By Folake Olayinka
Aug 15 2020 (IPS)
In 1918, the Spanish Flu, a deadly influenza caused by the H1N1 virus, decimated the world. Over the course of four successive waves, it infected 500 million people, about a third of the world’s population at the time, resulting in 50 million deaths.
More recently between 2014 and mid-2016 , the Ebola virus epidemic was the most widespread outbreak of Ebola virus disease in history—causing devastating loss of life and socioeconomic disruption in the West Africa region, mainly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. These outbreaks, as well as SARS and MERS, each have provided lessons on how to better handle future pandemics.
The biggest takeaway for COVID-19? We need effective leadership and an intersectional response.
For years, scientists and thought leaders have warned about the need for preparedness against a potential pandemic. Five years ago, Bill Gates in his TED talk ‘The next outbreak? We’re not ready’, drew attention to a potential epidemic from a corona-like virus. In an interview in 2019, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci shared similar sentiments.
In a sense, a pandemic like COVID-19 was anticipated and yet it still took the world largely by surprise. When it came, it changed everything, as we knew it would. It also exposed deep underlying disparities and inequities fueling poor health outcomes. In the absence of a vaccine, health professionals and public health leaders explored the range of interventions and tools they could deploy against the virus from simple infection control measures to hospital-based intensive care.
Although the focus continues to be minimizing the death toll while urgently working towards a vaccine, it is important to reflect and learn from the past months. What did leaders do well and what did they not do well, while not fully understanding the disease and how can we use these lessons right now and in the future?
Rapidly changing information led to a complex cycle of responses but at the center of this conversation is the recognition that the intersection between public health leadership and political leadership holds the key to getting ahead of the disease.
With the unprecedented spread of the pandemic, varying transmission rates at country levels, cross border spread, and a lack of a cure or vaccines, both political and public health leaders have had to chart new pathways in order to limit the catastrophic impact of the virus.
Another critical question is what type of leadership is needed to get through such an unprecedented crisis? New Zealand presents an effective leadership model not only through their rapid and aggressive response, but also a strong adaptive leadership in that complex intersection of politics, health and economics.
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, addresses the general debate of the General Assembly’s seventy-fourth session, 24 September 2019. UN Photo/Cia Pak
Without a doubt, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern provided effective political leadership in eliminating COVID-19 as declared on June 8, 2020 about 11 weeks after the first case. It can be argued that by basing decisions on science and prioritizing health outcomes, the leadership of New Zealand set a high bar for other leaders to overcome COVID-19.
The early lockdown measures were stringent and fast and certainly affected the amount of income from tourism usually seen at this time of the year in the short term. This approach was necessary to achieve longer term objectives of restoring the health and economy.
Going into the lockdown, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a statement in March 14, 2020, “we must fight by going hard and going early.’’ This leadership strategy was certainly effective by any standards. Jacinda Ardern not only successfully eliminated COVID-19 within eleven weeks; she also balanced her leadership with empathy.
She demonstrated purposeful, empathic leadership based on science and public health. This aligns with the leadership approach put forward by Former President of Liberia, H.E Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, who led her country to recovery after fourteen years of civil war.
“To me, there is no contradiction between being an empathetic leader and being a strong leader.” A lot can be learned about effective leadership from these women leaders in times of crisis.
Here are five critical things that leaders need to do to get ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic:
- Use the scientific evidence and data regularly to innovate, adapt tools and approaches to contain disease, reduce severity of illness and prevent deaths
- Listen and respond to people’s concerns, needs with empathy; communicate consistently clearly and factually through trusted voices and ensure access to accurate information at all levels
- Collaborate and coordinate actions across sectors at global, country and subnational levels, with communities and relevant stakeholders. This will create greater efficiency and avoid wasting resources
- Adapt approaches based on emerging issues, draw lessons fast and apply relevant learning using talent and technology
- Rapidly determine high-risk populations, those suffering the greatest burden and address systemic inequities that perpetuate spread of the disease.
To be sure, this pandemic has brought the political, health and economic leadership of countries into a complex intersection and leaders have had to grapple with taking the right decisions.
There are a number of considerations that inform the type of decision-making, resources, and interventions that must be prioritized to prevent deaths, stop the spread of the diseases, protect vulnerable populations, and keep the economies running. But COVID-19 anywhere is a threat everywhere and to overcome it, the world will need coordinated and effective leadership.
Only a healthy nation can grow an economy. Effective leadership, particularly in a time of crisis, is the key to restoring economic balance.
There is still a ways to go for many regions and countries in combating COVID-19, but I am sure that leadership modeled after Jacinda Ardern and the critical actions above will go a long way in halting the pandemic where they are applied. With the right leadership at all levels, we can have a better and more resilient post pandemic world.
Dr. Folake Olayinka is a global health leader and a senior advisor with JSI in Arlington Virginia. She has particular interest in immunization, maternal and child health, infectious diseases and leadership. She is an Aspen Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @joflakes
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