Americans must demand competent and collaborative leadership

Americans must demand competent and collaborative leadership
© Greg Nash

In my line of work — crisis management — there is a major misconception that my colleagues and I try to debunk at every turn: the false belief that a crisis is an unpredictable freak occurrence that comes out of nowhere. In nearly every instance, as with the COVID-19 coronavirus, that assessment is dead wrong.

For years, some of the leading thinkers in America sounded warnings about the devastation that a viral pandemic would wreak upon our country and the entire, interlinked global community.  

Just two years ago, infectious disease specialist Dr. Luciana L. Borio spoke in stark terms of the dangers ahead. “Influenza is a priority to the White House and represents both a health security and a national security threat,” she said. “Today, however, we cannot respond with the speed that we need to.” 

At the time that she made this statement, Dr. Borio was serving as Director for Medical and Biodefense Preparedness at the National Security Council.

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She is no longer in that job, because that job no longer exists. In fact, her entire unit, the Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, was eliminated. It was a fateful decision that clearly contributed to America’s needlessly slow initial response to this health, security and economic disaster.

But even had the department been left intact, the American government was not adequately prepared to protect all of us. Which is precisely what makes the TEDx talk delivered by Microsoft Founder Bill Gates in 2015, entitled “The Next Outbreak: We Are Not Ready,” so incredibly painful to watch today.

In his prescient presentation, Gates forecasts with eerie accuracy the situation in which we are presently mired. He describes how the threat of a global pandemic has supplanted nuclear war as the most likely mortal threat to large swaths of the world’s population.

Gates contrasted the comparatively well-contained Ebola virus with a new doomsday scenario in which people exhibiting no physical signs of illness boarded planes and spread a highly contagious virus all across the world. He introduced a computer-generated model showing each continent blanketed by a deadly virus “spread through the air.” 

Gates, whose foundation has dedicated itself to making a momentous health impact worldwide, called years ago for us to build a solid response system utilizing technology that already exists, and has spoken about the need to harness advances in biology to rapidly produce treatments and vaccines.

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Gates suggested supplanting war games with “germ games” to simulate crisis scenarios, as well as readying a medical reserve corps ready to go at a moment’s notice in coordination with the military.

Citing an estimate by the World Bank, Gates warned, “If we have a worldwide flu epidemic, global wealth will go down by over three trillion dollars and we would have millions and millions of deaths.”

Only time will tell if the consequences of the coronavirus epidemic prove to be as catastrophic. I sincerely hope that far-reaching actions to slow the spread of the virus will ultimately prevent losses on such a massive scale.

America was slow to react initially, which is why the president and Congress must immediately accelerate and implement aggressive, effective actions that save lives. Now would be an ideal time to supplant the destructive petty partisanship that has marred our national character with united cooperation in a time of urgent need.

In time, history will harshly judge who is to blame and where responsibility ultimately lies for the failure of America’s leadership. We cannot, however, afford to litigate those matters now, while millions race to self-quarantine but are still very much in harm’s way.

Now is the perfect time to bridge the gap between government and the private sector for the collective good. The executive and legislative branches should immediately assemble a collective of insightful subject matter experts and businesspeople with the capacity to act boldly, to produce real-world results. The party affiliation of any of these men or women should be utterly irrelevant — the virus does not discriminate, and neither should our leadership.

The men, women and children of this nation can ill afford to allow politicians from either party to parlay this crisis into a chance for scoring political points or seeking to secure an eventual victory at the polls.

Not a single person in America, let alone the entire planet, is immune from feeling the impact of COVID-19 in some form. We deserve, and must demand, clear-eyed, competent, honest and genuine leadership from those entrusted with the responsibility to guide us through this unsettling and unprecedented time.

Our livelihoods and our lives may literally depend upon it.

Evan Nierman is Founder and CEO of Red Banyan (@redbanyan), an international public relations and crisis management firm.