This week marks the start of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
By the end of 2021 more than a half million Americans were catching COVID-19 every day. One in every six Americans had come down with the virus; one in every four hundred had died.
Much of this was avoidable. And we return from our holiday facing the latest surge and wondering whether it’s safe to reopen as planned.
COVID-19, Crisis Management, and Leadership
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the United States has mounted the worst COVID-19 response in the developed world. In 2020 the American response was driven by incompetence, dishonesty, and neglect.
2021 began with a glimmer of hope, and by April – when vaccines became universally available – the daily death rate plummeted.
But by late June both vaccinations and masks became highly politicized and deaths began to soar again. By year end hospitals were at capacity; the overwhelming percentage of hospitalizations and deaths were among the unvaccinated.
Illustration 1, Source: New York Times
But there is opportunity in every crisis. COVID-19 provides an active case study to learn not only about public health, but also foundational principles of crisis management. As the Greek philosopher Plato said in The Republic, if you want to understand something difficult, study the biggest instance of it that you can. Then apply those learnings to smaller matters. There’s no bigger crisis right now than COVID-19.
For decades in my crisis management practice, I have preached that the severity of an underlying crisis does not determine how the crisis turns out. Two organizations in the same crisis at the same time can have dramatically different outcomes. Rather, the timeliness and quality of the response determine whether or not an organization suffers a catastrophic outcome. Act effectively and quickly and the crisis resolves or plays out with minimal damage. Delay, deny, or dither and things get disproportionately worse.
It is uncommon for multiple organizations to go through the same crisis simultaneously. But COVID-19 is a crisis with which every organization around the world has been grappling. We now have experienced a kind of laboratory experiment of how different jurisdictions responded to the pandemic differently. We can track the different outcomes. We can learn from them. And we can apply those lessons, not only in the continued pandemic response but in future crises, as well.
Crisis Management Works
All the trends point to a common conclusion: Crisis management works. But only when we manage the crisis effectively. Failing to follow crisis management principles can have devastating consequences. There are four rules that lead to the successful resolution of a crisis:
- Take the crisis seriously.
- Take the risks seriously.
- Mitigate those risks.
- Act quickly: the longer it takes to mitigate the risks, the harder it is to do so.
We can see clearly how the death rates in different jurisdictions varied based on leaders’ adherence, or lack of adherence, to these rules.