COVID-19 Is the Symptom — the Contagion Is a Crisis of Leadership

We have a once in a century chance to get this right.
Apr 28, 2020 2:20 PM ET

This article was originally published on Medium

Have you ever had to make a really tough decision...under extreme pressure...with everyone watching? Now imagine that you’re the leader of your country deciding how to protect your population from a rapidly approaching and highly contagious virus that we know little about except that it’s deadly and that humanity has no defence for it. What would you do? Would you sit back and let thousands of people die as the entire health care system is overwhelmed or would you curtail people’s ability to move around (and earn a living) so that hopefully more lives can be saved?

Adding to the pressure are that the effects of this decision will play out in real time. Literally the number of deaths will accumulate right before your eyes. The stakes are definitely higher than climate policy decisions that will likely be far more destructive but that won’t be felt for decades to come - on someone else's watch.

Be a Leader

Shutting down the economy is a huge decision with implications that are a mile long. It’s understandable why a leader would wait to be absolutely certain that this is the only possible choice before pulling the trigger and telling people to stay home. And that’s exactly the time when someone who doesn’t have to answer to voters and who has been charged with protecting humanity from a variety of health crises, needs to step up and be a leader. That’s the time to stand in front of the world and call the global spread of an extremely contagious virus that’s killing 3%+ of those who contract it what it is - a global pandemic.

China Is a Distraction

We can go back in time and quibble about what China did and when but what’s the point — we know that China lied — so what? It won’t bring back the dead or save lives. It doesn’t bring back jobs. It doesn’t deal with our broken economic system that funnels money to the 0.1%, and it most certainly doesn’t prepare us for the elephant in the room — climate change which is pounding at our door. None of it matters — it’s just political theatre. Global leadership failed us yet again because they were looking through their lens of “economy first” thinking rather than how to save lives.

They Knew

China told us everything we needed to know on January 23rd when they locked down Wuhan, a city of 11 million with a reported 654 cases of the coronavirus. What’s interesting is how the world responded. During the next 14 days, no less than 18 countries including, US, UK, France, Italy and Canada reported cases of the virus. In that time countries like Russia, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Singapore and Taiwan sealed their borders to anyone who had been in China in the previous 2 weeks. These are not the actions of a global community that is unaware. And from there the rapid geometric transmission of the virus began to kick in. 

It was on February 15th, 23 days after the Wuhan shutdown, when the WHO used weak “economy protecting” language to say that COVID-19 has “pandemic potential”. At this point China now had 68,408 cases and the virus was literally spilling over its borders with 617 cases spread around the world and 1527 dead. This weak language had deadly consequences. 


The WHO then waited for another 25 crucial days until March 11th, with cases reaching 125,875 (45,584 outside of China) and breakouts in Italy, Iran and South Korea before calling the geometrically expanding virus a global pandemic. A classification that smooths the way for politicians to take action while still having someone to blame if things should go terribly wrong.

To bring this deadly failure into light let’s look at only one of the implications of the delay. On March 8th countries around the world (Spain and France in particular), allowed the International Women’s Day March to proceed without any official health restrictions or precautions. Authorities estimated that 120,000 people participated in Madrid's march while 60,000 joined in Paris. (These countries are now 3 and 4 respectively on the list of COVID-19 deaths).

The WHO failed to deliver on its mandate and today we have over 3 million cases and nearly 210,000 tragic deaths.

Global Leaders Fail Us Yet Again

With a few exceptions, protecting the planet from COVID-19 has been a colossal failure of global leadership. There were some countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore that gave us a solid strategy of how to protect citizens but our Western leaders were so wrapped up in their neoliberal dogma that they chose to focus on the economy rather than lives. But this shouldn’t come as a surprise, after all, these are many of the same leaders that have been overseeing our ecosystem decline for decades using the same perverted “economy first” approach.

As I elaborated in my previous article, due to the slow motion nature of the climate crisis, it’s difficult if not impossible to line up policy choices and their outcomes as they can be years and even decades apart. This allows politicians to make exciting “promises” on climate change while avoiding much of the scrutiny that comes when those promises are broken. What makes COVID-19 so interesting is that due to the near real time pace of the virus, we can actually see the effects of poor policy and assess for ourselves how our politicians are performing. 

Dogma Failures

From the ill-conceived idea of austerity that primarily impacted the poor, to bank bailouts for economy crippling corporations, to artificially low interest rates that caused both the real estate and stock markets bubbles, to climate change procrastination and now blatant and arguably unforgivable “economy first” decision making with covid19...most politicians don’t have a very good track record.  

Even when they try and do the right thing their neoliberal dogma gets in the way. Consider the banks - how is it that they’re expecting mortgage payments from a population of people that can’t work? And the best idea that the Canadian government can come up with is to use deficits (future taxpayer obligations) to fund an imperfect program that will hopefully help families and business owners pay their mortgages rather than force the banks to forfeit mortgage payments for 90 days. Wouldn’t that make more sense? Let the hugely profitable, greedy and planet destroying banks, who are the ones after all, who bankroll the oil and gas industry, make the sacrifice - not the people who are forced not to work...and certainly not future taxpayers - our children. At least if banks were forced to do this, then they’d have something meaningful to put in their next CSR report. 


As long as we're admitting failures it’s time to call out CSR and Corporate Sustainability - a failure on three fronts; environmental, social and now economic. The concept while well meaning was flawed from the start as it never took on the economic system that lay at the foundation of our society. It was born out of a neoliberal culture that was trying to appease business rather than mandate strict guidelines for decisions that foster well being.

Should we build that pipeline? How will it affect the environment, animals, people who live nearby, will it lead to a clean future? If we can’t create jobs here then where can we create them? We weren’t even asking the right questions. In fact, the word sustainability was flawed from the beginning - what exactly were we trying to sustain?

Collective Understanding

Climate Change left us confused and divided about how terrible our policy choices were but Covid19 suddenly brings everything into focus. It leaves us with a real time collective understanding of the dangers of Neoliberalism. In fact, I would suggest that it even goes further - it fuses our dissatisfaction towards not only flawed policies but also to the common culprit that is at the base of this predatory system - unregulated capitalism run by corporations and plutocrats. This unfortunate doctrine has influenced the planet for far too long - it’s even infiltrated decision making at the WHO - where it took 48 deadly days from the Wuhan lockdown to call COVID-19 a global pandemic.

Eradicate the Contagion 

The ability to see the problems in real time is a powerful gift and we must not squander it. We have a once in a century chance to create a new system that places human wellness and ecological health right at the centre. But first we need to eradicate the contagion that is threatening us. 

A contagion that is so powerful that it has changed everything about us. A contagion that is causing illness and death on an enormous scale. A contagion that is placing our entire species at risk. No, it’s not Covid19, that’s just the symptom - the real contagion is a failure of leadership right across the planet. 

Now is the time for transformational change. We just need leaders to open the door and we’ll do the rest. We’re ready to create a better society where every decision asks - will this create wellbeing for the greatest number of people.

You can read more stories by Brad Zarnett by visiting his medium page.


Brad Zarnett is a Canadian sustainability strategist, writer and blogger. He is the Founder of the Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). Brad writes about why Corporate Sustainability and our attempts to address Climate Change are a massive systemic failure and what to do about it. You can follow Brad on twitter: @bradzarnett, LinkedIn, Medium or via email.