As the spread of COVID-19 has utterly transformed life as we know it, it has also emerged as the most profound test of political leadership in a generation or more.
Of course, the pandemic is, first and foremost, a health crisis. In the global response, doctors and public health authorities have been foregrounded, and rightfully so. But it is also a crisis of public confidence and so it is appropriate to look at the crisis through the lens of the political leadership as well.
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, having gotten Brexit done, now faces an even greater challenge. He has been forced to pivot from an initial anachronistic approach of herd immunity (i.e., letting the virus run amok) to proper suppression and mitigation efforts as in the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, in Ireland, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was voted out of office last month, but while a new government has been unable to form, the former doctor-turned-politician has, quite literally, risen to the role of caretaker government. On St. Patrick’s Day, he delivered a national address that marked the high watermark of his premiership.
The pandemic has forced Angela Merkel, long averse to televised displays of leadership, into doing precisely that. And in so doing proving why she continues to be primus inter pares among world leaders.
As for Donald Trump, there is only one word: disaster.
Here at home, Canadian leaders, at all orders of government, have acted on the advice of scientists, doctors and public health experts, as they bloody well should. And for that we can, as a people, be grateful.
From Prime Minister Trudeau to our premiers and mayors, the performances of our leaders have been commendable.
But perhaps the biggest success has been the commanding performance of Ontario Premier Doug Ford. It was not even two weeks ago that Ford was embroiled in a kerfuffle over manufacturing defects with new provincial licence plates; today, it seems hard to imagine a scandal with smaller stakes. And a protracted dispute with the teacher’s unions had dragged his government’s approval rating underwater. Now, in his daily briefings about the province’s response to COVID-19, he is modelling leadership in real time.
As the crisis has deepened, Ford is exemplifying the tenets of good crisis communication. He has been transparent and forthcoming, hosting daily briefings which may seem routine, but are in fact distinguished by attention to small details.
The premier begins promptly on time, wearing a suit and tie. He has been honest and plainspoken about the scale and severity of the challenge before us. He has delegated and empowered his bench of ministers, including Deputy Premier and Health Minister Christine Elliott and Finance Minister Rod Phillips. He has put aside partisan considerations.
He is working hand in hand with his federal counterparts. And, for a man whose political career has been defined by animosity towards the mainstream media, this week’s explicit recognition of their essential role marked a turning point.
The premier has consistently struck the right tone in these briefings and in his other public comments, tempering the flow of essential information with genuine compassion. If there has been one misstep, it was his comment that families should go away for March Break and “have a good time.”
But as even his predecessor and opponent Kathleen Wynne noted, this rare, off-message comment can be chalked up to a surplus of empathy. “He was trying to do that out of the goodnesss of his heart,” the former premier told Newstalk 1010. “I could hear it in his voice, he was trying to calm the waters.”
In the past, Ontarians have been quick to recognize and reward leadership during a crisis. Former premier Ernie Eves’ approval jumped after he confronted the SARS epidemic in 2003. Premier Ford might come to enjoy the same.
There are uncertain times ahead, to be sure. Scientists tell us that no one knows how long this crisis may last or how severe its consequences might be. But, today, Ontarians can take solace in the actions and behaviour they have seen to date from the premier.
Such leadership has saved lives.