Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on March 17, 2020.
Every effective leader knows they need to build trust and credibility with those they lead. In times of crisis, these are the most important assets of any leader. A case in point is the current COVID-19 crisis. Since the emergence of the virus in Wuhan, China, in November the virus has spread to many countries, including the U.S.
Those individuals who still think that the reaction to COVID-19 is overblown need to look at the experience of countries where exposure preceded the U.S. and where hospitals are overwhelmed, especially in Italy. They also need to consider the published data, which indicates the virus causes significantly more deaths than influenza. A March 4 article in the Science Chronicle states that the World Health Organization reports that the fatality rate for COVID-19 is 3.4%, compared to a less than 1% fatality rate for influenza.
A Feb. 24 article published by the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy states that the COVID-19 fatality rate for all confirmed patients is 2.3%. For patients ages 70-79, the fatality rate is 8% and for 80 years of age and older, nearly 15%. For critically ill patients, the fatality rate is 49%. As of yet, there is no vaccine to protect against COVID-19.
According to the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at John Hopkins University, as of March 17, there have been 185,067 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, 7,330 deaths (fatality rate of 4%) and 80,236 recoveries. The number of cases world-wide has increased 18% in three days, while the number of deaths increased 26% and the number of recoveries increased 8%.
The alarming fatality statistics for elderly and critically ill segments of the population were evident as the outbreak unfolded during December and January in China, Korea and Iran. These were two critical months to prepare for the arrival of the virus in the U.S.
The first U.S. case was reported on Jan. 21 in the state of Washington and is currently spreading to other states. On Jan. 30, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a “public health emergency of international concern.” On March 13, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
Within recent weeks, governors of many states have ordered the shutdown of schools, restaurants, bars and non-essential businesses, and encouraged the closure of other venues and events where large numbers of people gather. The NBA, NHL and MLB have suspended their sporting events. Individuals are being asked to work from home. Social distancing is being strongly encouraged. Some governors have imposed an 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew. This is a very fluid situation.
Leadership is so very important during times of crisis. Trust and credibility are paramount. The following three leadership characteristics play a key role in reducing the number of people infected and in cushioning the impact of COVID-19 on the disruption to everyday life in America.
Listen to your experts and face the brutal facts of reality
For months, as the virus spread beyond China, President Donald Trump downplayed the coming COVID-19 crisis, and then abruptly changed his view on March 11 when he barred European nationals from traveling to the U.S. To his credit, on March 16 Trump acknowledged that the crisis could last until July or August and said groups should be limited to no more than 10 individuals.
Trump should have listened to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and faced the brutal facts of reality months ago, and operationalized the impact of the virus long before its arrival. The first line of defense is more COVID-19 testing capability, which until recently, was being rationed due to a shortage of test kits. This only increases the spread of the virus.
Don’t let current practices stand in the way of doing the right thing
In a March 12 interview, Vice President Mike Pence 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 hubris of Pence’s comments significantly hurts his credibility.
During a press briefing on March 13, Trump was asked about the delay in COVID-19 testing. He responded, “I don’t take responsibility [for the delay in testing] at all. Because we were given a set of circumstances, and we were given rules, regulations and specifications from a different time. It wasn’t meant for this kind of event with the kind of numbers that we’re talking about.”
Trump and Pence need to understand that effective leaders change the rules when it saves lives. Not to do so is unconscionable. Given the quality problems with the initially deployed U.S. – developed test kits and the unavailability to meet demand, Trump and Pence should have acknowledged the error in not initially using the readily available World Health Organization test kits until the U.S. test was fully developed, tested and deployed. That admission would have increased their credibility.
Failure to take responsibility
Trump has not acknowledged any responsibility for his shortcomings in his response to the COVID-19 crisis. As recently as March 16, when asked how he would rate his response to the virus, Trump said, “A perfect 10.” This undermines people’s trust in him.
Trump has criticized his predecessor, former President Barack Obama, falsely blaming him for the failure of the CDC’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. In fact, it was the Trump administration in May 2018 that disbanded the National Security Council’s Health Security team, the group tasked with responding to pandemics. Public health defense is as important as military defense.
As leaders, we should all learn from the actions and inactions of Trump and Pence in handling the COVID-19 crisis. Remember, as a leader, trust and credibility are your most important assets.
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.