Boris Johnson's coronavirus reaction: why we need leaders to whom we can relate

In difficult times, we are having to settle for the idea that our leadership is with us and faces the same battle

FILE - In this Monday, March 9, 2020 file photo Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his partner Carrie Symonds arrive to attend the annual Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey in London. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has tested positive for the new coronavirus. Johnson's office said Friday March 27, 2020 that he was tested after showing mild symptoms, Downing St. says Johnson is self-isolating and continuing to lead the country's response to COVID-19. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth, File)
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As all of us return to our homes to stay out of the way of the coronavirus pandemic, it is striking how deeply we look for leadership so that the worst-case scenarios can be avoided.

Empathy and expertise are qualities most highly prized in the troubled days ahead. For instance, gestures – such as a prominent landmarks lighting up with public safety messages – are important because they play the role of ancient fire beacons that provided light and connection from hill to hill.

The fact that a number of world leaders have personally been touched by the virus serves to underline the commonality of the threat.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the first major world leader to announce that he had tested positive on Friday. The video that he sent from his place of isolation was matter of fact, both in tone and substance. In itself, that was just the right note: reassuring and serious.

As Mr Johnson knows well from his own love of classical Greek literature, people want something of the soul of the leader at times of trouble.

The fact was identified by former British prime minister Winston Churchill. The Second World War leader drew not only political credit from a trip on London's underground railway system during the German air raid blitz on the city, but also gained resolve to meet their demands that the fascist forces would "never take Piccadilly".

As we have with relatives and colleagues, Mr Johnson has joined the masses on video phone to establish his link with the public.

So far Angela Merkel has tested negative for the condition. However, the German leader has been treated by a doctor who tested positive. Hence, she is in isolation.

FILE - In this Sunday, March 22, 2020, file photo, German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks at a news conference about the new coronavirus, in Berlin. World War II references are now heard daily, not because another momentous 75th anniversary, Victory in Europe Day approaches in May but because of the coronavirus. (Michael Kappeler/Pool photo via AP, File)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has tested negative for coronavirus but has opted for self-isolation. Michael Kappeler / AP Photo
The fact that a number of world leaders have personally been touched by the virus serves to underline the commonality of the threat

In a revealing interview at the end of last week, Mrs Merkel talked of how hard she was finding the situation. She is using video-conferencing to conduct official business, including holding the cabinet. She revealed there was a chink of emptiness in this routine. In doing so, Mrs Merkel was giving something of her soul to her people.

The video-phone network was put to the service of history last week when the G20 international forum convened under the leadership of Saudi Arabia's King Salman in Riyadh. With a host of important leaders – including from the UAE – on the screen, the states determined to unite around measures that saved the global economic and established health security.

This is a time when escalating infection rates are unnerving. Even in the face of bazooka measures, such as the $2.3 trillion US bailout package, markets remain under siege.

Knowing what is effective is an impossible task. Take three of the most fraught issues: vaccine, viable treatments and the available supply of ventilators to save lives pushed to the brink by Covid-19.

In Britain alone, a war is under way between leading scientists at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College over how infectious the current coronavirus is – an argument that is crucial to the current justification for hitting the pause button on global movement. The rate of transmission matters because all the institutes use computer-modelling to project forward on infections. The higher the base number or the rate change is set, the bigger the pandemic appears.

Running in parallel is the contest to find a vaccine.

I chaired a panel at the end of January that looked at future shocks to the Middle East oil economy. One of the guests talked of an event shock so big that a world governance body would emerge to provide over-arching control of the response.

If the prototype for the body was the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the current pandemic, the disarray in the race for the vaccine shows how far away we are from that transformation of the international order.

FILE PHOTO: Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks during a news conference on the situation of the coronavirus (COVID-2019), in Geneva, Switzerland, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo
World Health Organisation chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaks on the situation of the coronavirus. Reuters

There are dozens of initiatives, some backed by countries and others funded by foundations. Competition is healthy but co-ordination and concentration are now necessary.

Scarcely more coherent is the situation on treatments for anyone who contracts the virus.

There is a huge row over hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial treatment that US President Donald Trump has proposed as effective against the infection. The drug is a standard treatment in some countries including Pakistan, has been used in China and is promoted by a French doctor as a cure. Many countries are studying its use.

However, the pressure to approve is such that Gilbert Deray, a prominent French medical professor, says that the control of science has been lost from institutes and handed over to Facebook and Twitter.

This is as nothing to the global competition for ventilators that has broken out. Mr Trump used his powers to order General Motors to start manufacturing the devices on Friday. Mr Johnson, meanwhile, spent the hours before his diagnosis on the phone with British engineers demanding that they pump out newly designed models.

Amid the confusion, feuding and false panacea, what people are having to settle for is the idea that their leaders are with them and face the same battle.

The virus, after all, does not discriminate.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief of The National