What the Pandemic Teaches About Crisis Management and Leadership

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Helio Fred GarciaHelio Fred Garcia discusses: Contrasts in Leadership: Cuomo v. Trump

This week marks the start of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

By the end of 2021 more than a half million Americans were catching COVID-19 every day. One in every six Americans had come down with the virus; one in every four hundred had died.

Much of this was avoidable. And we return from our holiday facing the latest surge and wondering whether it’s safe to reopen as planned.

COVID-19, Crisis Management, and Leadership

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the United States has mounted the worst COVID-19 response in the developed world. In 2020 the American response was driven by incompetence, dishonesty, and neglect.

2021 began with a glimmer of hope, and by April – when vaccines became universally available – the daily death rate plummeted.

But by late June both vaccinations and masks became highly politicized and deaths began to soar again. By year end hospitals were at capacity; the overwhelming percentage of hospitalizations and deaths were among the unvaccinated.

 

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Illustration 1, Source: New York Times

 

But there is opportunity in every crisis. COVID-19 provides an active case study to learn not only about public health, but also foundational principles of crisis management. As the Greek philosopher Plato said in The Republic, if you want to understand something difficult, study the biggest instance of it that you can. Then apply those learnings to smaller matters. There’s no bigger crisis right now than COVID-19.

For decades in my crisis management practice, I have preached that the severity of an underlying crisis does not determine how the crisis turns out. Two organizations in the same crisis at the same time can have dramatically different outcomes. Rather, the timeliness and quality of the response determine whether or not an organization suffers a catastrophic outcome. Act effectively and quickly and the crisis resolves or plays out with minimal damage. Delay, deny, or dither and things get disproportionately worse.

It is uncommon for multiple organizations to go through the same crisis simultaneously. But COVID-19 is a crisis with which every organization around the world has been grappling. We now have experienced a kind of laboratory experiment of how different jurisdictions responded to the pandemic differently. We can track the different outcomes. We can learn from them. And we can apply those lessons, not only in the continued pandemic response but in future crises, as well.

Crisis Management Works

All the trends point to a common conclusion: Crisis management works. But only when we manage the crisis effectively. Failing to follow crisis management principles can have devastating consequences. There are four rules that lead to the successful resolution of a crisis:

  1. Take the crisis seriously.
  2. Take the risks seriously.
  3. Mitigate those risks.
  4. Act quickly: the longer it takes to mitigate the risks, the harder it is to do so.

We can see clearly how the death rates in different jurisdictions varied based on leaders’ adherence, or lack of adherence, to these rules.

A Tale of Two Nations:

The Republic of Korea and The United States of America

 

South Korea Takes Risks Seriously

On January 20, 2020, the U.S. had its first confirmed COVID-19 case. That same day the first confirmed case was recorded in South Korea.

Unlike the U.S., South Korea took the crisis and the risks seriously. Six years earlier, it had been burned by its mishandling of a public health emergency that had led to dozens of deaths and that had almost brought down the government. Not this time: No delay, denial, or dithering.

Initially, as South Korea grappled to build an infrastructure to battle the virus, it had the highest COVID-19 death rate outside of China. But its leaders quickly worked to mitigate the risks. They launched a whole of government response. In particular, South Korea followed all the mitigation guidelines that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advised. These included mandatory masking, distancing, quarantines, contract tracing and testing. And it worked. Infection and death rates plummeted and stayed low.

By the one-year anniversary of the first confirmed COVID-19 case, one-thousand three-hundred South Koreans had died from the virus. That’s one death out of every forty thousand South Koreans.

But in late summer of 2021 conditions in South Korea deteriorated. There was slow uptake of vaccines and boosters. And in an effort to reopen the economy the government relaxed some of its standards. The number of South Korean COVID-19 deaths doubled by mid-October and tripled by early December.

By the end of 2021, total COVID-19 deaths in South Korea totaled five-thousand five-hundred, or one death out of every nine thousand South Koreans. But note that just 11 months earlier the death rate had been one in every forty thousand.

 

Illustration 2, Source: Our World in Data

 

The United States Downplays the Risks

The United States did not take the crisis or the risks seriously, nor did the U.S. act effectively to mitigate the risks.

President Trump and his allies persistently denied or downplayed the reality of the virus. A Cornell University Alliance for Science report concluded that that President Trump was the largest driver of coronavirus misinformation. It warned, “These findings are of significant concern because if people are misled by unscientific and unsubstantiated claims about the disease, they may attempt harmful cures or be less likely to observe official guidance and thus risk spreading the virus.”

The United States never had a whole of government response. And the nation never consistently followed CDC guidelines. In 2020, leaders, including the president, rationalized away the risks. They failed to model safe behavior, including the wearing of masks. They continued to have large unmasked gatherings. And the pandemic itself became inexorably tangled in the politics of a presidential election, with large numbers taking sides about the reality of the virus itself, a disturbing trend that continues to this day, more than a year after the election.

But public health experts had been sounding the alarm throughout 2020. Last October, Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness concluded that of the two-hundred seventeen thousand American COVID-19 fatalities to date, as many as two-hundred ten thousand could have been prevented by taking appropriate precautions. At the time the U.S. had the highest COVID-19 rate among peer countries. Korea had the lowest.

At about the same time, the venerable New England Journal of Medicine said that the U.S. had failed at every step to take effective mitigation steps and said Americans were dying because of a leadership vacuum.

Even after the vaccines became widely available, the seeds of distrust and division continued to hamper mitigation efforts, especially in states whose governors forbade mask mandates and where vaccine hesitancy prevailed.

By late September 2021, American COVID-19 fatalities had reached seven hundred thousand, Columbia University Professor Jeffrey Sachs noted that if the U.S. had done what was necessary to keep the death rate the same as our peer countries, six hundred fifty thousand fewer Americans would have died.

In mid-December 2021, only sixty two percent of Americans were fully vaccinated, and hospitals were reaching the breaking point. They warned that non-COVID-19 patients were at risk of not being treated. Just one example: leaders of top Minnesota hospitals took out a full-page ad pleading with Minnesotans to take the virus seriously. They wrote:

“Our emergency departments are overfilled, and we have patients in every bed in our hospitals… At any time you or a loved one might need our support. Car accidents. Cancer. Stroke. Appendicitis. Now, an ominous question looms: will you be able to get care from your local community hospital without delay? Today, that’s uncertain.”

They noted that this situation was fully avoidable: “How does this happen in 2021 – almost two full years since this deadly pandemic began? How can we as a society stand by and watch people die when a simple shot could prevent a life-threatening illness?”

Their request to Minnesotans was quite simple: Get vaccinated and get a booster; wear a mask, even if vaccinated; socially distance; if feeling sick, get tested; encourage others to do the same. In other words, take the virus, and the risks seriously.What the Pandemic Teaches About Crisis Management and Leadership

Illustration 3, Source: Minneapolis Star

 

Lessons for Leaders

 

In the contrast between South Korea and the United States we see meaningful lessons for leaders.

South Korea followed the four crisis management rules:

  1. It took the crisis seriously.
  2. It took the risks seriously.
  3. It did what was necessary to mitigate those risks.
  4. It acted quickly.

The United States did not. The consequence: the American death rate is 23 times that of South Korea.

 

Illustration 4, Source: Our World in Data

 

We see at the national level dramatically different outcomes to the common crisis. There are many lessons we can harvest from the tragedies — including the dangers of misinformation and of politicizing science.

But the crisis management lesson, devoid of politics and ideology, is clear: In a crisis, take the crisis seriously, take the risks seriously, mitigate the risks fully, and do so quickly. The outcomes will be far less devastating.

And, per Plato’s admonition to study something big and apply the learnings to smaller things: the lessons apply to much more than COVID-19, but to crises of all forms and magnitudes.


About the Author: Helio Fred Garcia is the president of the crisis management firm Logos Consulting Group and teaches crisis, ethics, leadership and communication at New York University and Columbia University. He has written five books on crisis, trust, reputation, and leadership. He is currently working on a book about the American response to COVID-19. Working title: The Trump Contagion: How Dishonesty, Incompetence, and Neglect Led to the Worst Handled Crisis in American History.