Leadership in Corona times

Politicians and leaders. Does being a politician implies also being a leader? Given the current pandemic and extremely delicate situations in different parts of the world, it is hard to offer the brand of leader to all head of countries. While some have taken the courage to express the reality of the situation to their people and implement strict measures, others have decided to hide or even belittle the situation.

Regulations during the Covid-19 pandemic have varied across the globe. Some have been applauded and copied, whereas some have been heavily criticised. Governments have taken this past two months to show their true leadership skills (or lack of it) through a play of catch up in this uncertain territory. Arguably, there is a group of countries that are better than others; and do not get me wrong, this is not a competition on who is ruling better. However, numbers do not lie. The number of infected cases, deceased and newly tested population are the main meters we care about in the moment. Though people may think there is sub-reporting or overestimation – whatever the case – it gives global rulers and institutions an idea on how to manage, who to follow and what type of innovations are needed.

Since January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) alerted world leaders of the global pandemic that was about to begin, back when more than 95% of cases where in the Mainland of China. By early February, many Eastern countries responded; places like Taiwan, Singapore and Vietnam started filling up their hospitals with protective gears, practicing social distancing and massively producing tests for the novel virus. Meanwhile, the Western countries were given the time advantage to suit up and get ready. Some listened, many others did not.

So the first question must be: What makes a great leader in a crisis? According to Prof. John Quelch of the Harvard Business School a leader should follow the seven C’s, that provide this person with the adequate tools to manage and react accurately. A leader needs to be calm, as people fear uncertain times, they look up to them to project that sense of calm in the madness. Leaders also need to be confident, because we do not want a do-nothing leader; it needs someone with vision of what will come next and how resilient we can be. Plus, a great leader should communicate relentlessly and strategically, this way they can prioritise the information that goes out to the public as well as to avoid the spread of rumours and fake news. Silence is not a friend in times of crisis. Leaders must collaborate with experts and capable individuals that can help ease the situation and converge quicker to the same goal; while having a community mindset and set the example on how to behave in a more supportive and cooperative way, merging towards unity. They need compassion when making decisions that will affect people, as not everyone has the same conditions or even the same resources; inequalities increase in crisis junctures, but the goal must remain to keep their people safe as much as possible. Finally, a very obvious one, is cash; when using it, everything needs to be thought prudently for the social benefit of many (if not everyone) in short, medium and long term.

Thus, taking Quelch’s seven C’s, we can reflect on the pre-coronavirus leadership model we used to have. The standard model was more hierarchical and controlled, where one leader defined the narrative and the rest simply followed. This situation was probably efficient in a world where everything was predictable. However, in order to be resilient and face the current crisis we need more than efficient leaders, we need adaptable ones. Those who have the courage to show themselves being vulnerable, compassionate and authentic to their people, not those who pretend to know what they are doing, as people can see right through that false confidence. We must leave that standard leadership model behind us, and embrace the change. It is not substitution, is evolution of leadership, and it is critical to do it now as the world is asking to reinvent ourselves.

Now, that we have the theory on leadership, can we find some clear examples of politicians or even governments who can fit into this new model?

East vs West

The Covid-19 crisis has given governments a new role to play, it made them powerful and crucial again for their citizens. Powerful because those big and intimidating companies, that were once even more efficient and dynamic than a government, are now asking for financial aid. While crucial because right now people are strongly dependent on the type of health system provided in their country. Unfortunately, this latter one has revealed a hard reality, that the difference between living and dying is a good government.

So why do I say again? For so long governments, especially Western ones, have been in a sleepy state. Ruling in the old economic growth model, following their bigger allies and not focusing on the needs and innovations for their people. Meanwhile, Eastern civilizations have been taking governments and leaders more seriously for the last decade, and the results are showing. The Covid-19 pandemic has put a toll on all public sectors, but it is the Western ones who have shown slower decision making and are exactly those who are facing a stronger backfire from their own people.

Think of Taiwan, the first country who is apparently winning against the coronavirus. President Tsai Ing-Wen, the first female president of this country, has shown a steady, competent and quick way to take opportunities since she was elected back in 2016. Furiously defending Taiwan’s democratic identity, President Ing-Wen has been curiously nicknamed the Angela Merkel of Asia; and when faced with the pandemic, this small island has demonstrated its resilience and solidarity. Taiwan, with a population of approximately 24 million people, has less than 500 confirmed cases of the novel virus and only 7 deceased. Plus, in the past month they have not had any new locally transmitted cases as they continue to test their people.

As numbers do not lie, it is incredible to see how such a small island so close geographically to the Mainland of China has been able to retake control of the situation. They did not need to close schools, nor cancel major events in stadiums like sports; even the economy was not put on hold, as a complete lockdown was never implemented. Taiwan was fortunate enough to handle the crisis by mainly banning all commercial flights from Wuhan, China and practice social distancing in a particular way: contact tracing through smartphones. The government tracked people using their own phones and called them a few times a day (especially if they had been in contact with anyone with the virus) to secure they were staying at home. And what happened? People did not complain, no protests were heard fighting the strict measures; and now almost 5 months since the pandemic began, they are living a normal life again.

However, this is not just a story of how Taiwan is winning, but of their leadership and solidarity to the outside world as well. By the beginning of April 2020, President Ing-Wen promised the country would donate up to 10 million masks in order to provide global aid during the pandemic as a response of boosting their local masks production. Places like Canada, the United States and EU countries would be the first to receive them. Then, by the end of April the donations had scaled up to more than 17 million masks arriving to different corners of the Western and Eastern world. This way, the island of Taiwan is showing the world that they are capable of helping and, if they were able to fight this by themselves, then other countries can find a way to cooperate and tackle this with a global response.

Let Taiwan be the image of the Eastern side winning, but they are not the only ones. Now, look into of South Korea’s massive and comprehensive testing since February 2020 for the new Covid-19, just a week after their first confirmed case presented itself in late January. This country has some experience on massive testing, as in 2015 they had a similar situation with Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) outbreak. It is remarkable that by this new virus burst, the South Korean government asked companies to massively produce tests, and by February 7th, they were ready to massively test their citizens. The procedure was made through telephone booths and pseudo drive-thru centres, as they believe that avoiding agglomeration of people would decrease the probability of contagion, plus the tests would only take 10 minutes to do so.

Once again, numbers do not lie, and the 51-million-habitants country had tested more than 270,000 citizens by mid-March. With more than 9,000 recovered patients from the virus and less than 300 deceased, it is easy to see how massive testing was a good source to identify focal points of contagion. Furthermore, and similar to the Taiwanese experience, South Korea implemented a bold strategy: use a universal app for contact tracing. Using a big data approach, the government was able to use credit card history and location data from smartphone carriers to go back in the movements of infected people, helping the population to be aware of where an infected patient had been. In less than 10 minutes that person’s movements can be traced back, and anyone who had been in contact or close them, would receive a text message of alert to let them know.

This monitoring system may seem as a “violation of privacy” for Western eyes; however, since this country has been through a sanitary crisis before, the government has warrantless access to this type of information as it becomes a matter of public health. Plus, surveys show that South Koreans accept this trade-off, as they are willing to sacrifice some private information in exchange for protection from the contagious virus. As Dr Michael Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Emergency Programme, said: “These are some of the measures based on technology where governments did not have to shut everything down”. And he is right. The South Korean government has been able to control the situation, and it has worked out pretty well. In fact, less than a month ago they held their National Assembly elections, with people coming out of self-isolation and going to voting centres, while wearing protective gear and practicing social distancing.

I could continue naming brave strategies from the East. From Vietnam’s extreme but accurate overreaction in early-January, when there were 0 cases registered in the country. The decisions to impose travel restrictions until finally closing the border with China, while increasing security health checks in borders and other vulnerable areas of the rural country. Vietnam’s health care system, as in many developing countries, are not ready for a pandemic of this measure. Thus, their way-ahead-of-time reaction certainly helped the small numbers we see today. With less than 320 confirmed cases and 0 deceased, Vietnam can definitely give themselves a pat on the back for their early response. Plus, the honourable mention of India’s 1.3 billion population lockdown. Seemed impossible and even crazy to think on how to do it back when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced it in late-March. But just in the first week there were some unprecedented changes and adjustments in terms of social distancing, which people were correctly taking in consideration. Markets, highways and temples, which were normally swamped with people and cars, were seen cleared and empty. Smog pollution was heavily reduced, and the sky cleared out for the first time in years. Massive testing and high-tech contact tracing could not be nationally imposed, but the weekly colour classification of contagious areas is an old-school method to accurately inform their civilians. Five weeks have passed and the Indian government has slowly trying to undo the lockdown measures as millions have been left unemployed – informal labour reaches to up to 90% of the working force (ILO, 2020) . Now, with the financial help of the World Bank, India will commence a rebuilding stage from May 18th.

Should the West be learning from the East?

Have we seen any of these bold actions in the past two months around the Western world? We have travel restrictions, partial to complete lockdowns, increase of teleworking and even financial aid checks to help the vulnerable ones. But has it been enough? If small countries like Taiwan and South Korea have been able to beat this crisis, and even offer international aid, should not powerful countries like the US or France be able to do it as well? And what about Switzerland?

There are many factors that collaborate to the win situation of the East. Topics like culture, public goods and information, and even the way that leaders have announced strategies and public rulings to the people. Some say straightforward information is better than sugar coating the seriousness of the pandemic – people tend respond better to the hard truth than to a white lie. Of course, there are some remarkable actions that have been made in the West, such as the New Zealand leader. Or in South America, where we have also seen the rise of young and brave individuals who are willing to make the effort. One thing is for sure, the quality of leaders, political or not, has risen abruptly thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic. People are able to see who is full of words, and differentiate them from those who act on their words.

Mariela Chacaltana Bonifaz
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