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ALASTAIR CAMPBELL: The global heroes and villains of the coronavirus battle

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence leave at the end of a briefing about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) - Credit: AP

From the good to the very bad, ALASTAIR CAMPBELL rates each world leader’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

A few weeks ago I set out 10 principles of crisis management. Now is not a bad time to assess which governments and leaders have done well, and which less so, judged against them.

All 10 speak to a central theme that in a crisis, communications must be embedded in strategy, and people taken into the confidence of leaders as they assess and take decisions.

Fair to say that two of the countries we often look to for leadership in a global crisis – the US and the UK – do not fare well. Some of the smaller countries have shown far better how it is done.

1. Develop, execute and narrate clear strategy/messaging. My stand-out leader on this is Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand. ‘We go hard, we go early.’ It sounded like an All Blacks team talk, but it framed her whole approach. Likewise my favourite line, in comms terms, of the whole crisis: ‘New Zealand only has 102 cases, but so did Italy once.’ This early framing is so important. Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were so determined to play things down, and make the crisis fit to the sense of their own exceptionalism, that they underestimated what was happening, and in many ways never recovered from the early mis-steps. Many Americans and Brits may have died as a result.

2. Lead by example. Like Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau on working from home, continuing to brief the public daily when self-isolating due to his wife showing symptoms. An excellent example is Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Having lost an election, in the limbo land of coalition formation, he nonetheless rediscovered the qualities that made him popular in the first place – open, straightforward, humane. Most impressively, a former doctor, he returned to help out in hospitals. It showed this truly was a national effort, in which he would lead from the front.

Boris Johnson literally went missing for more than a week as the crisis grew, and when he emerged, it was ostentatiously to shake hands with spectators at a rugby match, before also boasting that he did the same at a hospital treating coronavirus patients. As for Trump, one of the most important attributes of leadership is taking responsibility. From day one, he was looking to place blame, home and abroad.

3. Ensure strong centre. This is easier in a dictatorship than a democracy, of course, but whatever criticisms of the Chinese for their early secrecy, the ruthless centralisation that is their hallmark came into its own in dealing with the crisis itself. South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan likewise, after varied degrees of stuttering starts, got on top of the crisis quickly. In Germany, Angela Merkel made sure that the national and regional governments worked together well, and in German polls, not only has her standing risen, but so has appreciation of politics’ ability to deal with problems. Trump’s centre was weakened by his constant undermining of state governors and of his own team. Johnson’s centre was weakened by his early insouciance, a government machine fixated on Brexit, and a public service infrastructure weakened by a decade of austerity.

4. Throw everything at it. Again, the eastern governments have generally shown the way. I also want to single out Edi Rama, prime minister of Albania, (full disclosure, I work with him) who watched what was happening in nearby Italy with mounting horror, studied the detail obsessively, and went early into lockdown. Curfew became the order of the day. He took the view that the more laissez-faire approach being taken by – here we go again – Trump and Johnson, risked every country in the world being overwhelmed as Italy was. And he knew that Albania might not be able to come back from that. In the UK, outwith some of the economic measures and the fast fitting of new hospitals, ‘whatever it takes’ became more of a slogan than a strategy, and on testing and protective equipment in particular, they were always playing catch up.

5. Use experts well. Taiwan’s leadership had politics and expertise in one person, as their vice president Chen Chien-jen is an epidemiologist by background. An interesting phenomenon has developed in Jordan where the health minister, a handsome heart surgeon named Saad Jaber, has become a heartthrob, his daily briefings getting high ratings and rave reviews, creating a new epidemic – ‘Jabermania’. Trump is his own most respected and listened to expert, and his relationship with real expert Anthony Fauci has been fraught, and ensured more mixed messaging, not to mention stunned disbelief from doctors hearing their president talk of ingesting disinfectant as a possible cure. Johnson was right to involve experts when finally he agreed to daily briefings, but while UK ministers and experts regularly say they are ‘following the science’, they never share it. Some of the experts have come over as spokespeople for the government, not advisers on science. That is why the news that Dominic Cummings attended meetings of SAGE, the scientific advisory group, was so toxic.

6. Deploy strong team. President Emmanuel Macron has led from the front but left a lot of the heavy lifting to prime minister Édouard Philippe. Angela Merkel has ensured regional leaders have been integrated into the crisis management. Trump’s determination to have himself front and centre, day in day out, often criticising others involved, has weakened the US effort. In the UK, after Boris Johnson was taken ill, a number of ministers, of variable quality, fronted the government effort. At the start of the crisis, he did not properly involve leaders from the nations and regions of the UK. Mistake.

7. Make the big moments count. Macron’s addresses to the nation have been strong. The latest one set new records for a live TV event, 36.7 million French people tuning in. It was long and detailed. He apologised for mistakes made in the handling of the crisis early on. He warned of more sacrifice to come, but he set a date, mid-May, for the first steps to be taken toward ending lockdown. There was no bluster, no mixed messaging. There was hope without it being false hope. His delivery was remarkable.

Trump has been so visible, with so many different messages and inconsistencies, it was hard to tell when even he thought something was a big moment. Johnson did one address to the nation, announcing a partial lockdown, but due to more mixed messaging, confusion over key workers and essential journeys continued for some days. Perhaps the most effective piece of communication in the UK was the broadcast by the Queen. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s communications, normally a strength, has been poor at key moments. When he went into lockdown, he had a comms plan without a real strategy, and chaos ensued.

8. Take the public with you. In recent years, the world has associated Greece with basket case level chaos. Current prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has won widespread plaudits home and abroad for his handling of this crisis. This Bloomberg headline was typical: ‘Prime minister’s lockdown leadership saved Greece during coronavirus.’ Even among opposition supporters, he has 75% approval. He decided early on the crisis demanded swift and drastic action, and he took care to explain the reasons, the difficult choices and the consequences. His speeches were vital in this. Trump has used the crisis further to polarise. Johnson enjoyed a boost to his ratings when he was taken ill, but that is slipping as the death toll in the UK mounts and people focus on some of his early mistakes, when he was failing to focus on Points 1-7 above.

9. Show real empathy. This is more than saying how much you value nurses or how sorry you are about people dying. It is about paying proper tribute to the dead, and making sure those on the frontline, and those grieving, have the support they need. New York governor Andrew Cuomo has excelled on the empathetic front, in horrific circumstances. Jacinda Ardern has been brilliant on this too. Could any other leader have made a direct address to children, saying the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny were key workers, but they might not get everywhere in time this Easter?

Empathy has never been Trump’s strong point. His narcissism has been on full display, which has made it worse. In the UK, the mounting death toll has been announced with a formulaic ‘sadly xxx have died, and our deepest condolences etc …’ The lowest of many low points was health secretary Matt Hancock, asked how many NHS workers had died, passing the question to the chief nurse. She didn’t answer either.

10. Give hope, but not false hope. This has got harder, the longer it has gone on. But those who emphasised how hard this was going to be at the start – several are named above – are likely to be more believed now as they start to talk of light at the end of the tunnel. Trump talking of packed churches for Easter, Johnson boasting about the UK donning a Superman cape, or ‘sending the virus packing’ have both dealt in false hope too often.

Some of you may think I have been too harsh on Trump and Johnson. That is partly because we are historically attuned to expecting more from US presidents and UK prime ministers. But at least one major leader has been if anything even worse, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. Any success Brazil has had in dealing with the virus has been despite its leader, not because of him.

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