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What 'good' COVID-19 leadership looks like, according to experts responding to the pandemic and a tropical cyclone

Monday, 11 May 2020

In the age of COVID-19, ‘good’ humanitarian leadership must prioritise consultation, communication and coordination, say experts leading and supporting responses to the crisis and Tropical Cyclone (TC) Harold in the Pacific Islands.

During a virtual panel discussion the Women’s Leadership Initiative (WLI) and Humanitarian Advisory Group (HAG) learned from the experiences of Adi Vasiti Radinivuna Soko in Fiji, Emeline Siale Ilolahia in Fiji and Tonga, and Pamela Toliman in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

The panel reinforced that all over the world, decision-making roles responsible for swift action are predominantly filled by men, historically allow limited time for consultation, rely heavily on punitive responses, and fund economic solutions to community health problems.

At the same time, women are pushing back against inadequately-considered emergency responses, advocating for society’s most vulnerable, collaborating at all levels, and quickly working with existing networks to effect change.

But the pandemic also presents opportunities, not only in terms of women’s leadership and representation, but community health, wellbeing and engagement. And even an overhaul of health systems that would put people first.

According to the panel, here’s what effective leadership must consider in the face of COVID-19, TC Harold, and emergencies alike.

‘Look at the strengths you have, then take decisive and immediate action’

Pamela Toliman is a WLI program alumna and senior scientist leading a COVID-19 response at PNG’s Institute of Medical Research. She believes that in times of crises, leaders must build on what they already do well, or can do, and adapt as quickly and efficiently as possible.

She explains that the Institute “acted very swiftly in terms of what we could do for in-country testing”. And even though PNG didn’t detect its first local case until early March 2020, their team had added coronavirus to their testing repertoire by late January.

“It’s important to look at the strengths you have, then take decisive and immediate action in terms of how you might be able to respond in the context of COVID-19,” she explains.

Since then, Pamela says the real leadership test has been “coordination between organisations, and the ability of people to work together, to listen and learn from each other, and look at the strengths”.

Leaders must look at communication as an ‘asset’ during crisis

While lockdowns and restrictions to stop the virus’ spread were enforced across much of the Pacific Islands, category five TC Harold hit the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga hard – putting more pressure than ever on health systems and limiting humanitarian support options.

According to the first woman Director of Fiji’s National Disaster Management Office and WLI alumna, Adi Vasiti Radinivuna Soko, communication became not only a vital component of their emergency response, but an “asset”.

When designing responses from Suva in lockdown Vasiti says her team had to negotiate curfews, public holidays, and a completely new and reduced service delivery team that could adhere to COVID-19 restriction protocols.

“When we were planning here [in Suva] from within the lockdown area, we were not able to execute our plan, so communication became an asset, where we had to communicate to those outside the lockdown zone to execute a plan that they have not seen nor have they commented on” 

Adi Vasiti Radinivuna Soko

“Even though we were delayed, we still managed to get what we needed across to the island and distribute the full rations as well as shelter kits to those in dying need. COVID-19 really upskilled or put our effort another level up.”

And in PNG, through her advocacy of local expertise and science Pamela says she saw “a crisis of misunderstanding around COVID-19, transmission, the types of testing, and felt it really important to get simple information that was accurate out to the public.”

Time to listen and plan recognising ‘not everyone has the same needs’

When reflecting on whether women leaders were contributing to plans and discussions differently, Vasiti says female leaders typically design responses that consider the needs of society’s most vulnerable groups.

This includes not only women, but those living with disability, older people, and children; who are more at risk of the impacts of an emergency, but often invisible in national or state-wide response planning.

“We don’t get to operationalise everything and focus on getting the assistance thinking everybody has the same needs … bringing in that understanding as part of the planning makes a lot of difference to those who receive that much-needed assistance,” she explains.

Pacific Islands Association of Non-Government Organisations’ (PIANGO) Executive Director Emeline Siale Ilolahia agrees responses and solutions must be “collective”.

“You’ve got to bring everyone in. Bring in the women, bring in the young people, bring in people with disabilities to a space to decide! We have not seen that.

"Some countries have responded with stimulus packages, but the effectiveness of these measures is limited by the number of people involved in the decisions that led to them. The learning curves and experiences need to be looked at... it has to be at all levels"

Emeline Siale IIolahia

Siale also explains it is typically women – who make up the bulk of the Pacific Islands’ lowest paid jobs – who lose employment, return to unpaid work, and have the least resources to draw from in the face of, before, and after COVID-19 or TC Harold.

Take opportunities to overhaul systems and prioritise community health

Siale says that while the leadership shown by many in the Pacific Islands has been “amazing”, COVID-19 “allowed us to reflect on what has failed” and “systems that are not working”.

“It exposed how our national priorities had shifted to economic development and building business, with less focus on our social protection systems,” she explained.

“So, people lose their jobs and fall back to their traditional systems, to farming, to fishing, but then you find that the whole inequality gap is getting bigger.”

The panel agreed this represented a crucial time for governments to redesign policies and systems that put community health and wellbeing at the heart of the solution.

Empower people to ‘choose life’ rather than apply punitive measures

This is a health crisis and [people are] being told they can’t go and sell the things they need to take care of their families,” said Pamela of what she’s witnessed in PNG.

“If we put those restrictions on people and tell them they can’t, as opposed to empowering them with information about physical distancing, about handwashing, about cleaning high-touch services, we are taking away power and agency from people to make decisions about their own lives and the lives of their families they care and love for.

“If you provide them with the adequate knowledge they need to look after themselves, people will choose life. They will choose to do the things that protect themselves and their families,” she added.

The panel also agreed that ensuring funding transparency and planning to measure effectiveness of those funding choices was vital, whether enduring a crisis or not.

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This online event was chaired by HAG Director, Kate Sutton, and hosted through WLI’s Learning and Networking program. A Summary Paper outlining the key discussion points and some takeaway actions can be accessed on the WLI Resources & Links page or downloaded here.

Download the discussion and learn more about upcoming Learning and Networking events you can be part of.