In times of uncertainty and crisis, like this current COVID-19 health emergency, citizens value consistent communication. When messaging appears inconsistent — whether between federal, state or local governments; public or private sector organizations; or states or locales — it causes concern, questioning and often politically-motivated reactions about equity. None of that helps the goal of slowing the spread of the virus.
We have heard some inconsistent messaging over these past few weeks. Few of our leaders know what to do, but experts agree that the longer this lasts, the harder it will be to recover economically. Millions of jobs will be lost. Unemployment could reach 20 percent. We need to address this fast. But stunningly that is not our top priority. First, we need to contain this virus.
After some wavering, the United States settled on a strategy of isolation and social distancing, leaving states to determine the stringency of these policies. This strategy comes with known costs. Neighboring states might embrace contradictory paths. And allowing states to pursue their own strategies, without national direction, subjects governors to intense political pressure to do what is right for health containment or what is right for economic stabilization.
Gov. Wolf’s decision was made knowing well the impact this would have on local economies. It was chosen as the ‘least worst’ alternative. Not doing so will hurt more down the road. We need decisive action early; more like South Korea, less like Italy, which moved more authoriatively after voluntary approaches failed to stem the contagion. We need to flatten the so-called curve because our health system cannot handle all of us sick with the virus at once — let alone while heart attacks and births still happen. Health system capacity matters in this and is an important part of these decisions.
Certainly, we should challenge decision makers. But we might remember that public administration is a science anchored to analysis and rigor. Politics, by contrast, is the art of influencing. The mantra of good governance remains, “the greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Good administration during an emergency transcends politics.
Experts suggest this could be a long, drawn out crisis. Many voices with no understanding of disease, disaster or epidemiology suggest otherwise. This adds to our difficulties. Slow crises like this provide time for various opinions to emerge as stakeholders make sense of their situation. Since we first learned of this impending COVID disaster, we have seen a gradual rollout of temporary measures, half-steps and incremental changes that became increasingly more stringent as political winds change. That is fine for normal policy implementation. Not for emergency policy, as Italy now knows.
That slow evolution of crisis response also allowed some to question whether this is, in fact, a crisis. This creates what management folks call a “wicked problem” — where we disagree on both the problem and the solution. These are the worst kinds of problems because parochial decision makers can too easily shift the agenda by changing the nature of the crisis. It delayed our response, nationally, regionally and locally. And it still does. As the negative consequences to the chosen course of action show up on the agendas of lower level decision makers, those externalities appear to be the disaster. Local politicians who have not yet seen the negative health implications of this crisis, are indeed seeing the economic implications of the crisis. But we need to think hard about causality. Economic improvements will not help this health crisis, but health improvements will indeed reduce economic burdens.
Leaders who make decisions that hurt the economy do so based on a broad calculation of costs and benefits over a long time horizon. While it is understandable for local politicians and business owners to redefine the crisis around their own political concerns, doing so muddles messaging to our communities. We often hear one thing from our President, another from his infectious disease specialists, another from governors and yet another from local leaders. Strong leaders explain that painful short-run decisions are based on long-term concerns for others. We haven’t heard enough of this.
We also need strong followers. The last thing we need is lower level decision makers voicing their opposition to disease containment strategies based on local economic rationale. That calculation was already made, painful as it was. Reducing unemployment will not cure disease. However, reducing disease will, in fact, help the economy. Causality matters.
Devastating job loss will be our next crisis. For those with no experience in disease control, time would be better spent planning for the needs of those harmed by containment strategies rather than opposing those strategies. We need the skills of local politicians to insure social safety nets provide those affected with access to support as we struggle through disease containment. That will be the first step towards economic recovery.
Eric Martin is an associate professor in Bucknell University’s Freeman College of Management who studies disaster and response.