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Navigating leadership during the COVID-19 crisis

26 May 2020



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COVID-19 has tested governments and leaders across the world, and seen nations take different approaches to dealing with the uncertainties of the pandemic. One result has been an increase in the powers of national governments and new scrutiny of how states can cope with an ongoing crisis.

ANZSOG’s Leading in a Crisis series has pulled together the best research on how governments should respond to a complex, fast-changing mega-crises such as COVID-19, with papers on issues including adaptive leadership, communications and learning from other jurisdictions.

A webinar on the topic of Navigating leadership during COVID-19, facilitated by Leading in a Crisis lead writer Professor Paul ‘t Hart, brought together experts from Australia, New Zealand and Sweden to discuss approaches to COVID-19, and to field questions from viewers.

Watch the full video:

The webinar featured Swedish academic Dr Fredrik Bynander, chief of staff to New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister, Dr Jon Johansson, and the head of the NSW State Emergency Services (SES), Commissioner Carlene York.

New Zealand and Sweden have taken very different approaches to COVID-19, with New Zealand aiming for the total eradication of the disease through border controls and a lockdown, while Sweden has a loose lockdown, aimed at protecting vulnerable people while letting the disease spread in a controlled way through the community.

Professor ‘t Hart began by asking how governments would continue to move forward in their response to COVID-19, and economic recovery, when there were no longer such high levels of fear of the pandemic and trust in government.

He said there were still huge doubts about how COVID-19 behaved and no “epidemiological consensus” as to how it spreads or how transmissible it is, and doubt still about the possibility of herd immunity.

“This means that a lot of policies are essentially gambles and not evidence-based policy,” he said.

“In Sweden they have said they are making 100 percent of the decisions with 50 percent of the information.”

Stress test for government systems

Professor ‘t Hart asked how long would government systems hold, through a crisis that kept on rolling and morphing and affecting all aspects of a nation’s society and economy.

“We need to look at how COVID-19 affects other curves, such as bankruptcy, unemployment, poverty and inequality, and also debt and spending issues,” he said.

The panelists spoke of the pressures on institutions trying to cope with rapid change and deciding which processes were no longer feasible.

Ms York said that the SES was still rebuilding after the devastating fire season of 2019/20 when COVID-19 struck.

“We need to look at how we attract volunteers and the difficulties of ensuring a large volunteer force was able to be retained, after the summer we have had,” she said.

Dr Johansson said that New Zealand’s politicians and public managers had recent experience in dealing with disasters such as the Christchurch earthquake.

“One of the lessons from these tragedies was that the personal relationships between people at the top levels of government and bureaucracy were incredibly important for dealing with crises, and being able to function under the most intense pressure,” he said.

While New Zealand is reporting no new cases of COVID-19 and is lifting some parts of its lockdown, he said that New Zealand was still short of declaring victory and that there was still an enormous economic challenge in front of them.

“I am delighted that New Zealanders’ exquisite compliance with our regulations has been rewarded, but there is a long way to go,” he said.

Dr Bynander provided some background to Sweden’s strategy, saying that in the 1980s Sweden had one of the toughest responses to the AIDS pandemic in the world, which was seen as amounting to criticism of its gay community. This led Sweden to shift to a depoliticised approach, with a state epidemiologist, who appears in the media every day, leading the response to COVID-19.

He said there was also a recognition that public health in Sweden is good to begin with – with low rates of obesity, diabetes and smoking.

“The calculus is that we will survive this better than most,” he said.

While Sweden has recorded more deaths so far than Scandinavian countries with stricter lockdowns, he said this was, “Truly a sustainable strategy, as most of Europe is working to remove restrictions, we’re just continuing the same thing”.

Trust, empathetic leadership and concerns about inequity

Panelists discussed the issue of trust and ensuring that the public was brought along with and understood whatever strategy the government chose.

Dr Johansson said that the New Zealand government had attempted to be open about its response with the public, telling them that not everything they tried would work, but they would keep trying.

“We have thrown the kitchen sink at this and the public is more forgiving of politicians than usual,” he said.

“The result is that, despite the situation, 78% of people say that the country is heading in the right direction.”

He said that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s empathetic style of leadership had played a huge role in New Zealand’s response to a crisis.

Ms York said that the popularity of the New Zealand Prime Minister and other female leaders had shown there was a public readiness and demand for ‘female-style leadership’.

“But time will tell as we come out of this, will people support the same traits and skills as we have to make the hard economic decisions?”

Professor ‘t Hart asked how countries could learn and grow from the crisis, and whether it would exacerbate existing fault lines in society.

All panelists agreed that potential inequities from the pandemic should be a concern for policymakers.

Dr Johansson said that in New Zealand intergenerational equity was a major issue because so much money had been borrowed to keep the economy going

Dr Bynander said that in Sweden public debt was going through the roof with much of the extra spending used to keep corporations afloat.

“Public health will benefit, but whatever inequities we have from the recovery we’ll have for a long time.”

Ms York said that in Australia, a big concern was people in regional Australia who had battled floods, fires and now COVID-19.

“We need to look at the regions and how we look after battlers, including those that weren’t battlers before,” she said.

Find Leading in a Crisis series here

Published Date: 26 May 2020