The March of Microbes


    “I say, then, that the years of the beatific incarnation of the Son of God had reached the tale of 1348 when in the illustrious city of Florence, the fairest of all the cities of Italy, there made its appearance that deadly pestilence, which, whether disseminated by the influence of the celestial bodies, or sent upon us mortals by God in His just wrath by way of retribution for our iniquities, had had its origin some years before in the East, whence, after destroying an innumerable multitude of living beings, it had propagated itself without respite from place to place, and so, calamitously, had spread into the West.” [PROEM. The Decameron, Volume I, by Giovanni Boccaccio, translated by J.M. Rigg]

    Yes, catch up on your reading in these trying times.

    Try Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa: “Reading changed dreams into life and life into dreams and placed the universe of literature within reach of the boy I once was. My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read because it made me sad when they concluded or because I wanted to change their endings. And perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it: prolonging in time, as I grew, matured, and aged, the stories that filled my childhood with exaltation and adventures.” What for? “Reducing violence, not ending it. Because ours will always be, fortunately, an unfinished story. That is why we have to continue dreaming, reading, and writing, the most effective way we have found to alleviate our mortal condition, to defeat the corrosion of time, and to transform the impossible into possibility.” [Mario Vargas Llosa: In praise of reading and fiction, Nobel Lecture, December 7, 2010]


    Earthlings. Are they like the little creatures “kribbling and krabbling” in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Drop of Water” (1848)? Set aside competitiveness for a historic moment and focus on solidarity because “Coronavirus calls for cooperative leadership,” thus, we feature here the statement of my colleague, Neil McLennan, Director of Leadership Programmes, University of Aberdeen:

    “Coronavirus is no respecter of national boundaries or individuals. Nor will the solutions to it. The virus emerged when the world was already retracting behind barricades and borders. In parallel with isolationism, ‘great man’ leadership styles of charismatic, bold leaders seemed to be back in vogue.

    “This boldness runs counter to medium-term shifts towards democratizing leadership. Flat-line leadership approaches engage more people and see more empowered simultaneously. They also result in more sustainable successes and improvements. However, the world is still searching for a leadership paradigm that will achieve all these goals.

    “Many models have been offered to fill the void: distributed leadership, collaborative leadership, and collective leadership. Each of these models has its critics. Academics have noted the lack of substance behind some of the models and presumptions contained within them. For example, distributed leadership is criticized for beliefs that it occurs naturally and for where ‘distribution’ of leadership comes from. That very act revels underlying power balances.

    “A potential new leadership paradigm is perhaps right under our noses. Early work by psychologists Kurt Lewin and Morton Deutsche formed innovative approaches teachers use to lead ‘cooperate learning’ in classrooms. The outcomes are positive. Initial thinking has supplemented by Spencer Kagan, Bob Slavin, David and Roger Johnson. With this knowledge, schools adopting cooperative learning see better teamwork and positive outcomes for children. The five principles of cooperative leadership could influence leadership.

    “The key principles of cooperative learning focused on ‘group formation.’ At time when society is potentially fragmenting leaders should consider the dynamics of group formation, cohesion and sustainability in their teams. How much explicit effort is put into forming cohesive teams? At times of crisis this pays off.

    “Two further cooperative principles align with management functions. ‘Positive interdependence’ sees the collective more impactful than the sum of its parts. Often teams are thrown together but ultimately work independently in silos. Naturally, group formation influences, but so does astute allocation of staff, ensuring skills and attributes interlink. ‘Group and individual accountability’ is next. We obsess on individual accountability but less on group responsibilities. The collective is as responsible as individuals, as COVID-19 spread and response will demonstrate. Both interlink.

    “Management and leadership are about both ‘the plumbing and the poetry.’ Once interdependencies and accountabilities are formed, the model considered leadership aspects. ‘Social skills’ and ‘face-to-face interactions’ are the final two principles of cooperative methodology. Behaviors in the work-place create the culture. These need to be shared, transparent and modeled.

    “Our current crisis will demand deeper thinking on leadership and how to engage the expertise and willpower of the collective. Perhaps the time has come for Cooperative Leadership?”

    Excellent points. Humans ought to avoid the temptation: “The law of gravitation deals with physical matter and with human beings as mere masses of molecules; social laws deal with human beings who are divided by class interests and antagonistic social needs. No matter; the prime principle of technocracy is that people are to be treated in the same way as the chemist deals with microbes, or the biologist with cattle.” [Paul Temple, “A Totalitarian Fantasy — Technocracy, Fascism, and the War” (April 1944)]

    More from history and literature: “No plague is one hundred percent effective. The black plague did, admittedly, wipe out whole families and villages. But it had a lot of help.” [John Ringo, Under a Graveyard Sky]

    “And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk:” [Revelation 9:20]

    Caution indeed: “A lessons approach to the past, which usually comes from outside the discipline of history, reinforces an idea of the past as a series of interlinked crises that offer instructive insights into cause and effect. Historians need to push back against easy analogies and examine the specific contexts of outbreaks, asking, for example, in what ways SARS and COVID-19 are in fact comparable.

    The designation of the new virus as severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses8 recognizes it as genetically related to but different from severe acute respiratory syndrome coronaviruses (SARS-CoVs).” [Robert Peckham, “COVID-19 and the anti-lessons of history,”, Vol. 395, March 14, 2020]


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