Article originally published on Philadelphia Business Journal on March 23, 2020
As we battle to control the spread of coronavirus, we learn lessons every day that will hopefully change the way we prepare for future pandemics. Below are five lessons to date. Other lessons will emerge as the fight against COVID-19 continues.
1. Someone needs to be in charge
In January, when it became apparent that COVID-19 was spreading around the world and heading to the U.S., bureaucratic and time-consuming obstacles stood in the way of ensuring there were a sufficient number of COVID-19 test kits readily available. As of this writing, we still lack a sufficient number of test kits.
In testimony before a congressional committee on March 19, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, could not identify the one person with the responsibility for breaking through the time-consuming obstacles to ensure a sufficient number of test kits were available.
Fauci testified, “The system is not really geared to what we need right now. That is a failing. … The idea that anybody getting [the test] easily, the way people in other countries are doing it – we’re not set up for that. Do I think we should be? Yes. But we’re not.”
So let’s fix it.
2. We can learn from other countries
On March 17, a column I wrote headlined “COVID-19 crisis tests our leaders’ credibility – their most important asset” was published in the Philadelphia Business Journal. In that column, I wrote that Vice President Mike Pence, in a March 12 interview, was asked about the delay in testing because of the U.S. refusal to use the World Health Organization’s readily available COVID-19 test. He was asked whether it was a mistake not to use that test.
Pence responded, “It’s not the way we do it in the United States. Frankly, we’re the world leader in infectious diseases. Our Centers for Disease Control and Food and Drug Administration produce and approve tests through our incredible healthcare system in this country.”
The “not invented here” syndrome demonstrated by Pence will cost lives. We may be the world leader in infectious disease experts, but certainly not in deploying the test that probably would have led to social distancing much sooner, resulting in a flattening of the curve so our hospitals would not be so overwhelmed.
3. Listen to your experts
It is well documented that a shortcoming of some leaders is that they don’t listen to their experts and don’t face the brutal facts of reality, to the peril of their organizations and the people they lead. Making decisions on a hunch is OK if the stakes are far from being catastrophic. When the risk of taking (or not taking) an action is extraordinarily high, with possible disastrous consequences, the more one must listen to their experts.
A March 20 Washington Post article headlined “U.S. intelligence reports from January and February warned about a likely pandemic” brought to light official alerts outlining the impending threat to the U.S. that were ignored by President Donald Trump and his advisors. Trump didn’t listen to his experts or face the brutal facts of reality. Had he done so, he could have put action plans in place much sooner to deal with the threat and lessened the impact to the public health, the economy and society.
4. Public health defense is just as important as military defense
Trump increased military defense spending significantly during his presidency, but not on public health defense. In May 2018, the Trump administration disbanded the White House pandemic response team, the group tasked with responding to pandemics, defusing the leadership needed to defend against a public health enemy. The current COVID-19 public health crisis is having more impact on our economy and society than a military crisis.
5. Operationalize the response to a threat early on
As soon as it became apparent that COVID-19 was moving across national borders in January, a plan to respond to its U.S. arrival should have been operationalized. It would have been recognized that we were woefully short of COVID-19 testing capacity, ventilators, hospital bed capacity, masks and other protective equipment for our medical staff.
One of the most important lessons I learned during my freshman year in college was the “six P’s” taught by Captain Boyle, our Reserve Officers Training Corps instructor: “Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.” We could have done a much better job preparing for the imminent arrival of the COVID-19 virus.
I am very optimistic that a drug to treat the virus and a vaccine to prevent it will be found soon, as thousands of scientists at many hundreds of academic and commercial research labs around the world work full-time to combat COVID-19. They are the best in their profession. Our federal government needs to facilitate safety and efficacy testing, and fast-track approval of those drugs and vaccines that show promise.
We all should recognize and thank the soldiers on the front line in the battle against COVID-19. These are the doctors, nurses, lab techs and others within the medical community who face the risk of exposure many times a day. We should recognize and thank our first responders – police officers and firefighters who keep us safe.
We should also recognize those who ensure that our critical infrastructure remains operational – those who enable us to shop for food, fill prescriptions, operate our transit systems, deliver the news, and maintain our national trucking, energy, business information technology and communication infrastructure. In spite of the shelter-in-place edicts being issued by many state governors, these people still need to go to work every day. We should thank all of them for their service.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.