A new editorial by Robert Klitzman, M.D., Academic Director of the M.S. in Bioethics program, offers an art historical perspective on leadership in the time of a pandemic—and implores that our present-day leaders grappling with COVID-19 take heed.
Entitled “Pandemic politics: What leaders should — and shouldn’t — learn from Napoleon” and published June 25 on the health and medical science site Stat, the article reflects on the French conqueror’s response to an outbreak of bubonic plague that decimated his army while battling the Ottoman Empire in 1798—an episode memorialized in the 1804 painting “Bonaparte Visiting the Plague-Stricken in Jaffa.”
Recounting the history behind the painting, Dr. Klitzman explains that Napoleon had indeed shown compassion toward his stricken soldiers, risking infection to visit them and raise their spirits. However, he still marched them into a losing battle, insisting that fear and lack of “moral courage” were responsible for spreading the plague. When Napoleon rationalized his subsequent retreat as prudent action to avoid the plague, not the result of ruinous leadership, he commissioned Antoine-Jean Gros to paint a more heroic representation of events.
Comparing Napoleon’s “propagandistic impulses” with the self-serving narratives about the current pandemic spun by President Trump and his counterparts in China and Brazil, Dr. Klitzman exhorts leaders not to “exploit epidemics to push their own agendas.”
“If they cannot resist,” he concludes, “they should at least realize they can do so in ways that can help people as much as possible and that advance science rather than ignore it.”