Governing in the Time of Coronavirus

Related Expertise: Public Sector

Governing in the Time of Coronavirus

By Christopher Daniel and Vincent Chin

With the COVID-19 viral disease rapidly spreading across the globe, governments are fighting battles on many fronts and asking hard questions. How many people will be infected? How many lives will be lost? When will the outbreak end? What will be the social and economic impact of this pandemic?

Governments are rallying to find solutions to limit the human, social, and economic losses—and many countries have taken action to prevent transmission by restricting travel, closing schools and businesses, and ordering millions of citizens to stay home.

But many equally difficult decisions lie ahead—and government leaders must be prepared. Here’s a short checklist of common governance mistakes—and best practices—to guide leaders as they manage the crisis.

Five Common Governance Mistakes in a Crisis

The Ebola, MERS, and SARS outbreaks taught important lessons about managing a major epidemic, but many governments have been caught off-guard by the severity and scale of the COVID-19 crisis. As a result, some have failed to respond effectively. Based on our work in crisis management around the world, we have identified five common governance mistakes.

  • Lack of Strategic Focus. With no clear rules and priorities, leaders often get dragged down into operational details: Which businesses should stay open? Should supermarkets reduce hours and limit the number of shoppers? How can that be monitored? These day-to-day operational decisions are a distraction from the need to formulate a comprehensive, forward-thinking strategy that can mobilize communities and save lives.
  • Fragmented Collaboration. Collaboration across government agencies is already difficult in normal circumstances. Under pressure, the problem is exacerbated. If government leaders close schools and day care centers but still expect parents to go to work, parents may feel compelled to organize at-home day care, which can lead to more infections. Worse, parents may enlist elderly grandparents to assist with child care, thereby exposing the most vulnerable population to this highly transmissible virus.
  • Competing Priorities. When a crisis arises, the default response is to put one function in charge of all decisions, but this can create dangerous imbalances of focus. Some governments will prioritize health care, while others prioritize the economy. Paying too much attention to one priority at the expense of others can make recovery after the crisis more difficult.
  • Insufficient Guidance on Daily Behaviors. Without direct guidance, people will make choices that can further spread the virus. People need a single source of truth that is clear, comprehensive, and easily accessible. If a lockdown is ordered, for example, leaders need to issue explicit guidelines so that people understand what is and is not permitted. Can they still take a walk, play soccer, walk the dog, or shop for groceries?
  • One-Sided Communication. Communication from government officials is generally one-sided, with the lion’s share of attention focused on prevention and economic measures. In the current crisis, people have concerns about many other issues, including access to medical care, availability of food, and job security, and these need to be addressed head-on.

Best Practices for Government Leaders

Several straightforward measures can make a significant difference in how effectively governments address COVID-19.

  • Set up a war room. To ensure effective coordination, governments should establish a war room with representatives from all key sectors, including health care, education, finance, and customs and immigration.
  • Identify a crisis manager. The war room should be led by a nonpartisan crisis manager, ideally someone with experience managing this kind of emergency. This will create clear accountability and help people from different political parties find the middle ground and reach consensus on difficult decisions.
  • Empower the crisis manager. The crisis manager should be empowered to make day-to-day operational decisions across sectors. He or she can make recommendations on when to restrict travel, close schools and restaurants, and prohibit mass gatherings. This will free up time for government leaders to think strategically and provide direction.
  • Overcommunicate. The worst thing that can happen to a government in a crisis is to lose the public’s trust. To maintain trust, governments should:
    • Sensitively take into account the psychological effects. Government may focus so much on one aspect of the crisis—public health or the economy—that it neglects fundamental concerns that are preying on people’s minds: Where can I get tested? Is my state going on lockdown? Is my job safe? Poor communication leads to anxiety, panic buying, and mass exodus from cities—and strains an already challenged system even more.
    • Overcommunicate and tell the truth. Governments are generally inclined to maintain a positive outlook and not report ongoing challenges or potentially frightening new developments. People are smart enough to see through false optimism, and the political capital lost can be enormous. Transparency reduces anxiety.

The COVID-19 pandemic is evolving hourly and governments are being forced to make harrowing decisions every day. We will continue to monitor events closely and share additional insights for government leaders as the crisis unfolds.

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