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Source: University of Canterbury

28 January 2021

In an article on The Conversation, UC Associate Professor Bernard Walker explains why leaders need to constantly adapt their approach to managing the COVID-19 pandemic, rather than simply going into ‘maintenance mode”. If leaders fail to act, public support for the government’s health measures will be seriously weakened.

  • A worker hands out information to people entering a community testing centre. Fiona Goodall/Getty Images

Kiwis know what it’s like when life throws curveballs. We’ve had major quakes, floods, fires, an eruption, a terrorist attack and now a pandemic. In those situations, it’s the ability to collectively “get the smarts”, to devise clever, adaptable responses, that really makes a difference.

But the challenge now is to keep doing the smart thing as we continue to face risk from the ongoing pandemic.

Our research echoes international studies in finding this requires leaders who can recognise what a crisis needs, frame the situation and then draw people together to act in new creative ways to deal with the circumstances.

For a nation or group, adaptive resilience occurs when we are thrown out of our normal routines and have to find new ways of responding. It draws on our planned resilience, the resources and plans we’ve prepared in advance.

Adaptive resilience then moves forward, with agile ways of responding, making decisions on the spot, and rapidly learning while a crisis is still happening.

Pandemic reaction

Studies of New Zealand’s response in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic display a masterclass of resilience and agility.

Leaders identified the needs and drew together the most relevant people from wherever they were, cutting across organisational boundaries. The teams focused on the pressing urgency of the crisis situation, bypassing standard bureaucratic processes and instead used new streamlined rapid responses, making decisions on incomplete information.

They continuously sought out new information, leading to their realisation that official WHO guidance was inaccurate. From there they were brave enough to take a radically different approach. The success of this won international acclaim.

What now?

Now though, there are two serious dangers for New Zealand. The first is a critical challenge that is common to most major disruptions. It is the transition from the initial crisis stage to the longer phase of managing the ongoing disruption.

With earthquakes, this was the shift from the emergency “search and rescue” crisis response phase, to the longer recovery phase and rebuilding. The new phase is definitely not “business as usual”.

It requires special expertise and high levels of adaptability, to perceive and address the changes in a continuously evolving situation.

The second risk occurs when a group has been successful. Recent accounts show one of the key weaknesses in nations that performed less well in the early phases of the pandemic was a misguided belief that “we have it under control”.

This serious error of judgement can follow success and cause leaders to downplay the need for urgency, steering them towards existing routines, rather than the creative responses the new situation demands.

Living with the pandemic

The key question now is what sort of approach is currently guiding New Zealand’s handling of this phase of the pandemic?

It should involve an ongoing, dynamic way of learning that continuously seeks out and takes on board new information, foreseeing and anticipating threats and challenges before they eventuate.

But commentaries suggest those vital elements may have been replaced by a “maintenance mode”. The partnership between public leaders and scientists, one of the hallmarks of the initial crisis phase, appears to have waned.

Well known scientists have repeatedly highlighted shortfalls in the MIQ system, but those warnings do not seem to be acted on, despite other countries having already addressed them.

Australia, for example, introduced mandatory saliva testing of MIQ staff in November but New Zealand has only just commenced voluntary saliva testing, an approach epidemiologist Sir David Skegg said was madness.

The consequences of those shortfalls become highly foreseeable, and when an error occurs the response is instead characterised by an after-the-fact, reactive approach.

There are many knowledgeable and talented people working in handling the pandemic but research shows this is not enough. It also requires leadership that creates a mode of working that involves flexibility, with constant learning and adaptation, taking on board new insights to alter ways of operating, pre-empting and averting threats.

Keeping the trust

Managing pandemic border controls is a high-hazard, high-risk area. As with aviation or running major power systems, a slight error can have enormous consequences.

There are well recognised approaches such as “high-reliability organisations” (those experienced in managing high risk, such as air traffic control or nuclear power) that could be implemented, featuring tight controls and consistency, as well as the ability to anticipate threats through continuous learning.

The organisational and management sciences are well established. The issue now is applying those principles.

Any new outbreak will have major health, economic and social costs. But there will also be another significant casualty.

Until now, politicians and public health officials have been able to draw on their social capital, the trust they have earned. But that trust is conditional.

If leaders are seen as failing to act and letting foreseeable failures happen, that has the potential to seriously weaken the collective support and compliance that is absolutely pivotal for current public health measures.

This article was orignally published on The Conversation.