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Pandemic, Coordination and Leadership

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Mauricio Covarrubias
April 8, 2022

According to Otto Scharmer’s article, “New Superpower in the Making: Awareness-Based Collective Action,” COVID-19 has acted as one of the most effective and impactful teachers of our time. The microscopic pathogen, only about 0.000125 millimeters in size, has provided the more than 7.8 billion people on this planet an advanced lesson in systems thinking and interdependence.

The pandemic has reminded us of our fundamental condition of frailty, in that we are biological beings vulnerable to the same types of disease pathogens that infected and killed our ancient ancestors. From cholera to COVID-19, pathogens now have global reach as a result of the more interconnected and interdependent ways of life that make contagious diseases much more common and widespread.  In just a few months, COVID-19 went from a low-key outbreak, to a raging global pandemic. The speed and scale of the spread, as well as its social and economic disruptions, have been dramatic, as have its short term and long-term effects.

As a result of the pandemic, many of us have come to realize that we are all part of the same global network of social, economic, cultural and environmental connections. We no longer believe “distance” to be synonymous with “different” and understand that ignoring our interconnectedness only leads us to design institutions that completely fail us in times like this.

That being said, one of the greatest lessons that the pandemic has taught us is about coordination and leadership. In times when interdependence and global challenges are constantly increasing, the political capacity of central governments depends on their ability to coordinate a unified national response.  Therefore, national leaders will continue to play a key role in expanding capacities, in that they can choose to face crises by utilizing one another, mobilizing and joining forces.

Unlike local crises relatively confined in place and time, today, federations face emerging challenges on a global scale, of which require articulated individual responses, as well as international cooperation. The coronavirus pandemic is a global crisis, in which the response of one state is only as effective as the response of others. Therefore, potential coordination will depend on the existence of a capacity distributed among the different levels of government, from the local to the supranational sphere, passing through the subnational and national; they are all necessary and deeply intertwined.

It can be said that coordination fulfills its objective if it makes possible a collective action that seeks common benefits. However, achieving collective action is not strictly dependent on coordination alone, especially if it is not supported by the existence of competent public administrations. In other words, internal sufficiency and external connectivity constitute two key factors in cases of interdependence.

This means that each country will have to do its part. Leadership that is capable of moving towards the desired goal of the nation is essential. Ricardo Lagos, former president of Chile, pointed out that with globalization, it is essential to have a country vision that generates social cohesion. Similarly, Danielle Allen argues for the importance of finding a common purpose that collaboratively guides citizens to accomplish something together: “A common purpose is perhaps the most powerful tool in the democratic toolkit, particularly in a crisis, because it can yield the solidarity that induces people to do hard things voluntarily rather than through authoritarian compulsion.”

According to Francis Fukuyama, the factors responsible for successful pandemic responses have been state capacity, social trust and leadership. Countries with all three—a competent state apparatus, a government that citizens trust and listen to and effective leaders—have performed impressively, limiting the damage they have suffered.

However, as we have seen in the coronavirus crisis, the actions taken by leaders in many countries have caused a good amount of the damage associated with the pandemic. At the domestic level, in many cases, poor leadership increased social polarization and state weakness, leaving its citizens and economies exposed and vulnerable. At the multilateral level, there was not a coherent or coordinated global approach—countries fought their own individual battles against the coronavirus, isolated and in their own way.

It can be concluded that, despite its enormous importance, there is a deficit when it comes to coordination in governance, both locally and globally. COVID-19 has served as a test for public governance and leadership, not only at the national level, but also at regional and continental levels, as well as for the wider network of multilateral actors and partners. Truly effective governance requires positive synergy, which can only be produced through greater coordination, leadership and competency.


Author: Mauricio Covarrubias is Professor at the National Institute of Public Administration in Mexico.  He co-founder of the International Academy of Political-Administrative Sciences (IAPAS).  He is the founder and Editor of the International Journal of Studies on Educational Systems (RIESED). Coordinator in Mexico of the TOGIVE Project: Transatlantic Open Government Virtual Education, of the ERASMUS + Program of the European Union. Member of the National System of Researchers of CONACYT.  He received his Ph.D. from the National Autonomous University of Mexico.  He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @OMCovarrubias and LinkedIn @ http://linkedin.com/in/mauricio-covarrubias-2b49bb57

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