It is a well established fact amongst historians that times of existential threat create fear and despondency in human beings throughout the world. There is also a certain breed of human beings who thrive on fuelling that fear by spreading rumours and conspiracy theories. The advent of social media has made it easier for such keyboard warriors to reach a large audience at the touch of a button, posing a real danger of the public being misinformed thereby thwarting government efforts to manage the crisis.
Management of a crisis such as the current Covid-19 therefore calls for strong and clear sighted leadership.
In his first address to be widely broadcast on radio, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), the 32nd President of the United States of America boldly declared that “This great nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and prosper. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
By the time FDR was inaugurated on March 3, 1933, the Great Depression had reached desperate levels with 13 million people unemployed.
FDR began his momentous 100 days in office by closing banks for several days until Congress enacted reform legislation. He also began to hold a series of open press conferences and radio broadcasts that would come to be known as “fireside chats” in which he spoke directly to the American people. These fireside chats by the president went a long way towards restoring public confidence and preventing harmful runs on the banks.
Because of the way in which FDR connected with his citizens, some people even placed him above God since he offered a solution to the existential threat of the Depression. FDR was himself enslaved by infantile paralysis, but he reached out and empathised with his people. He was the architect of the “New Deal” legislation which, by 1935, saw America begin to pull out of the Depression.
Sir Winston Churchill was the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1940 and 1945 when he led Britain to victory in World War II. He is remembered as an inspiring wartime leader who played an important role in the defence of democracy. Churchill’s speeches were a great inspiration to the embattled British. His first speech as prime minister delivered to the commons on May 13,1940, was the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” speech which included phrases which have reverberated down the decades.
Often Churchill would go out into the streets and ride on the public train talking to ordinary people seeking their views on various issues. He tore up and rewrote many speeches in an effort to ensure that his message would resonate with the people. Churchill made it clear to the nation that a long, hard road lay ahead and that victory was the final goal.
Turning to the current crisis, Germany was hit by the coronavirus early this year and they were faced with empty streets, a lockdown, closed businesses, and a shattered economy just like many other European countries. But Germany acted quickly, introducing a 600 billion euros fund which was deposited into the accounts of its citizens within three days. Many businesses survived as a result. In many other countries including ours, there are two problems. One, coronavirus kills people and two, slow governments kill businesses. In America, the cheques are still in the mail due to a cumbersome bureaucracy.
At the beginning of April this year, and in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, the Kenya government promised local artists that they would receive Sh00 million in coronavirus funds. While there is nothing wrong with promoting our young artists, the timing of this gesture sent the unintended message that the government does not have its priorities right in this time of crisis. To add insult to injury, a month later the funds have not been disbursed and those youths who were to be beneficiaries are disillusioned.
Recently it was reported that Kenya sent a consignment of cut flowers to health workers in Britain to express solidarity with our erstwhile friends because they are our largest consumers and by extension employers on our flower farms. Kenyans reacted with anger, again feeling that the government has not got its priorities right. What the government forgot to tell Kenyans was that the flower industry had already donated flowers to Kenyan health workers to show solidarity before the consignment was flown to Britain. An unfortunate failure to communicate.
Last week the government allowed restaurants to reopen with strict restrictions regarding social distancing, wearing of masks and hand washing. It also allowed restaurants to serve alcohol to customers having a meal. As was to be expected, Kenyans have abused the system as they go bar hopping, eating one sausage and drinking two beers at each establishment. Of course, the government is not happy and has come out to condemn the culprits, threatening them with dire consequences.
While it is not in doubt that the Kenya government has by and large managed the coronavirus crisis in a commendable manner, there is definitely room for improvement in the management of communication for it to be effective and also timely in order for citizens to receive the intended message.
The coronavirus is a new phenomenon, and nobody so far completely understands the nature of the beast. In the circumstances, nobody should be afraid to admit a mistake when certain interventions do not produce the desired results and if necessary, take a step backwards to try a new approach.
What people need to hear is that the government empathises with them, here are the facts, this is what we are doing, this is what we require from you and we are in this together. This is about being honest and taking responsibility.
In the long term, we need to formulate a comprehensive disaster management policy and pass the necessary legislation which must also allow for fast tracking of Bills to avoid being mired in bureaucracy, time being of the essence.