As soon as coronavirus touched down, Africa got movin’. Without panicking, African leaders communicated reliable, up-to-date and contextualized information clearly and calmly to the public and took prevention actions. In contrast, the so-called developed world took a wait-and-see attitude that favored institutional declarations, confronted or silenced experts, generated panicked misinformation, and facilitated media hysteria.
While American leadership struggled to get a grasp on reality and the coronavirus charged ahead, African leaders quickly sorted through the information to identify trustworthy facts that could help correctly assess and qualify the situation and define preventive measures and focus clear and responsible decision making. At the same time they
- developed and implemented a multi-stakeholder outreach effort,
- communicated clearly and honestly with the public and in a way that could motivate citizens to take their share of responsibility to ensure effective implementation of preventive measures required
- reinforced logistic, security and transport supply chains to support preventive measures by facilitating access to resources, medical equipment and products, and food.
- organized food drops to the most disadvantaged populations, conscious of the domino effect generated by the annulment and then prohibition of mass gatherings and subsequent stay-at-home and curfew restrictions.
Not everything is perfect, of course. Nor are all African leaders following best practices. The Presidents of Angola and Botswana, for example, defied their own travel restriction orders to attend the inauguration of Namibian President Hage Geingob. There have also been criticisms of the restrictions of movement being used as an instrument of control and un-democratization. There is also criticism that the use of modern communication technologies is deepening inequalities through unequal access to information and relief. But the verdict is still out.
African leaders step up
What is clear is that across Africa countries are stepping up to the challenge with agility and resilience. African leaders are practicing the leadership recommendations made by Carl Robinson, the founding partner of Vantage Leadership Consulting, a Chicago-based executive coaching firm,
and Nihar Chaya, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, for how to lead during the coronavirus pandemic.
African leaders are:
- delivering a compelling message that charts a path forward, balancing inspiration with comfort in a way that makes others believe them and want to follow them while prioritizing connection over correction of everything their ministerial teams are doing or not doing.
- communicating with confidence (born of experience), honesty, consistency and adaptability (to the audience), earning the trust of those around him and among citizens and keep his leadership team engaged and committed to following through with decisions made and measures taken.
- responding appropriately and with poise to what’s going on without letting negative emotions get the best of them and cause people to question their objectivity; they are not overwhelmed by the coronavirus challenge and with their words and actions communicate and show their determination to overcome it and get beyond it.
- reaching out to the private sector, the banking sector, and civil society organizations to implement collaborative solutions.
- motivating as never before the African spirit of creativity and innovation. Average citizens, big and small businesses, and informal and formal institutions are all energetically tapping into their reservoir of unrealized potential to achieve all they’re capable of.
Meanwhile in the U.S….
Meanwhile, in the U.S. partisan debate has taken over clear and honest communication, the President touts himself as the nation’s cheerleader, chief health expert and war President all rolled into one, switching from happy talk to health advice to martial language, all while diverting responsibility and fault, touting unproven coronavirus treatments with serious side effects, and, taking decisive action to undermine independent watchdogs, suspend laws protecting minors and asylum seekers at the border, and relax environmental regulations (The Washington Post). What’s more, as Marc Levenson writes in his April 1, 2020 letter to the editor of The Washington Post, in the absence of a comprehensive effective and practiced emergency preparedness plan, leadership at both federal and state levels is addressing “the situation on an ad hoc basis, resulting in actions that are too little and too late to control the spread of the disease”.
Meanwhile, in the U.S, FEMA is struggling to keep its head above the unchartered waters of leading the response to a health pandemic caused by a virus. At the same time, amid a patchwork testing system, private labs struggle with backlogs and shortages, public health labs have limited capacity, and there is a worsening shortage of masks, gowns and other gear health care workers need to protect themselves. There is also widespread shortage of testing kits, specimen collection materials, and reagents. And because there is no established funding mechanism to support testing capacity now or in the future, many labs are at risk of absorbing significant costs for uncompensated testing.
Meanwhile, as American leadership depletes an already inadequate national stock of N95 masks and other PPE, badly designed lines of authorities in the federal government and state governments are failing to properly coordinate a response and are instead doubling down on what today is clearly surrealistic vendor streamlining systems. The reality is that small businesses - such as home health care, senior assisted living and nursing homes, and clinics - that have workers on the front lines and are desperate to buy basic protective equipment and products, are effectively being sidelined from physical and online access to PPE as government scrambles to order everything it can anywhere it can get it from and unscrupulous private U.S. companies with financial capacity and an inroad to government contracting steal shipments from China and elsewhere destined for other countries.
Meanwhile, as health experts warn against loosening restrictions before there is mass testing capacity and deployment and a clear and very steep decline in the number of infections, the White House continues making aspirational pronouncements totally off-sync with reality on the front lines.
Meanwhile, silos and brawling trump collaboration
American presidents have faced global crises before. But at a time when it matters the most, the famously collaborative American spirit is missing from top leadership. This failure is impeding America from dealing effectively with the complexity of the coronavirus challenge. This is perhaps the most important conclusion to be drawn from the webcast event on presidential leadership in crisis, made possible by the global think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (held on April 7,2020).
In the past, America rallied the world against a common threat. But as Nahal Toosi points out in a March 21, 2020 article in Politico, the leaders of Western nations are instead working in silos and brawling with each other, thereby demonstrating poor leadership.
After initially ignoring or downplaying the spread of COVID-19, American leadership is now struggling to absorb the hard-won lessons of their counterparts in Asia and ignoring those from Africa. In China, draconian measures were taken, shutting down entire regions. More innovative tactics were used in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan, as well as in Nigeria, Senegal, Togo, and Ghana, among other African countries.
They all provide containment success stories by early banning of flights from China, taking a “whole of government, whole of country” approach, having health authorities and the police force work together to identify cases and quarantine them, deploying online education, massive screening and testing (or in the case of African countries, who have less resources, early and ongoing screening and testing), and general usage of face masks.
The lesson to be drawn
The biggest lesson to be drawn from the leadership of so-called “less developed” countries is this: Words matter if they really mean something. Strength is not derived from words like “war”, “battle” or “victory”. Nor is politicizing a virus evidence of strong leadership.
Strength grows out of a leader’s capacity for self-reflection, sense of the other, the courage to do what’s right regardless of one’s political future, the ability to communicate honestly and clearly, and the capacity to identify problems while harnessing opportunities.