Crisis has a way of stripping people naked to reveal the size of their cojones. It trumps lies, pretense and all manner of mediocrity in people, especially leaders.
Recently, a sense of bewilderment gripped the world when the US President, on live television, suggested that injection of disinfectant be used to treat COVID-19. While he later, in his clinical fashion, changed the narrative claiming he was only being sarcastic, the harrowing reality of emptiness and lack of leadership where it is most expected was evident for everyone to see.
Unsurprisingly, many leaders across the world have been rather underwhelming in their handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just a handful of leaders in a few countries - like New Zealand, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Taiwan - have shown leadership worth emulating.
In Africa, countries like South Africa, Uganda and Rwanda have ramped up testing to quickly identify and isolate Corona virus cases and trace contacts. However, in other countries like Tanzania, basic measures such as providing social distancing guidelines are yet to be enforced.
Other countries have leaders who prefer looking like they are leading instead of actually leading. In Kenya, several politicians spent money on branding donated facemasks and hand sanitizers instead of investing in more sanitizers, personal protective equipment and financing the health system. Some section of religious leaders even moved to court to oppose government’s ban on church gatherings, completely oblivious of the risk that this could amplify the spread of the virus.
The Power of Truth
Leadership at this moment of crisis means being a champion for truth. This is evident from Angela Merkel who has been honest and open with her citizens on the status of the pandemic. It is by being truthful that the true extent of disease can be established and mitigation measures set up.
From the U.S to the U.K, China and across Africa, those charged with speaking truth to power have deliberately chosen to do the very opposite. Reports of leaders disregarding expert advice and silencing those who attempt to speak up against governments’ actions or inaction are scattered all over. Some have even gone as far as openly castigating the media for seeking answers when in real sense they are avoiding accountability.
It is during such times that leaders – especially those in government – should remember and be guided by the words of John F. Kennedy: “Without debate, without criticism, no administration and no country can succeed. That is why our press was protected…to inform, arouse, reflect, to state our dangers…to indicate our crises and our choices, to lead, mould, educate and sometimes even anger public opinion.”
Decisiveness in dealing with the pandemic
One of the hallmarks of great leadership is being able to make decisive and effective decisions when everyone is looking up to you. As early as January, Taiwan had established 124 measures against COVID-19 when the first hint of the virus was detected. In New Zealand, it did not take long for the Prime Minister to implement a countrywide lock down and enhance alertness. In Uganda, the county was swift to seal off all entry points, while ramping up testing. Whereas the viciousness of the virus was already evident, some countries have not been as effective in their response strategies.
Up to now, some countries, especially in Africa, are yet to set up guidelines for combating the disease. In others, like Kenya, where a dusk-to-dawn curfew is in place, it is difficult to judge effectiveness of the same, given the manner in which security officers are implementing government directives. Further, there have been reports and widespread concern regarding status of the quarantine facilities. If images shared are anything to go by, these quarantine centers that are to serve as containment centers for the virus are slowly morphing into incubation centers for the same.
Decisiveness in leadership in the era of COVID-19 also means being meticulous and strategic with containment measures. It calls for leadership to be innovative and cognizant of realities of the contexts within which they operate. No wonder, many African leaders have been criticized for ‘copying and pasting’ intervention measures applied in other countries without assessing their fitness to the unique situations in their countries.
A time for compassion and love
This is the time for leaders across the board to exercise love and compassion for the people they represent. This is the time for elected officials to show that they are pro-people and demonstrate that they are in touch with lives of the citizenry. This is the time for healthcare workers to be provided with the entire arsenal they need for this humongous fight.
Commendable efforts have been seen world over where individuals and corporations have stepped in to bridge gaps by providing crucial Personal Protective Equipment for frontline healthcare workers as well as food and sanitation products to the less fortunate. Some religious leaders, beyond their spiritual support, have stepped in to provide economic and psychological support to those who need it. We have seen individuals spending their time and resources to help sensitize communities in their local languages on importance of social distancing and maintaining high levels of hygiene. Such is the motif of pride and leadership to be emulated.
Early in the 20th century, it took 36 months for the world to manage the Spanish Flu. While we are faced with an almost similar pandemic, the world today – unlike in the 20th century – is better placed to fight this war. We are more advanced technologically and intellectually, putting us at a better position to understand the enemy and fight it effectively.
While we have the resources, proper leadership will catalyze effectiveness of the fight and push us close to victory. The world needs leaders who communicate effectively and not be “sarcastic”. It needs leaders to collaborate with everyone in the community, take decisive action and be intentional about finding solutions that will help us fight this war.
Leadership in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic is not about being an authoritarian. It is about being bold enough to speak truth to power, making truth powerful and making power truthful. It is about setting aside selfish ambitions and marshaling resources– including knowledge, expertise, human resources, money and political capital to fight as one army.