The flashing star trails have disappeared. Social media celebrities are passé. The age of science and reason is back. Coronavirus has ensured that.
Exit Kim Karshashian. Enter Angela Merkel and K.K. Shailaja ‘teacher’. One is the German Chancellor and the latter is the Indian Kerala State Minister of Health. Two women in their 60s, women of education, women of science.
Merkel is a research scientist in quantum chemistry from former East Germany. Shailaja was a high school science teacher at the Sivapuram Highschool in Kannur, India, which also explains the moniker of ‘teacher’ given to her as a sign of respect. Both bring a scientific temperament to their work – logical, rational, and attentive to detail, with strong faith in empirical data.
In today’s time, when facts and reason are the very axis of people’s lives, as a global pandemic grips all, it becomes crucial that leaders must now focus on accuracy enlightened by science and reason. Many are doing that, while a few swing crazily between fact and accusation like a schizoid pendulum.
In such circumstances, Merkel and Shailaja, more than most are bringing that sense of sanity in how they deal with the pandemic. They seem to be functioning more as scientists, rather than politicians, bringing with it that essential humility science imbues into followers of its path.
Shailaja ‘teacher’ from Kerala
On March 14, 2020, Indian news sites profiled Shailaja teacher. They described her style of working, wherein it is clear that she only focuses on facts and figures, works 19-hour days at 63 years, but is indefatigable in attention.
She is quoted in reports as saying: “The [corona]virus has become a global threat. It is with collective effort that we could fight this. The job is not done.”
The [corona] virus has become a global threat. It is with collective effort that we could fight this. The job is not done.
Shailaja joined politics at a young age and was given the health portfolio four years ago. Never having held such a senior post, she was nervous. It has not been an easy, in the course of her tenure she has battled the Nipah virus outbreak in 2018, which claimed 17 lives in Kerala.
But, as a person of science, that experience has served to make her a more planned and coordinated administrator - Nipah was a “big lesson” that helped her be better equipped to deal with the outbreak of COViD-19.
Angela Merkel of Germany
Similarly Merkel - who left a promising career in science in the early 1990s to join politics, because some reports say she realized that as a scientist from East Germany, her chances at success were much lower -has never truly left her training behind.
A recent report by the online magazine The Atlantic said that she seemed to function more as “scientist-in-chief” rather than as “commander-in-chief”. To quote: “Scientific thinking—her deliberate probing of each new bit of information, her cautious consultation with experts—remains integral to Merkel’s daily decision-making process and her political persona.”
In a recent briefing about Germany opening up post the lockdown, and the need to be circumspect in the process was explained by the 65-year-old in a calm manner using a linear calculation model. In fact the video of that briefing went viral on social media, with many juxtaposing it against briefings by other Western world leaders.
In her 15 years as Chancellor of Germany, she has often been criticized for being measured and dispassionate with a strong aversion to political rhetoric, something that was appreciated by a nation wary of its past. But, there was a recent waning in popularity in light of increasing preference for right-wing populism. And then came coronavirus. The first case in Germany was in late January. By mid-March, the country was in its grips, lockdown was announced. On March 18, she gave a televised address to the nation.
When she spoke, Merkel empathised with the loss of freedom, focused on being rational and most importantly promised transparency based on facts. It has inspired a nation to follow her directives, and control the impact of the virus outbreak. Germany now has an infection rate of R, wherein one infects one other, not more – essential to flattening the curve.
The global pandemic shows no signs of receding. We do not know what the near future will bring. The challenges seem to be increasing, but in these times it becomes more important than ever to have political leaders who follow the path of knowledge-based thinking, like Merkel and Shailaja teacher, because information is our only defence now.