“Lead; follow; or get out of the way.”
The COVID-19 crisis has impacted each and all in ways that range from inconvenience to inconsolable loss. Such times bring into stark relief the need – and ethical obligation – for an open society’s political establishment to exercise its purpose, process, and leadership to protect the polis it serves. This mandates comprehensive appraisal of all available information and establishment of facts – defined as “something known or proved to be true” – with recognition that facts can and often do change as a consequence of more detailed investigation and evolution of circumstance. Facts provide the basis for developing knowledge. This knowledge is important to effectively inform decision-making, develop planning, prepare necessary responses, and maintain public awareness, guidance, and trust.
A number of years ago, I was involved in a NATO modelling exercise that was intended to assess relative capabilities and weaknesses in United States’ biosecurity readiness and response. I had the interesting distinction of directing the “bad guy team” – to simulate development and implementation of a “biological agent” that would pose a potentially expansive threat to public health, safety, and stability. Interestingly, the exercise illustrated that the disruptive and ultimately destructive factor was not the biological agent itself, but rather the spread of misinformation, which heightened peoples’ uncertainties, preyed upon their relative lack of understanding of science, and manipulated the public need for sound, stable leadership. In other words, it wasn’t the bug, but the bamboozling that fractured public trust, disrupted the capability of government, and created further opportunities for destructive effects in biomedical, socio-economic, and cultural domains and dimensions.
As the simulation played out, the “good guys” could not initially stem the tide of disruption that misinformation, miscommunication, and mistrust created. To rebound and regain national stability required a concentrated, dedicated effort of establishing credible resources, providing accurate, appropriately communicated information, and fostering and sustaining cooperation and collaboration. Crucial to this enterprise was sound leadership, which served as a sail, rudder, and keel to “take the wind of change” – regardless of direction, intensity, and harshness – and harness it to steadily steer ahead a recuperative path. Such leadership requires trust, teamwork, and respect for and reliance upon those who are best qualified to navigate often treacherous courses, so as to “lead from the front of the boat.”
Sound leadership entails ethical stewardship of power. Ethical leadership responsibly assumes both the benefit and burden of command – in often self-effacing ways – so as to maximize the good of those being led, especially in times of uncertainty, insecurity, and need. The country – and world – is faced with a pandemic. Professional forums and media of all sorts are rife with bellicose language about “fighting the war” on this “adversary,” the SARS-Cov-2 virus.
Such talk may be familiar to prior generations’ recall of mobilization of national resources during World War II, efforts of the space race, and in more recent memory, the aftermath of 9/11. For a more biomedical example, we look back to the influenza pandemic of 1918, compare the morbidity and mortality it sustained to losses during the first world war, and frame the impact of the current COVID-crisis in terms of casualties of recent wars in the Middle East and Viet Nam. Perhaps such rhetoric is useful, as it drums up public spirit, poses a “grand challenge,” and harnesses “big science” to engage a common cause.
But if we use such language, and exemplify the triumphs of previous bellicose efforts, then we must also examine when, how, and why similar endeavors failed. History is rich with international and domestic instances of leaders who did not respect the wisdom and heed the counsel of expert field commanders, intelligence services, scientists and engineers. In so doing, those leaders fell prey to intellectual shortsightedness, egotism and/or narcissism, and as a result, acted impulsively and foolishly at least, and in ways gravely erroneous – and with dismal consequences – at worst. Let both the successes and failures of the past serve as lessons to be learned.
To be sure, the COVID crisis is humbling in many ways. It has brought to light our vulnerabilities and threatens much that we value. This is not the time for hubris, a lack of veracity, vindictiveness, or sarcasm. The public is anxious if not frightened. The present is wrought with burden and the future is uncertain. As a scientist, I call for confidence in, and reporting of facts – as they are known, and as they change. As an ethicist, I know all too well the importance of facts to decision-making and reasoned action, and I implore the need for responsible cooperation, collaboration, and communication. And as a citizen, I hope for an end to petty partisanry, and the sound shepherding of truth, intention, and commitment to assume a more prudent path through – and recovery from – this pandemic.
James Giordano PhD, MPhil, is Senior Scholar-in-Residence of the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, and Professor in the Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, Washington, DC. For more of Dr. Giordano’s work on COVID-19, please visit our web site.