nothing”) Italians were shown to have far more discipline than their government in what amounts to the most serious crisis since the second world war. Civil society responded, often better than the rulers.

In Algeria, the private sector responded quickly. One entrepreneur put his chain of hotels and restaurants at the disposal of those in need. Others mobilised their resources to help. Many in the medical profession posted videos on social media calling for more prudent attitudes by the public. Some complained of the lack of preparedness by public hospitals where health professionals often lacked protective masks and disinfectants.

In Tunisia and Algeria, there were signs of panic buying but also of a growing awareness that queuing while keeping a 2-metre “social distance” from others in the queue was essential.

On both shores of the Mediterranean, public opinion and civil society might well be much more mature and sophisticated than the politicians whose rather petty political calculations were not altered despite the warning signs.

Maybe some European leaders secretly agreed with Trump, who persisted in talking about a “Chinese virus.” The irony, a sad one, is that China — not the European Union — is sending nurses and medical supplies to Italy and other countries.

If the European Union does not get its act together, the refusal of its leading members, such as France and Germany, to send medical supplies to the worst-hit country will be seen in the same light as the German/French crafted rules that nearly destroyed the Greek economy about a decade ago. That risks spelling the end of the European Union as we know it.