The COVID-19 pandemic that emerged out of China has challenged all countries and regions where it has spread, including Japan. The question for most as the sense of crisis builds is what is the correct approach to take to mitigate an outbreak that could force the collapse of health care systems, result in unprecedented peacetime loss of life and unleash an economic tsunami.
China used a hammer approach by locking down the entire city of Wuhan and Hubei province. The human and financial cost was staggering, but the first wave of COVID-19 seems to have been controlled. Going forward, it is unclear if China can repair the damage done to its own economy, especially as it now will be faced with a demand shock — a lack of consumers to buy the products that its manufactures are producing.
Perhaps more serious are the reputational costs associated with the initial decision-making process that caused a global health crisis and economic quake. Credibility and trust have been shattered and they will be difficult to regain even as China has engaged in a global diplomatic health campaign to help countries battling the pandemic.
In contrast to China’s hammer approach, the U.S. approach under President Donald Trump was initially one of hubris and complacency resulting in the rapid spread of the virus throughout the United States. Despite warnings by Trump’s economic adviser Peter Navarro as early as Jan. 29 of the “coronavirus evolving into a full-blown pandemic, imperiling the lives of millions of Americans,” the U.S. president’s judgment has resulted in an unprecedented health and economic crisis that will possibility result as Navarro wrote in his Feb. 23 memo — “a full-blown COVID-19 pandemic that could infect as many as 100 million Americans, with a loss of life of as many as 1.2 million souls.”
Like China, the reputational costs for the U.S. in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak will be dear. It has shown that despite ample warning of the severity of the initial outbreak in China, that leadership in the White House and political leaders were unable to control the spread of the novel coronavirus.
Worse still, the White House has been unable to forge a global task force beginning with friends and allies to marshal the necessary resources to combat the pandemic at hand and the global economic crisis that will be with us for years to come.
On Tuesday evening, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared a state of emergency. With that declaration, the governors of Tokyo and six other prefectures received the legal power to require citizens to stay at home and request schools and entertainment venues to close.
Critics correctly point out that the declaration has come too late considering the rapid expansion of the COVID-19 crisis globally. Hope that Japan was somehow different, reticence to test widely and unwillingness of some of the public to heed recommendations to be restrained in their behavior to prevent the spread of the virus has led to an unmanageable spread of COVID-19, with all the health and economic consequences that will come with an outbreak.
While there are no perfect policy approaches to dealing with an unprecedented health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, what is clear is a hammer, hubris or hope are not optimal choices to achieving more positive policy outcomes.
What is needed is a policy scalpel implemented by effective leaders who are excellent communicators, data-driven and empathetic toward the targets of their policies and leadership, their citizens.
Effective liberal-democratic leadership in dealing with COVID-19 has emerged out of Singapore, New York City, Tokyo, South Korea and Taiwan. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s address to Singaporeans on April 3 was clear, straightforward and provided people with a set of expectations as to how the Singapore government was going to deal with COVID-19.
For example, full home-based learning in schools and institutes of higher learning was to be implemented, all preschool and student care centers would be closed but still provide limited services for children of parents who have to continue working and are unable to make alternative care arrangements, and the restrictions on movements and gatherings of people would be enforced.
Lee couldn’t have been clearer by stressing that “if we don’t go out, if we avoid contact with others, then the virus won’t be able to spread. It is as simple as that.” There was no “I” in his communication, there was no mixed messaging and there was no finger pointing and bile pointed at previous leaders. He gave practical solutions to citizens on how they can and should behave to prevent the outbreak from worsening.
In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has shown admirable leadership skills in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak through clear, fact-based communication and empathy. His matter-of-fact explanations on the gravity of the situation in New York City and willingness to call out Trump’s policy blunders but also acknowledge his positive contributions to improving the situation demonstrates a badly needed, nonpartisan approach to dealing with this crisis.
Importantly, despite criticism Cuomo has been willing to stand by his decisions to close schools shut down business to flatten the numbers of infected people.
Leadership requires commitment and resolve to do what is right, not what is politically convenient. Leaders must lead their citizens where they should go, despite the challenges that entails. Cuomo is doing that through daily briefings that are fact-driven, heartfelt and personal.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike seems to have taken a note from Cuomo through daily briefings to the public stressing to avoid the “three Cs” — closed and crowded places and conversations in close proximity — and to refrain from nonessential outings over the weekend. Admirably, her briefings are done in both Japanese and English to reach the maximum number of residents in Tokyo.
With the declaration of the state of emergency, Abe has now provided the legal framework for governors like Koike to enforce more stringent measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. Koike and other governors need to emulate Lee and Cuomo and be as explicit as possible to citizens about what they should be doing to prevent the current crisis from getting worse. This means educating them and praising the ruling party when it is providing the support governors need but also calling it out when it is not.
Crucially, governors like Koike need to continue to communicate with citizens daily in easy to understand briefings with practical recommendations to negotiate the current health and economic crisis.
“Be restrained” isn’t enough. Koike and other governors should individually and collective be sending the same message that each citizen’s behavior can positively or negatively influence the outbreak.
Lastly, leadership requires cooperation and good communication at all levels of government, and this needs to be seen by citizens. Abe along with the prefectural governors need to visibly demonstrate that they are working together as a team to defeat the outbreak. This should include information sharing on best practices and joint briefings to the public that are easy to access and understand.
Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at International Christian University and a visiting fellow with the Japan Institute for International Affairs.
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