When facing a novel, severe threat, with gaps in the initial understanding of sources, modes of transmission and treatment, there is an elegant formula for a response: Responsibility, Empathy, Action (REA). How many World leaders have responded to Covid-19 in this way?
At a time of risk, uncertainty and vulnerability, we rely on our leaders to have our best interests at heart, to be reliable, demonstrate integrity, show empathy and competence and above all, take responsibility.
Coronavirus has exposed many leaders lacking these qualities.
In times of crisis, real leaders emerge. In the 50s, we suffered a Polio epidemic. People came together, with genuine altruism and concern, demonstrating a spirit of collective responsibility within the community. Our leaders were effective role-models; they led by example.
Great leaders display their real values for all to see day-to-day. They are not afraid to tell the truth however unpalatable this may be. They help citizens bear fear when appropriate. Their intentions are clear from the onset of a catastrophic event: prevent harm. They know that people worry, face inner turmoil and may even panic. These emotions motivate them to take action, to listen carefully and understand the gravity of a situation. Great leaders show conviction and optimism that is measured and commensurate with the current status on a given day. There are no absolute assurances or sweeping generalisations. They never over-reassure, deny or obscure and collaborate with credible agencies, scientists and experts to manage uncertainty and keep the public informed.
When a severe, novel and unknown threat comes along, we need trusted leaders. We don’t need leaders vying for the spotlight or making a display of returning to the same experts they dismissed just a few months ago. We don’t need leaders asking for belief or faith, or assuring publics of transparency. Actions speak louder than words.
For the authoritarian, nationalist governments around the world, there is a problem. If you use overwhelming power in the control of the citizens, they rarely trust you. Trust and control are mirror images. When distrusted authoritarians issue warnings during a crisis people don’t believe. In some countries around the world, we are seeing the state of distrust impacting lives. Not only do they lack confidence in the ability of the government to manage the coronavirus crisis, they seriously question their intentions, integrity, and reliability of those leading the crisis.
Pre-crisis relationships determine crisis outcomes. In many nations, these relationships are profoundly polarised and divisive. People are disenfranchised and excluded from societal discourse.
Nothing during a new crisis will change this, and many governments around the world will now reap what they sew. While the authoritarians may nominally rule by the stick—rules and regulations to maintain hegemony—an unprecedented crisis can make them understand how precarious and ephemeral such control is. The world’s trusted administrators, experts and premiers will enhance trust and their standing in crisis and flourish.