Leadership in times of crisis

This is after all a medical, not a political problem; as such it requires a medical, and not a political solution

Up until around a week ago, everything seemed to be going swimmingly for our new(ish) Prime Minister Robert Abela: who has so far probably enjoyed the longest and most blissful honeymoon period in Maltese political history.

Off-hand, I can’t think of a single other Prime Minister who had it so easy in his first couple of months in power. Just look at all the things that have somehow worked to Abela’s advantage since January 12 (without, it must be said, any real input of his own).

All the protests and civil unrest that characterized the last weeks of 2019? Everything seemed to evaporate into thin air, almost within hours of Abela’s appointment… as though Joseph Muscat had taken all his political baggage away with him when he stepped down: leaving his successor with an administration that was – on the surface, at least - cleansed of all its previous blemishes.

Meanwhile, the few issues that Abela has had to deal with since then (e.g., the police corruption scandal) have all been more attributable to the preceding administration, than to his own. And in any case, none of them required any specific interventions by the Prime Minister… beyond the occasional public appearance here and there, with all the usual reassuring soundbites we have come to expect from our political leaders: ‘the government will listen to the people’; ‘we will take the necessary decisions’, etc., etc.

It is hardly surprising, then, that our surveys recently revealed such unprecedented nationwide approval ratings for Robert Abela – surpassing even Joseph Muscat at the height of his popularity. So far, all he has really had to was ‘look the part’… and to be fair, that is something he is naturally quite good at anyway.

But all that seems to have suddenly collapsed around him in the space of just a week: i.e., since when the first symptoms of genuine coronavirus panic started to set in…. followed by the first actual cases, which (understandably enough) have dramatically heightened a national mood of apprehension and anxiety.

Suddenly, Robert Abela found himself having to transition from a Prime Minister who only had to ‘look good for the cameras’ – and even then, in front of an audience that was largely well-disposed towards him to begin with – to a Prime Minister who had to take decisive, effective decisions in the face of a real leadership challenge. And while it might be too early to gauge his efforts on that particular score… something tells me that the results to date have not been all that encouraging.

Last Sunday, for instance, this newspaper reported that Abela was facing internal Cabinet dissent over his handling of the crisis. His health minister Chris Fearne (who is a doctor, and was also Abela’s main contender for the leadership) was of the opinion that all fights to and from Italy should be halted with immediate effect; and it seems that the medical profession as a whole – as represented by its main unions, the MAM and MUMN – agreed.

Abela, on the other hand, was at first reluctant… and whether or not this was his actual intention, people were quick to point out that his hesitation chimed in with pressure from the only other non-governmental organization to likewise oppose a total ban on flights from Italy: namely the MHRA, which has a natural (and equally understandable) interest in carrying on, as much as possible, with a ‘business-as-usual’ approach.

In the end, Abela was forced to backtrack… announcing the cessation of air traffic to Italy, only after the entire country was placed under quarantine on Monday. And this was the second such U-turn in the space of just a few days: after Abela had similarly reversed his previous decision to allow a cruise-liner to dock in Malta, despite fears (which admittedly may have been exaggerated) of possible contagion among passengers.

At this point, I shall have to admit that neither decision was particularly easy to take. For reasons I already outlined last week, I happen to agree with the rationale behind Robert Abela’s seemingly nonchalant approach… if nothing else, because the very worst thing a Prime Minister could do, under the circumstances, is contribute to the nationwide panic by being alarmist himself.

But then again, a Prime Minister is also expected to display leadership at times like this; and ‘leadership’ is not defined merely by the external manifestation of authoritative qualities. After all, one cannot protect a nation from infectious diseases just by projecting the reassuring image of a benevolent ‘father-figure’… no matter how convincing the act may appear on the surface.

One also has to take difficult decisions on the basis of a coherent and consistent political direction: something which, to be brutally honest, we haven’t actually seen from Robert Abela, in the week when he faced his first real test as Prime Minister.

Meanwhile, there are other indications of inconsistency in his approach. This morning, Abela addressed a press conference to assure us all that everything should carry on as usual: that today is a normal work/schoolday just like any other, etc.

By early afternoon, however, the same Prime Minister announced that “all mass events with more than 2,000 people have been banned, and indoor events will be limited to a maximum gathering of 750 people”… which suggests that, just like the previous decisions concerning flights and cruise-liners, the same type of extreme measure may yet be taken in the case of schools and workplaces… despite all Abela’s assurances to the contrary.

Unfortunately, this seems to be having the opposite effect from what was actually intended. For while the official messages we are getting from government (and, separately, from the country’s health authorities) is that ‘there is no cause for concern’ – and I stress that there is no real reason to doubt that, so far - the fact remains that the same government is also unwittingly projecting the image of completely being out of its depth.

It keeps changing its approach, from one moment to the next… suggesting that - beyond the virus itself, and all the understandable (if most likely excessive) alarm it is causing - there may actually be something else to worry about: i.e., the fact that the people we rely on to protect us, at times like this, don’t seem to have a very clear idea of what to do next.

In a sense, it reminds me of that classic scene in the movie ‘Airplane!’: i.e., when the air hostess manages to reassure all passengers that ‘everything is under control’, and that ‘there is absolutely no reason to panic’… only to tragically add: “Oh, and by the way… does anyone know how to fly a plane…?”

With hindsight, the analogy may be apt for another reason. For at the end of the day, it would be grossly unrealistic to expect Robert Abela – or any other prime minister, for that matter – to come up with some kind of magical formula to insulate Malta from this encroaching virus, where all other countries have failed.

This is after all a medical, not a political problem; as such it requires a medical, and not a political solution.

But by the same token, it is not at all unrealistic to expect a Prime Minister to consult all the experts in the field before taking any public decisions; and in this case, Abela is surrounded by people who do have the experience and expertise to tackle such matters. Like the Medical Association of Malta, for instance… or his own health minister, Chris Fearne.

So even if he doesn’t know how to ‘fly the plane’ himself… he can always take instruction from the people who do. In this case, that would mean following expert advice BEFORE announcing any final decision regarding public protective measures; as opposed to taking all those decisions alone and unaided… only to later be overruled at every turn.

More in Blogs