Demonstrating Public  Health Leadership
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Demonstrating Public Health Leadership

March 23, 2020

 By Dr. R. Balasubramaniam

The COVID-19 pandemic is now a household word. Whether it is the television or the newspapers, the drawing room conversations or WhatsApp chats, the topic revolves around this and how it is affecting our lives.  We are constantly bombarded with information from all sides and updates on the crisis and how people are responding — whether it is in China, South Korea, France, Germany, USA or India keep getting thrown at us.  

From the reassuring message of the Prime Minister of Singapore to his people or Indian PM Modi mobilising the SAARC and G20 Nations to fight this together, President Trump and his teams’ message to Americans or the responses of Central Banks around the world, we are seeing leadership being exercised in different ways. 

On the one hand, we are seeing public health specialists, bureaucrats, doctors and paramedics, scientists, media personnel, airline managements — all of them responding spontaneously with courage and vision, all wanting to manage the crisis and do their bit.  On the other hand, we have also seen some countries and their leadership take it lightly and some being overwhelmed by what needs to be done. This crisis has indeed shown the world what public health leadership can achieve or not achieve.  

Public health challenges

What exactly is Public Health Leadership?  Public Health Leadership is the practice of mobilising people, organisations and communities to effectively tackle tough public health challenges.  It relates to the ability of an individual or organisation to influence, motivate and enable others to contribute toward the effectiveness and success of public health programmes in the community and (or) the organisation in which they work. It involves inspiring people to craft and achieve the vision and goals of having healthy communities.

 Public Health leaders need to provide mentoring, coaching and inspiration. They have to keep encouraging colleagues, provide empowerment to people around them and ensure that they provide a sustained presence during times of crisis. And the world is witness to this — whether it is  clinicians and nurses, heads of Government, the WHO or public health personnel. This is not an easy proposition even when the challenge is local, but then having a concerted response on a global scale is beyond imagination.  

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Again, what usually gets spoken about or noticed are the visibly impactful people exercising leadership at the top and we talk about it as though it is the exclusive prerogative of senior bureaucrats, heads of Government, health professionals and NGO leaders. We generally fail to notice the leadership that less visible people demonstrate in their own ways.  

Leadership in action 

I had the unusual experience of seeing such leadership in action a few days ago while traveling in a taxi in Bengaluru.  The driver Mahadeva seemed to be a cheerful and friendly person and started a conversation the moment I got in. He started off by telling me how his business had slowed down and how the Coronavirus crisis was impacting him. 

He then gently steered the conversation to whether I knew enough about the crisis and what I needed to do to stay safe and healthy. He politely offered me the use of the sanitiser that he was carrying in his car and mentioned to me how he had just wiped the door handles and steering wheel.  

Finding me a good listener, he continued to tell me how he was carrying soap with him and found opportunities to wash his hand in between rides.  He was keen on demonstrating the correct wash technique and asked me if I had a job that allowed ‘work from home’. He mentioned in passing that people like him did not have the luxury of working from home or ensure complete social distancing, but he was keen on ensuring that his taxi (his second home) was reasonably safe for his passengers. 

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He ended the conversation by telling me that he did not see his passengers as ‘business’ but as ‘family’ that he needed to keep safe.  For without them, he said that he would not have any business at all. 

Real leadership

 As I thanked him and alighted from the taxi, he mentioned how he made it a point to inform all passengers traveling by his taxi, especially the ones coming from the airport about what needed to be done. He also let me know that he carried couple of masks with him, just in case he found his passengers coughing or sneezing.  This was real leadership he exhibited in the interest of public health.  

The world has shown that it is indeed possible for people and nations to come together in fighting something that threatens all of us.  But all this can happen only when each of us demonstrate the leadership that is required — at a personal level, at a community level and at a global level.  Apart from simple hand washing to social distancing to respecting the public health demands made by Government health agencies, we also need to be sensitive to the economic pressures on people like Mahadeva.  

Leadership like the kind Mahadeva displays is required from each one of us and not just from the top of the pyramid managing the crisis. We need every individual to demonstrate the public health leadership that society desperately needs now. Only then, can we truly take the fight against this virus to its logical conclusion.  And lessons learnt from working together with societal concern and not just the personal one will possibly end up teaching humanity how to conduct itself in facing other global challenges like poverty, climate change and terrorism. 

[Dr. R. Balasubramaniam, founder of Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement & GRAAM, teaches leadership at Cornell University and IIT-Delhi.  He can be reached at [email protected]]

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