Plato used the image of the political leader as a doctor. That is particularly true in a pandemic


Taiwan’s remarkably effective response to the coronavirus pandemic is thought to be in some measure because it’s lucky enough to have an epidemiologist as vice president. (Click here for my blog from last week.)

Technically speaking, the European Union should have the same advantage. After all, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, is a trained doctor, with a masters in public health. From 1998 to 2002, she taught at the Department of Epidemiology, Social Medicine and Health System Research at the Hanover Medical School. VDL, as she is somewhat familiarly called by some media outlets, should be just what the doctor ordered for Europe in the age of coronavirus.

Which brings one to Plato’s leadership model, which made an explicit connection between virtue and knowledge.

More to the point right now, Plato used the image of the leader as a doctor. The leader’s job, he said, was perhaps to diagnose some social ill, some social malaise and then find a way to treat it. What Plato meant was that a doctor has expert knowledge and the empathy required by his vocation, both of which are admirable (perhaps required) qualities for a good leader.

This is particularly true in a crisis, when a state and its citizens desperately seek calm, competence, compassion and courage. As Raghuram Rajan, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India and currently professor of finance at the Chicago Booth School of Business, recently said, “the fight (against this novel coronacirus) will be won or lost on the issue of leadership. Hopefully, the urgency of the moment will produce the global resource that is in the shortest supply”.

Indeed, the lack of knowledgeable and competent leadership is painfully apparent in many countries. Three good key examples are as follows:

** The US: President Donald Trump has floundered between ignorant overconfidence and gross incompetence. With the US leading the world in the number of confirmed coronavirus cases, Mr Trump has stayed on his bullish course, appearing reluctant to provide federal medical assistance to states, floating the (now-abandonned) idea of re-opening the US economy by Easter and promoting crazy ideas about likely cures for the Covid-19 disease. What has been strikingly apparent is Mr Trump’s lack of the calm, competence, compassion and courage required of a good leader.

** India: Prime Minister Narendra Modi was forced to ask “forgiveness” for the hardships imposed on the country’s millions of desperately poor people on account of his sudden announcement of a 21-day national lockdown. Mr Modi’s bold order of March 24 sent millions of labourers and workers in the informal sector trudging across India to their villages. Many have died in the mass migration. Add to the fact that Mr Modi’s unwise decision may spread the contagion to the Indian hinterland because the migrants may or may not have the coronavirus.

**Russia: After President Vladimir Putin announced a nine-day paid “long weekend” in a bid to stem the spread of Covid 19, hotel reservations in the seaside town of Sochi surged, there were picnics galore and other signs of riotous socializing. The rush for popular Black Sea beaches forced the regional governor to issue a clarification. This came after weeks of public statements from Mr Putin and his administration that the pandemic was “under control”.