How should political leaders command in a crisis?

By Megan Loock

Elm Staff Writer

At a rally in Phoenix, Ariz. on June 24, President Trump called COVID-19 — which has claimed 225,084 American lives as of Oct. 28 according to the World Health Organization — “kung flu” for the first time.

“My reaction is that the president has made very clear he wants everybody to understand, and I think many Americans do understand, that the virus originated from China,” former Trump campaign manager and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told Politico.

Trump did make that clear to the American people, but it didn’t help the thousands of Americans who lost their lives to the pervasive virus. His comments did nothing but spread racist rhetoric about COVID-19. 

According to NBC News, anti-Asian tweets and conspiracy theories rose by 85% following Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis announced on Oct. 2.

Trump’s blame-game has highlighted his racism, a facet of his persona that his leadership has become reliant on as he works to save his deteriorating public image.  

As of Oct. 26, Newsweek polling data reports that 62% of registered voters say that the White House’s inability to manage the COVID-19 pandemic represents the Trump administration’s biggest failure. This is largely due to Trump’s refusal to acknowledge science — willfully ignoring the medical experts appointed to aid his administration in combating the virus. This incompetence has led the American people in the wrong direction, causing many to believe COVID-19 is a hoax.

On Oct. 19, Trump called the government’s most prominent pandemic fighter, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, a “disaster” and “possibly an idiot,” claiming that the American people are “tired of the pandemic,” according to CNBC.

Instead of relying on the wisdom of medical experts, Trump’s persistent attacks on them have amplified his own selfishness and increased nationalism within the U.S., showcasing his ignorance of the dire health risks facing the American people. 

Conversely, New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has received praise for being one of the most effective world leaders during the pandemic.

“Jacinda Ardern’s leadership style, focused on empathy, isn’t just resonating with her people; it’s putting the country on track for success against the coronavirus,” The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman said.

According to U.S. News, New Zealand has not wavered from a science-based approach since COVID-19 harbored early in 2020. 

“On March 23 — a month after its first case — New Zealand committed to a total elimination strategy and implemented a strict national lockdown despite having only 102 COVID-19 cases and no recorded deaths. Schools were closed. So were nonessential businesses. Social gatherings were banned. A 14-day self-isolation period was required for anyone entering the country, with a few Pacific Island exceptions,” U.S. News said.

Despite the praise she’s received from the press and her constituents, Ardern’s “going hard and going early” approach was not welcomed unanimously.

Hoover Institution senior fellow Victor Davis Hanson condemned Arden’s mandatory “quarantine camps” — which refers to the sanction that those who stay in quarantine facilities are housed in four-star hotels until they test negative for COVID-19. Hanson called this approach an infringement on personal freedom on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle” on Oct. 27. 

Ardern understands that in order to inspire hope, she must also communicate the seriousness of COVID-19 to her constituents. Trump understood the seriousness, but he chose to “deliberately downplay the virus” because he “didn’t want to create panic,” as he told Bob Woodward in a recorded phone interview. 

“You can be a cheerleader and still be truthful. Winston Churchill was a cheerleader but still told his people the truth,” NPR’s Steve Inskeep said.

Fearmongering is not the best route for political leaders to take when faced with a global crisis. However, it is important for a leader to be honest — and to show their people that though times may seem uncertain, they are prepared. 

The Obama administration did just that during the Ebola epidemic in 2014. In a speech to members of the National Institutes of Health, former President Barack Obama stressed the importance of putting into place infrastructure that prepares the nation for a potential pandemic.

“There may and likely will come a time in which we have both an airborne disease that is deadly,” Obama said in 2014. “And in order for us to deal with that effectively, we have to put in place an infrastructure — not just here at home, but globally — that allows us to see it quickly, isolate it quickly, respond to it quickly, so that if and when a new strain of flu like the Spanish flu crops up five years from now or a decade from now, we’ve made the investment and we’re further along to be able to catch it.”

To prepare for a future pandemic, the Obama administration wrote a 69-page playbook.

“Written by Obama’s National Security Council and finalized in 2016, the playbook detailed strategies for when and how to obtain personal protective equipment, and included recommendations on how the government should move quickly to detect and contain potential outbreaks, secure additional funding, and possibly even invoke the Defense Production Act to compel private companies to produce needed medical supplies,” Couriersaid. 

Trump has ignored that playbook, they said. And as a result, over 230,000 Americans are dead.

Trump’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic has proven that he has not served the best interests of the American people. By undoing everything set in place by his predecessor, he has failed to bring this country together in a time when we need unity the most.

Featured Photo caption: With the COVID-19 pandemic, political leaders globally are learning how to effectively lead in the midst of a crisis without evoking panic. Photo by Izze Rios.

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