Calling All Leaders

When it comes to leadership during COVID-19, there is still much we don’t know. On the other hand, there is a lot that we DO know. As a healthcare provider and a leader, it’s disappointing how little that knowledge is being applied.

We’re all tired of being good. I get that. More than once I’ve had to stop myself from getting too close to someone while reaching to get something at the grocery store, or had to go back home to get my mask. It’s easy to fall back into those habits.

And mixed messages are happening in all sorts of ways.  It’s clear that scientists are not good at spreading these messages; evidence and data have never been sufficient to significantly change behavior. For example, during this pandemic young people hear they “won’t get as sick” which decreases their perceived need to follow safety measures. And, there are those who still don’t understand that wearing a mask is to protect others, not ourselves. Many people think that once activities are “opened up” it means there is now less risk.  And when leaders, political or otherwise, don’t reinforce safe practices or worse, actually mock them, it’s incredibly frustrating to everyone working so hard to fight the impacts of this disease.

A lack of clear, focused information delivery is adding to the growth of the spread of the virus, most troubling to rural areas and to our most vulnerable populations.

However, there is an answer. While we’re all anxiously awaiting a vaccine, we have another way to advance good practices: the voice of our community leaders.  We need to coordinate and amplify awareness campaigns by engaging them. Community leaders conveying the right messages delivered consistently and clearly to their own constituents is one of the best ways to slow the spread of transmission, save lives, and reduce the impacts of the virus on our health systems.

It worked for challenges we faced around measles vaccinations. Here in Minnesota, we have a thriving community of Somalian immigrants and their families.  A declining rate of measles vaccinations caused a severe outbreak among this community in 2017. Measles are particularly dangerous and in fact, there is no treatment for the disease. Measles can cause severe health outcomes, from brain damage from encephalitis, to death.

Public health education was an important part of fighting this outbreak, but another piece that helped significantly reduce the outbreak rather quickly was the outreach to local Imams, leaders within the Somali Muslim community who were immensely influential. Once the Imams understand the importance of measles vaccinations, and were supported by being provided clear messages to distribute to their communities, the outbreak was contained before too many lives were lost.

Just as with measles, we need a multi-pronged approach for leadership during COVID-19.  We have many healthcare and government leaders doing a good job of communicating these messages. The #MaskUPMinnesota campaign is an excellent example of simple, yet effective messaging tactics that are working in our state. But we can’t rely on healthcare and government alone.

Business leadership and religious leaders need to be engaged, as well as informal leaders particularly within the younger generations such as social media influencers, athletes, celebrities, and others. We need to reach as many leaders within our communities as we possibly can, and support them to help raise awareness and save lives, while we all wait for a vaccine and continue positive, optimistic leadership during COVID-19.