Leadership in the time of Coronavirus

Op Ed by Shivaji Sengupta

How well are Governor Cuomo and President Trump dealing with the crisis

They say leaders are not made but born. I disagree. Especially in this 21st century, when society has been the most complex ever, and consequently, facing social problems, leadership requires skills that people are not just born with. They need to be developed. Most importantly, the leader needs to know how to handle crises.

The crisis the whole world is experiencing is Coronavirus. It started off an obscure town in China. Although the news media was reporting it as serious, we in America paid scant attention to it. Around the same time there were raging wild fires in Australia. Here in America, there was Super Bowl.

When the spread came to Europe, carried mainly by foreign travels, the US began to get uncomfortable. Especially here in New York City, where a large part are people of Italy, Ireland and Germany origin. When Italy came under the monstrous grasp of the disease, for many in New York it was no longer a matter to be ignored. Still as late as in March earlier, the restaurants were full. We were observing the Corona calamity as if watching a movie, something happening on the other side of the Atlantic that won’t come here, not in a big way anyway.

It did. Now, as CNBC sarcastically reported, America as always is leading the way. 50,000 people infected and counting. Counting is the wrong word; rather doubling every three days. At this rate by Easter, we may have 500,000 fellow Americans ill with the disease!

President Trump, our leader, has earmarked Easter for Americans in relatively less affected areas to return to work. The notion, premature as it is, is sending shock waves through the medical world. Is he mad!

Our president has no prior experience as a leader. Five leadership qualities are: awareness, honesty and integrity, building relationships, innovation, and  knowledge. Trump lacks four. Even the fifth, innovation, may be only grudgingly conceded to him because as a businessman he is given benefit of the doubt.  

I have rarely seen a head of the state as unaware as him. His constant stretching of the truth, often distorting it, and sometimes lapsing into disinformation out of desperation seriously affects his credibility as these coronavirus task force briefings reveal. At times like these he needs to define reality, provide hope. He does neither. Though leading the briefings, he is unimpressive. His voice is a monotone, his speech reflecting an incomplete education and poor diction. His vocabulary extremely limited. Whenever he doles out hollow praises, which is often, he uses the same two adjectives he has been using during the three years as president: “incredible” and “unbelievable.” He appears more of a salesman than the POTUS.

In stark contrast is New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo. He is at the forefront, in fact, in the eye of the storm. As I write, almost 5,000 are ill in the state with the Virus. But you see the governor at the top of his game, his lieutenants flanking him. He always updates New Yorkers of the grim truth of the Virus, knows the facts, and always gives the impression that he is in control. At a time when no one knows what to expect, he doesn’t try to be a know-all like Trump. Instead, he is honest, consistent and adaptive, three things a leader needs to be. 

Cuomo is candid and combative, yet caring about the people of New York, emphasizing connections over corrections. He knows now is not the time to try to be perfect, but he also demands total effort, from himself and from others. He is feisty when it comes to demanding what he needs; rolls up his sleeve and gets to work, fights anybody – including the President – because he needs to ensure New Yorkers’ safety.  But he is also quick to praise anybody who comes forward to help, including the President. 

The people of New York are full of praise for him, even as the state slides deeper and deeper into this quagmire of a disease. Why? When he speaks, they believe him. When President Trump speaks, people get lost in his constant contradictions. The governor believes in his strategies and is confident that New York will come out of this. He knows how to build relations with everyday New Yorkers by often bringing up anecdotes of his family, how they are dealing with each other at the time of this crisis,  how he is dealing with them. He is not embarrassed to talk about love. 

And then, how about India?

For a pretty long time, when other countries were reeling, India was relatively untouched. Skeptics such as myself thought that it is India’s traditionally callous attitude toward keeping accurate records that makes Coronavirus there seem tame. But Indians from India have told me that they have been impressed by the precautionary measures taken by the government. Notwithstanding, things have suddenly flared up. Though today’s number is at 500 (compared to 50,000 here in the US), experts are predicting that the number will soon escalate by alarming multiples. Because of its population density (for example, in certain parts of Old Delhi there are as many as 35,000 people living on 1 sq km!), the risk of a total disaster is staring at Indians.

So the prime minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, has ordered a nationwide lockdown. No Indian is allowed to go outside of his home except for essential goods like food and medicines. But Modi has also ordered literally all shops to close. People were given exactly four hours’ notice to stock up. Now, as I write the curfew is almost 12 hours old. It is to last 21 days. Confusion reigns. Modi said that essential stores will be kept open; that journalists can be outside to do their jobs. Yet food and drug stores have closed, as have banks. As Indians sit shuttered, they have no idea where food is going to come from. Will the government provide food and other essentials door to door? Will the poor and the lower middle class be able to afford the sudden steep climb in prices? As one destitute woman said, “If the virus doesn’t kill us, hunger will.” Then there are millions of poor Indians living and working in cities like Kolkata and Mumbai who have no homes and live huddled together, cheek by jowl in slums and on pavements. They are all being asked to leave in a mass exodus, spreading the Virus. Is this good leadership? Many Indians, however, are satisfied with the way Modi is handling the crisis. “I don’t like Modi but be is handling this as efficiently as possible. He is a good administrator,” one of them said.

Let’s appeal to President Trump, Governor Cuomo and Prime Minister Modi: look to your people who have voted you to be their leaders. In this dire hour, they need you.

Image courtesy of thesatimes | Welcome to The South Asian Times

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