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Rethinking Pharaoh’s leadership under the COVID-19 pandemic

National leaders have addressed the coronavirus pandemic in a variety of ways depending on their personalities and the forms of governments they lead. In China and Iran, for instance, the governments are authoritarian and the first response was denial. It seems that for authoritarian governments the presence of a virus is some kind of embarrassment to the system and its leaders.

Authoritarian leaders are very sensitive to bad publicity and most often solve any problems by drastically limiting speech critical of their personal leadership or critical of the regime. In that kind of situation, expertise on dealing with a viral disease might be punished rather than heeded as was the case with China during the very early stages of the coronavirus outbreak.

Rethinking Pharaoh's leadership under the COVID-19 pandemic

Efraim Perlmutter

In more democratic governments the leaderships seem to balance the economic factors and their own political needs. Public criticism of the leadership is a natural part of the job.

At the national level there are not a large variety of strategies to deal with a pandemic nor was there a uniformity of expert opinion on the subject. Every course of action has its economic, political and social costs.

For instance, one important piece of advice is not to generate panic among the citizenry. On the other hand keeping things calm may result in a population that does not recognize the seriousness of the situation. Closing off national and local borders, imposing travel restrictions and home or neighborhood quarantines may make epidemiological sense but come with very steep economic, political and social costs.

So a national leader has to balance various factors when making decisions. This leads to moderation of action or even to decision-making paralysis, which is a poor way to confront a pandemic.

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All of this has led me to take a second look at the actions of Pharaoh in the Exodus narrative. As presented in the bible and the Haggadah, the point of view is that of Moses in the former and God in the latter. What might we learn if we look at things from Pharaoh’s point of view?

Pharaoh led a royal family located at the top of a societal pyramid economically based on slave labor, servitude and total obedience, reinforced by a retinue of advisers, priests and gods who favored Egypt by periodically flooding the Nile to replenish the soil. It must have seemed that things were going like clockwork with nothing to stand in the way of a successful reign.

Then one day there appeared out of the desert a seeming madman demanding that one of the major pillars critical to the support of Egypt’s economy be surrendered. The only reason why he even received a hearing was that several decades ago he had been part of the royal family who, after some sort of scandal, had run off into the desert, never to be heard from again; at least until now.

One can only imagine the meetings Pharaoh had with his advisers and priests.

“This Moses fellow is obviously deranged. Everyone has slaves and our economic advisers tell us that the economy will collapse if we release them. Besides”, the priests add,” Moses has only one god and we have many.”

So the smart strategy for Pharaoh was to do nothing. Then the plagues start to happen and Pharaoh, his priests and advisers stick to the plan. The economic and social costs of each plague are high but not as high as releasing the slaves.

Furthermore, in times of danger the populace, out of fear, rallies around the leadership. In addition, all of these plagues are natural events that Egypt has seen and survived before.

These kinds of arguments worked for nine plagues. However the tenth was different. Not only is death final, but this plague impacted everyone from the bottom to the very top of the Egyptian societal pyramid. The rest of the story we know.

In my opinion there is a lesson or two to be learned about our contemporary plague by examining Pharaoh’s point of view. First, no matter how powerful the national leadership happens to be, there are conflicting interests driving the decisions sometimes leading to paralysis. Second, even with the best advisers, priests, many gods and a proven ideology, sometimes the right answers are not apparent until it is too late. Finally 20-20 hindsight is always better than foresight.

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