Steve Barrett on PR: We need more women leaders

COVID-19 will last much longer than we thought. Our response can't drift like it has been. Business must step up to fill the leadership void. And we can learn from the likes of Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel.

Leaders such as Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel have excelled during COVID-19. (Photo: Getty Images)
Leaders such as Jacinda Ardern and Angela Merkel have excelled during COVID-19. (Photo: Getty Images)

The more I listen to people talking the more I start to think that the lockdown prompted by the COVID-19 health pandemic is set to continue much longer than was first thought.

While there are some companies and organizations that are returning to the office in a limited capacity, I already hear many senior business leaders writing off the whole of 2020 in terms of a return to “normal” working conditions in physical environments. There’s even talk of the lockdown stretching well into 2021.

Yes, there is a desire to get out of the house/apartment and start to see our families and socialize normally. Hell, you even want to see Bob in accounting again and listen to his stories that once saw you swerving away from the water cooler to avoid him.

Yes, many parents are desperate for schools to reopen and for the now-much-more appreciated teaching profession to take back responsibility for looking after their kids during the day.

Yes, we desperately miss our beloved sports teams and congregating in our thousands to share the hopes and dreams of fellow fans and pay homage at our favorite ball park, stadium or arena.

And yes, we yearn for the chance to have a meal in a restaurant again and meet up with friends for a cocktail or beer. Or to take in a show or a movie. Or just to go for a walk without having to wear one of those pesky masks.

But the latest infection rate numbers provide a frightening context within which to consider those desires.

While the situation in New York City, previously one of the hardest-hit areas in the country, has improved markedly – last Saturday, no deaths due to coronavirus were reported for the first time in months – there were a record 75,600 new cases on Thursday across the whole country, the 11th time in the last month the record has been broken.

The pandemic hotspots have moved away from NYC to previously less hard hit places. Yesterday, Florida posted a record number of daily deaths from COVID-19 – more than 150.

According to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center, over 138,000 people have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. so far out of more than 3.5 million confirmed cases. There have been more than 1 million recoveries and over 43 million people have been tested.

A vaccine is hopefully on its way in record time, but it’s prudent to listen to leaders such as Merck CEO Ken Frazier, who in an interview published last Friday with Harvard Business School cautioned that people who say to expect a vaccine before year-end are doing a “grave disservice to the public.”

He noted that COVID-19 vaccines under development are not guaranteed to work and potential vaccines may not have the qualities needed to be rapidly deployed to large numbers of people.

And this is all before we start having to deal with the anti-vaxxer movement that comprises around one in five of the population according to some surveys. (By the way, I wonder how much crossover there is between the anti-vaxxers and no-maskers. And do they wear seatbelts when they're driving? So many questions...)

But, on Monday, a U.S. official indicated that pharmaceutical companies working with the Government are on track to begin manufacturing a coronavirus vaccine by the end of the summer.

It’s the environment of misinformation fueled by febrile social media that we unfortunately now live in.

We see stories of people who called the virus a hoax subsequently dying of it. Chuck Woolery’s son contracted coronavirus after President Trump retweeted the former game-show host saying “everybody is lying about COVID-19.”

The girlfriend of the President’s son Donald Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle, contracted the virus. The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, contracted the disease after spending months downplaying it and presaging a high infection rate in his country.

So, despite outbreaks of “no-masking” demonstrations based on the supposed right to freedom, it seems even some of the extreme naysayers about the disease are finally getting the message.

Of course, none of us likes wearing a mask. It’s uncomfortable. It looks odd. And it’s strangely disenfranchising socially. But as one nurse pointed out, if she can wear a mask for 13 hours straight on her hospital shift in sweltering temperatures, then you can suffer the indignity of popping a mask over your face for half an hour while you do your weekly grocery shopping.

And, according to Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention director Robert Redfield in a session with medical journal JAMA on Tuesday, if everyone in the U.S. wore a mask, COVID-19 could be "under control" within four to eight weeks.

That is the type of messaging that we as a society need to be promulgating much more widely. And if that leadership isn’t forthcoming from the normal channels then business must step in to fill the vacuum. In fact, it should be playing a key role anyway.

We’ve already seen great examples of brands stepping up to the plate in terms of disseminating public health information, such as Procter & Gamble’s partnership with TikTok influencer Charli D’Amelio on the Distance Dance hand-washing activation.

Separate to COVID-19, we have also seen how corporations such as FedEx can wield their power to produce fundamental changes in persuading the Washington Redskins that it is finally time to change its name, which is way out of synch with modern social conventions.

Especially at such difficult times as this, we need much more of a consensus approach to politics and solving problems. We also need to cooperate with everyone else around the world. Forget the politics, but is this really the right time to be pulling out of the World Health Organization?

We must take the lead from progressive countries that have fought and controlled the disease, most of them notably led by women: Germany’s Angela Merkel, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, Finland’s Sanna Marin, Norway’s Erna Solberg, Iceland’s Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Denmark’s Mette Frederiksen.

Come on guys – you need to do better. Learn from the communications, management and leadership traits demonstrated by the women named above. Strength doesn’t have to equate to intransigence, bullying and grandstanding.

More than 32 million Americans are receiving some form of unemployment benefits, according to data released by the Labor Department on Thursday. This is simply too important an issue to be thrown onto the rocks of political partisanship and expediency.

The whole country needs to come together to address these major challenges. The Business Roundtable, US Chamber of Commerce and business leaders of all types must unite and pressure the government and state authorities to immediately implement a coordinated and concerted effort to fight the COVID-19 pandemic and make sure basic safety procedures such as mask wearing and social distancing are enforced.

Because if we let this situation drift on anymore, we are setting ourselves up for a lockdown that will drift well into 2021 and even beyond. And the consequences of that just don’t bear thinking about.

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