COVID-19 Leadership Requires Clarity, Precision
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
A community pastor offered counsel recently that our governor should take to heart: “Be as critical and as clear as you can.”
During the April 19 video sermon, Rev. Patrick Mullen also observed that “the economy matters.” His timing was spot on. A day earlier, the state’s unemployment benefits website crashed under “a tsunami of claims” – about 600,000. The ripple of unintended impacts brought on by sudden loss of income and uncertain futures has suicides on the rise.
If we over-protect ourselves we’ll not only risk shattering our economy, but mental health and other physical casualties may challenge the COVID-19 numbers.
Perhaps that’s due to our sizeable retiree population. While economic collapse affects all age groups equally, the virus does not. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 20% of U.S. fatalities are under the age of 65. The rest are seniors.
“What percentage of them,” Mullen asked that Sunday, “are available to be expended for the sake of our economy?”
The response came that afternoon from a representative of more than 100 protesters standing along George Washington Way in Richland, Wash. We need to get America’s economy back on track, he said. “Let the virus run its natural course.”
This is the perspective Inslee needs to aggressively address.
He started off well. As the first epicenter of COVID-19 in the United States, we learned there were no federal off-the-shelf pandemic response plans available to help us. We were on our own and in new territory. As deaths mounted, the governor ratcheted up his response. Over four days he closed west-side schools, then schools statewide, then, as the death toll reached 65, dining in all restaurants and bars.
Governors such as California’s Gavin Newsom benefited tremendously from watching Inslee’s rapid stair-step response. After 19 California deaths, Newsome ordered a comprehensive statewide policy, essentially compressing Washington’s actions into a single order. Leveraging significant time and information advantage over Inslee, Newsom’s actions translate today into four Californian deaths per 100,000 residents compared to Washington’s 10 per 100,000.
Although Washington has the highest fatality rate in the West, we don’t come close to the 9/11-like trauma enveloping New York.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued his executive order just days after Newsom. By that time the Empire State had been assaulted by up to 12 times as many introductions of coronavirus than California, mostly from Europe. Quickly approaching 18,000 dead to date, the state averages 90 deaths per 100,000. A recent poll reports that half the residents of New York City know someone who has died from the virus.
Yet Cuomo joins Newsome among the highest rated governors for COVID-19 response. Both are in the whopping 80% approval range. Inslee, who’s following the same course as Cuomo and Newsom, a course he first laid out, is at about 75%. My sense is that his initial wave of support is beginning to wane. It won’t be his decisions per se that pull him down, but a less-than stellar communication game.
The governor’s team has allowed the spotlight to focus too long on topics like ‘unreasonable’ fishing restrictions (since rescinded), ‘over reaction to a flu-like virus’ and ‘unconstitutional’ state authority, among other issues. The combination of credibility, conflict and relevance provides legs to these issues, turns complaints into headlines, encourages protests on streets and in commission chambers, and, unchallenged, erodes public confidence in state leadership.
Inslee needs to walk into his press conferences and take these issues head on. We need to hear him say, for instance, that the number of flu cases actually compares to the number of COVID-19 cases, but with notable differences:
‘We’ve been tracking the flu since October, but COVID-19 didn’t begin until after the holidays, revealing coronavirus is two-to-three times more contagious. Seasonal flu has a 0.15% annual mortality rate. Only three months into it, COVID-19 has inflicted a 1.40% mortality rate. This means the virus is nearly 10 times deadlier than the flu. And, of course, we can vaccinate against the flu. There is no vaccine for coronavirus.’
Keep saying it, come from different angles, and responsively answer questions until the issue falls below the noise level.
Take the same approach to issues of church gatherings, infringement on personal freedoms, etc. Do it right, and these issues will diminish.
Inslee also needs to keep a goal in front of us. May 4 was a good milestone – something we could place our hopes on and a date to which we could hold him accountable. And he was accountable. On April 22 he loosened some restrictions and told us most would be extended. That feels like progress. Now give us a new date.
I’ve interacted with the governor before and believe him to be genuine. He’s taking right action to support the value Americans place on life as well as on our economy, especially with regard to pursuing a measured approach to loosening restrictions.
With respect to the expendability of our seniors, Mullen challenged his congregation, “I hope that your statistic comes as close to zero as possible.”
That is Inslee’s challenge – navigating the line between virus casualties and economic casualties with as much precision as possible to hit a “zero” differential mark. To fully succeed, he will also need to defend his decisions going forward with a heightened sense of urgency and greater clarity.