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Coronavirus and Disaster Leadership

Saqar ' M Al Zaabi29 April 2020

Written by Ilan Kelman

During this pandemic, some world leaders have listened to the advice from their experts and scientists while others have ignored and contradicted it. The step from research and evidence to decisions and actions will always lead to a variety of outcomes where the researchers and the decision-makers are different. What examples do we have of academics, notably disaster academics, as political leaders?

The answer seems to be that disaster academics as politicians are rare. Partly because of scientists’ general inclination to shun the public spotlight. Partly because disaster research is an amorphous field, ill-defined and only relatively recently being large enough to potentially be considered a cohesive discipline.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Heads of state and heads of government who worked as academics are more common. Angela Merkel of Germany was a quantum chemist; Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga of Latvia spent decades researching, teaching, and publishing on psychology, semiotics, and cognition; Woodrow Wilson of the USA was, suitably, a scholar in American politics.

Margaret Thatcher of the UK is often mentioned, but she did not have a PhD, although she worked as a research chemist before qualifying as a barrister. Meanwhile, casting the net wider to ministers rather than heads of state and government, opens up possibilities such as Henry Kissinger and Condoleezza Rice as US Secretaries of State. Their policies were not the most supportive of disaster risk reduction.

At least a dozen other current or recent world political leaders have doctoral degrees with a vast range of topics and experience levels in post-PhD research. None identified could be said to have worked in disaster research.

Then, there is the meme circulating about the countries doing well in keeping Covid-19 under control, all of whom have women as heads of government. It is a somewhat artificial list, as there are several counterexamples. In fact, in mid-April, Israel was listed as one of the highest-ranked countries for Covid-19 safety when it did not even have a government and the caretaker Prime Minister (a man) was under indictment.

So we pose plenty of questions regarding political leadership and disaster risk reduction and response, especially during the current pandemic. In particular, given that we as IRDR scientists seek public and policy influence from our work, could we achieve more as academics or as politicians–or is there some combination which could function best?