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WCPH 2020 Blog

The Crisis - a friend or a foe for public health leaders

  Programme related - Kasia Czabanowska - 1 Jul 2020 9:00 CET

We are all very much looking forward to the World Congress on Public Health 2020, whichwill be delivered, in a very new virtual format this year. How relevant and timeless is the leading motto of this scientific feast ‘Public Health for the Future of Humanity: Analysis, Advocacy, and Action’.  This meeting will be an important forum not only to share and reflect on how the pandemic has changed our views but also to voice the lessons learnt and propose future steps for change.   Positive change requires effective leadership; I would like to share with you my reflections around this topic.

Public health is not a stranger to pandemics and has experience in fighting Ebola in West Africa, SARS in Asia, and handling more long-term health crises such as HIV that affected both the developed and developing world. COVID19, however, presents a different and potentially even greater challenge. The scale and unpredictability of the coronavirus have shaken our systems and access to them in a significant way. Health care organizations must take into account the safety of their people while they simultaneously work on the frontline fighting the nasty virus to meet society’s needs. Moreover, we are very well aware that there is huge inequality and injustice in how this crisis is impacting life globally.

We can no longer be complacent and satisfied with the crisis management approach that has been the standard for so long. Often during a crisis, we think that the superhero leader is the one to get us through troubled times but we also need leaders who can demonstrate vulnerability and empathy.  We have observed that many countries that appear to have tackled the COVID19  crisis most effectively including Germany, New Zealand, Taiwan, Iceland, Denmark Finland and Norway are led by women who seem to combine a science-based approach with a more human touch.

Therefore, in this new world,  leadership will no longer be about top down authority and enforcement,  but it will be about the impact we make by  finding ourselves in  “four critical situations” which according to the philosopher Roman Ingarden include:  “to be responsible” , “to accept responsibility ”, “to be called to responsibility”, “to act responsibly”.  We are witnessing a transformational change and this change will require value-driven, ethical, authentic transformational leaders at all levels of the health system. COVID-19 is or should be the catalyst for such a shift and paradoxically, it should also be an opportunity.  However, public health leaders need a purpose and  focus to help them stay true to their values while serving communities and the planet,  meeting the fast growing healthcare needs, building and supporting  health workforce, trying to keep care at the affordable level while assuring equity, diversity and inclusion as well as introducing technological innovations in a safe and smart way.

It is all overwhelming and challenges are intense and multifaceted.  There is however, a prevailing question how to best embrace the challenge of guiding people through uncertainty and into the new reality while helping them to stay healthy and well. While empathy and flexibility are important leadership qualities at any time,  now when societies and individuals experience sudden and radical change due to social isolation,  the need to work remotely or in extremely restricted workspaces for a long period of time, these qualities are even more important in order to keep colleagues engaged, and motivated. Public health leaders can help their colleagues succeed by giving them more support, focusing on more open and transparent communication, innovation and wellbeing.

It is not new that in the times of pandemic people need a human touch, share stories, maintain contact with their network in order to stay healthy. Already in the 14th century Boccaccio proposed a remedy for an epidemic in a form of narratives, the amusing stories shared by the ten Florentine friends who sheltered themselves somewhere in the countryside to avoid the rampant pandemic in the city.  While stories might not protect you from a virus, sharing stories can have a positive impact on our health. The Decameron reminds us that we need the support of others and social network to make it through a public health crisis.

However, unlike the Decameron we cannot just share our stories and go home as if nothing happened, we need to analyse, advocate and above all take action to stay truthful to ourselves and the leading motto of the World Congress on Public Health 2020.

Katarzyna (Kasia) Czabanowska
Immediate Past President ASPHER
Profesor at Maastricht University


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