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Three steps for leaders to tackle Covid and climate emergency

Filed under CoronavirusClimate Emergency

15 July 2020

Dr David Nabarro is Special Envoy to the World Health Organisation on COVID-19 and Strategic Director of 4SD. He sets out his challenge to leaders to use COVID-19 as an opportunity for radical change that responds to the needs and the interests of all of humanity.

  • Countries must work together
  • Focus on equity
  • Effective local action

I just participated in the beginning of the High-Level Political Forum in New York in early July. This is the annual meeting that looks at how the world is progressing on the Sustainable Development Agenda. And it was quite clear that the officials and government representatives participating in that event are of the opinion that the advances that are being made on the Sustainable Development Agenda and on the Sustainable Development Goals are really threatened by COVID.

And not just because of COVID, but because of all the challenges that our world faces. We have to keep this work up, we have to keep connecting with each other, and finding the inner resources that are necessary for living systems leaders.

This is not an idle remark. I’m saying it as a heartfelt, genuine personal feeling. I think I’m reflecting the feeling of hundreds of millions of people all over the world who are looking for a different kind of leadership to help them find their pathways forward and to see COVID as a real opportunity to do that.

It means that we have to keep a narrative, the language that we use, the stories that we tell, patterns that we weave. Language has to be kept as simple as we can make it. It also has to be coherent and consistent. And that’s where I, and I think many others, so easily get tripped up. We must continue to develop the language and the metaphors that will help others as they try to establish and implement the new patterns of leadership. If we slip into the adversarial language of modern politics and present every issue as an “either, or” choice, we get stuck.

Finding these ways, finding the language, finding the idioms is my big challenge of now. At my own organisation, 4SD, we have produced a number of narratives that talk about local level solidarity with rigorous action to find the people with the disease and interrupt transmission. Networks that brought together a non-hierarchical approach with a clear strategic direction, and with the capacity for adaptation to local realities; consistent and clear communication and continuous accountability. Without that, people can’t shift. We need to be able to trust our leaders, and we’ll only trust leaders through accountability.

What we’ve learned is that where action has been integrated and local, built around the basics of public health - interrupt transmission and suppress disease outbreaks - it has been an extraordinary success.

I want to share with you three major conclusions.

Countries must work together

The outbreak is advancing so fast, all over the world. The impact on people - their lives, economies and systems that are so important like food, like employment and systems for law and order - is just growing. There is nothing to suggest this is going to slow down in the coming weeks and months.

We need every national leader working together on it and treating it with the attention it deserves. Get it done quickly. It’s no good waking up at the end of this year and realising that the world really has broken badly and international relations have fractured. We need to deal with it now.

Focus on equity

Thousands of people employed in really awful conditions is just one extraordinarily bad situation revealed by this virus. How many such situations of indignity and inequity are there? Where people are working under unacceptable conditions to enable people to have kind of food we want, the kind of products we want, the kind of opportunities we want?

This revealed inequity is right at the heart of my own thinking on whether I personally do not want to go on tolerating a situation where people’s lives are massively endangered. They are unable by economic and other reasons to reduce that danger, simply to enable me to have more luxuries and pleasures in my life. I am part of the system that encourages and then tolerates inequity. And I have to look at myself.

Effective local action

There’s no magic in this. People’s lives reflect the interconnections of systems in their own experiences in their own locations. We must focus what we do on local realities, respond to people’s perceptions in their local setting and encourage coordinated action.

The power of dialogue and engagement at local level flies in the face of the tendencies that some want to centralise and control in government. We’ve seen this in so many issues over the last few years, particular on this COVID. Well-organised, data driven, integrated, local level action is immensely powerful.

We can’t deal with climate change without global action and it’s really urgent.

At the same time, humans are not going to be able to find pathways through the current challenges by relying just on global factors. Let’s get better at encouraging local solidarity with coordinated, networked action.

We must do it through constant connections, without worrying about who’s in charge. Get more and more people appreciating the value system that has to underlie this way of working, and not worrying about where it’s going to lead to. Not worrying about who’s going to be in charge. Not worrying too much about whether a political leader here or there is going to be able to deliver. Just let the feeling grow that we need to be able to have these kinds of connections, working to navigate the challenges now and those still to come.

Dr David Nabarro is Special Envoy of the World Health Organization (WHO) on COVID-19. He is also Co-Director of the Imperial College Institute of Global Health Innovation and Strategic Director of 4SD, a social-enterprise focused on developing Skills, Systems and Synergies for Sustainable Development. This article is extracted with permission from David Nabarro’s Online Briefing on 9 July 2020.