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  • Writer's pictureAlistair Nicholas

Leadership and clear communications lacking and sorely needed in the coronavirus crisis

Something that has been clearly lacking in the global response to the coronavirus pandemic is good leadership and clear communications at the national level of many countries.

No where has this been more apparent than in Australia.

The federal government seems to have been more concerned with slowing the rate of the economy’s slowdown than with slowing the rate of infections from Covid-19. That has meant confused messaging from the Prime Minister who at various times has called for social distancing while also telling people it is OK to go to the footy and expressing his own intention to go watch his beloved Cronulla rugby league team play (call it the Cronullavirus). That plan was change at the last minute after a major public outcry.

But the sun’s shining outside …

Not surprisingly after offices asked people to work from home last week, many decided to enjoy Sydney’s sunshine with their regard for social distancing as scant as some of the swimsuits seen on Bondi Beach as thousands crowded onto that tourist mecca. Sydney beaches had to be closed after that debacle in order to enforce the social distancing requirements. Still, many remained defiant and pushed aside fencing to venture onto closed beaches over the weekend. Likewise, many cafes, bars, restaurants and clubs continued to operate over the weekend with patrons showing little regard for social distancing requirements being asked by authorities. This led the National Cabinet, comprised of federal and state leaders, to impose stricter social distancing measures at its meeting on Sunday night.

But can we blame the beach goers and café patrons when Australia’s federal and state governments have not shown strong leadership and have failed to give clear communications. Despite seeing the virus’ trajectory in other markets such as Italy, Britain and other European nations, our leaders have prevaricated, preferring to give guidelines than take strict action to deal with the growing crisis.

The British experience should be instructive for Australia. After some initial dithering and soft communications about the virus, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has had to ratchet up the country’s response. With people ignoring his calls for social distancing he has had to move to lockdown the United Kingdom. But his response may be too little, too late. British authorities are warning that the UK may be two weeks behind a ballooning of infections that could overtake Italy.

The West at war, kind of …

There has probably been no worse a response than that by US President Donald Trump. He has moved from calling the coronavirus no more than a flu and a hoax by his political enemies, to recognising its growing threat and declaring war on the virus. Yet he continues to complicate and confuse the messaging. As recently as last week he called for Americans to return to work to save the economy as stock markets crashed. His calls to return to work came as the nation’s Chief Medical Officer was calling for people to maintain social distancing requirements, and state leaders, such as California’s Governor Gavin Newsom put that state into lockdown.

Although the US medical profession has been calling for a comprehensive lockdown over several weeks, many business leaders and politicians there are calling for a quick return to work to keep the economy going. And although Trump signed an executive order allowing him to use the Defense Production Act to require American businesses to produce needed materials in the “war against the coronavirus,” he is yet to invoke it despite growing shortages of masks, respirators and other needed equipment across the country. He has offered numerous reasons for not invoking it, including that doing so would place the US on the road to Venezuelan economic disaster.

If World War II were fought like this, the outcome would very likely have been very different.

Where is the leadership among Western leaders?

What’s in a word?

It seems that our leaders do not know the true meaning of the word crisis. The word “crisis” comes to the English language from Greek via Latin. The original Greek word “krisis” meant time to act. Interestingly the word was used in Latin in a medical sense where it meant “the point in the course of a serious disease at which a decisive change occurs, leading either to recovery or to death.” As an aside I might mention that the Chinese word for crisis is weiji (危机), which leads to a play on the word for opportunity, jihui (机会). The dispute amongst linguists about this link between the words for crisis and opportunity in Mandarin aside, it is clear our leaders have been missing an opportunity to show leadership.

Kiwis go home

The one exception to this poor leadership amongst Western leaders is New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Adern. With the situation worsening in Europe and the US, and viewing the ineffective action of her counterpart “across the ditch”, Adern has decided against dithering and pussyfooting around with the virus. She told New Zealanders yesterday that the country will go into lockdown in 48 hours, giving them two days to return to their homes, if travelling, and prepare for isolation. She has obviously realised that citizens of Western societies, particularly anglophone societies, don’t follow directions and guidelines easily. They need clear instruction from the top. They need strong leadership and clear communications. She even defined what are essential services and businesses that will be required to maintain operations during the lockdown. There will be no room in New Zealand for the partners of a law or accounting firm to argue they are an essential service and tell their staff that they need to report at the office for work each day.

It is time other Western leaders learn from Adern and bring down the hammer. Guidelines and soft, amorphous or conflicting communications don’t work. Take strong action and communicate what must happen clearly. After all, we are at a turning point which will lead to either recovery or to death. We are in a crisis. What we need is leadership to carry us through it.

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