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Crisis management 101: what Covid-19 can show us about leadership

The global impact of COVID-19 needs no discussion. Whether it is losing a family member, restrictions on the liberties to move freely, joblessness vis-à-vis unemployment, or poverty: these are just some of the consequences of this disease. Covid-19 has also brought to light how fractured our leadership is, and how difficult it is to be a leader during a crisis.

Published 19 June 2020

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When the COVID-19 crisis is over, leaders will be judged accordingly as to how they responded to this challenge. As the English say, ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man(sic)’. This is the hour when leaders should avail themselves and take the necessary action. Here I engage the work of Arjen Boin, Paul 't Hart, Eric Stern, and Bengt Sundelius in their 2005 book The Politics of Crisis Management: Public Leadership under Pressure. In times of crisis, we look to our leaders ‘to avert the threat or at least minimise the damage of the crisis at hand’. Before any COVID-19 cases were reported in Zimbabwe, the Minister of Defence described the pandemic as a punishment from God on Western nations that imposed sanctions on the government of Zimbabwe. Weeks after these reckless statements, cases were recorded in Zimbabwe, and the same minister accompanied the President to one of his COVID-19 press briefings. Shockingly, the minister has not resigned or apologised to the nation and or the world at large.

Limitations on liberty: balancing public safety with rights

With the debatable exception of South Africa most governments in Africa cannot be considered proper liberal democracies. I do not seek to enter into the debate on whether liberal democracies are the best for Africa. Boin and his colleagues highlight the challenges that confront leaders in a democratic society. These leaders must manage the pandemic in ‘the context of a delicate political, legal, and moral order that forces them to trade off considerations of effectiveness and efficiency against other embedded values – something leaders of non-democracies do not have to worry about as much’. For example, on the 2nd of April 2020, the Philippines leader, President Rodrigo Duterte, instructed the police to shoot those who violate COVID-19 lockdown rules - a position that was highly criticised by human rights organisations such as Amnesty International. The heavy-handedness of police on civilians has also been witnessed in countries like India. These examples give a picture of how the pandemic is being managed in different countries and how leaders have responded.

In democracies where leaders do not want to appear as if they are imposing draconian laws on the population, navigating that terrain has resulted in conflicting and confusing messages for the public. A perfect example of this can be found in the United Kingdom. On several accounts, commentators on British news channels have argued that the Prime Minister’s message is confusing and unclear. This may be the result of trying to balance the actions needed to tackle the crisis with the need to respect the liberties of the people. Striking that balance will always be a challenge; pleasing everyone is almost impossible. In South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa has also been criticised for allowing churches to open in level three of the ongoing lockdown while other places remain shut.

Context is key: the dangers of copy-pasting

Each context is different because some countries are democratic and well-resourced with functioning economies while others are not. Whatever the context, this pandemic has tested every system in place. It is not easy for anyone. One leadership approach has been a “copy and paste” mechanism that is not suited or at least practical in some environments. According to Leubker (2008:1), 80% of the population in Zimbabwe is unemployed. Given that most people live from hand to mouth, how possible is it to impose a lockdown overnight – with no support whatsoever for those affected? Crisis leadership, Boin and colleagues argue, requires five tasks: ‘sense making, decision making, meaning making, terminating, and learning’. Although what is written down in this work might be different from what reality demands when confronted by a crisis, these five tasks are an important facet to the current pandemic ravaging the world. Leaders need to make sense of the situation, be decisive and where necessary, make tough decisions. Also, citizens must be well-informed as to what is happening and why certain actions are being carried out.

Getting back to normal

Another important facet to crisis leadership is how to return to normalcy. The current situation in Zimbabwe is one of uncertainty. No one knows when normality will return. Of course, the situation is difficult to tell but as a leader, there must be some form of guidance as to the plans that are being taken for life to return to where it was before. It is not enough to say the current lockdown is indefinite. Perhaps, the most important of all these tasks is learning. Boin writes: ‘The crisis experience offers a reservoir of potential lessons for contingency planning and training for future crises.’

My hope is that when all this is over, most African leaders will learn how important it is to develop the infrastructure: be it hospitals, roads, and information technology systems. Many African leaders and their families travel to receive treatment overseas when they are sick. The pandemic is a lesson to all who have left their infrastructure in such a dilapidated state that they themselves can no longer have faith in their own hospitals. We continue to hope that our leaders will lead us through this crisis, and that they have used this crisis as a reservoir to draw lessons from.

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